I live in a small town in South Dakota. A popular country song by Rodney Adkins goes, “Miles and miles of John Deere green, freedom as far as I can see, a road to run and room to breathe,” and that sounds a lot like where I live. Kathleen Norris writes about South Dakota, “To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it” and, “Maybe that child was right when he told me that the world is upside-down here, and this is where angels drown.” Small town life can be trying and Stephen Witmer addresses these and other aspects in his book A Big Gospel in Small Places (Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters).
I have several “small town ministry” books on my shelf from small-town pastors such as Bierly, Klassen, Griggs, and Daman, but Witmer’s book is a welcome addition. It is not a practical book in the sense “do this, not that.” You won’t find “3 steps to take for this issue” or “5 steps to take for that.” It is quite unpractical and more theory and reason-based than other books I’ve read. But it is practical in the sense it provides a theology and foundation for why to do this, and “why” (being) precedes “what” and “how” (doing). Witmer, a small-town pastor himself, devotes two thirds of the book to “why,” and that’s the first and most important issue to consider before “what.” His focus is on stable, slow, seen, significant, serving, and celebrating churches in the small town and local context. He advises us to pray and long for “big and fast” but need it less, and cherish what you have.
He takes a good look at statistics and demographics, defining what a “small town” is. He surveys the historical landscape and celebrates those small-town pastors who have preceded us, such as Tom Carson, George Herbert, William Grimshaw, and John Brown. He spends time sharing his own story and insights. He weighs positives and negatives and writes to be an encouragement to both small town and big city pastors, appreciating all who would serve in the settings God has placed them, and especially in the small towns.
Witmer concludes, “At the heart of every successful ministry, in communities of every conceivable size, is love: love for Christ and for the places where He has called us. When we truly love a particular place and the people who live there, we won’t seek to transcend it – instead, we will gladly give our lives to it. Perhaps we can learn to love our small places the way Jesus does. Perhaps in losing our lives there, we will find them.”
Stephen Witmer’s book is a welcomed addition to any small-town pastor’s library and any church-going folk would enjoy reading it. It is helpful to process the “why” of doing small town ministry. It is also helpful for suburban or big city people to better understand small-town brothers and sisters. He provides notes and brief information on Small Town Summits, a helpful ministry.
I received this book at no cost for the purpose of review. I was not required to write a positive review.