Book Reviews

Book Review: A Big Gospel in Small Places (Stephen Witmer)

Where is God calling you? Is it to the lights, the shows, the fashion, the coffeeshops of the city… or to the sprawling fields of country life with a population of, perhaps, 5,000 people? In his excellent new book, Stephen Witmer pushes back on the idea that Christian need to take to the cities. Instead, we (pastors, particularly, but anyone, really), should consider small towns when thinking about our calling? Why? Because small towns need gospel-centered churches too.

Witmer points out that small towns aren’t more important than big cities, and neither are big cities more important than small town (he points out that his friend Stephen Um, who wrote Why Cities Matter, didn’t title his book Why Cities Matter More). Throughout his book he reminds us why small towns are so important. They are full of people who desperately need the gospel. There is no idyllic small town (as is often pictured in the movies). There are both pros and cons to small towns, and a small-town pastor needs more than mere practical ministry tips to survive. He needs a theological underpinning to shape his heart for these people, one which motivates him on why he ministers here (62).

Both our mouths and our lives should proclaim the gospel. We teach it and live it out. Our churches should “increasingly take on the very shape of the gospel, embodying it and expressing it” to those they minister too (69). Even “Paul’s humble proclamation of the gospel ([when] he’s suffering in prison) and the humble presence of a church in Ephesus produce the greatest results imaginable: God’s wisdom made known to the universe and God’s character praised forever” (71-72). Spreading the gospel isn’t always “strategic” (80). In fact, Witmer helpfully pushes back against the notion that Christians should really focus most of our attention on the big cities.

But Witmer is realistic. Small towns can be charming, and it’s actually possible to know and be known by a large portion of the town (for good and for ill). But we are all sinners, and in a small town it’s hard to avoid people. Small and slow are actually wise (more so than what we imagine). But there are many joykillers (discontent, envy, fear, and loneliness) that can suck the life out of your ministry if you let it. There are both good reasons (your heart beats and breaks for the people in small places) and bad reasons (a stepping stone to big-place ministry, fear of failing in a big place) to do ministry in a small town.

Recommended?

Yes. Perhaps it’s because I am ministering in a small town, but I really enjoyed this book. I didn’t think any of the chapters were boring or irrelevant. Witmer has written an engaging book that helps bring small cities out of the shadows, helping us to remember the many “forgotten communities” that remain in our country. Rather than starting a church and seeing an explosion of growth due to your terrific sermons, the population may never grow but the community will be deepened by the service your church brings, and the people in your church will be served as you get to know them, actually remember their names, and become invested in their lives. Perhaps even the slow growth with its many sacrifices demonstrates “a generous God and a lavish gospel”—Jesus’ infinite sacrifice shown to a small community, lives “reflecting God’s patient pursuit, his kindness to those who reject him, his work that advances even when it stalls” (181). Pray boldly for God to move and work. And love your town. Love Christ and the people he has called you to.

Lagniappe

  • Author: Stephen Witmer
  • Paperback : 216 pages
  • Publisher : IVP Books (November 5, 2019)

Buy it on Amazon or IVP Press!

Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Press. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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