Book Review: A Big Gospel in Small Places

Tim McLaughlin Jr
7 min readNov 8, 2019

“But to the extent evangelicals despise the small places, we will fail them. We cannot serve what we despise.”
Page 35

This week, A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters by Stephen Witmer was released. It clocks in at around 200 pages, with the main body of the book ending on page 183 with Acknowledgements and end notes following. I received a copy at the Small Town Summits event in October, which gave me the opportunity to read and prepare a review of it for this week. I did not read Ray Ortlund’s forward, so it will not be covered in this review.

Summary

The introduction provides both the goal and outline of the book. As to the former, Witmer writes on page 5 that he will “make the case that the gospel isn’t just the message we take to small places; it’s our motivation for going to them in the first place and our means of fruitful ministry once we get there.” The outline provided is summarized on page 12 with three questions, “First, what are small places like? Second, how can we minister fruitfully in small places? Third, should I minister in a small place?” These questions then guide the three major sections of the book.

The answer to the first question is essentially that small places are both better and worse than the picture our assumptions about them may paint. These first few chapters explore the unique problems, opportunities, and cultural tendencies that small places offer. It also defines the concept of small places, for the purposes of the book, to be “countryside and communities that are relatively small in population, influence, and economic power” (22). Witmer draws from available surveys and data, as well as his own experiences in both rural Maine and small town Massachusetts, to explore the current condition of small places and the ways the gospel may interact with them. While he regularly refers back to the role of the church in interacting with various aspects of small place life, this section is very clearly aimed more at description than application. The goal could best be described as helping the reader see small places the way God sees them. After all, doing so is the only way to honestly answer his first major question about what small places are like. This focus is presented as part of building his argument, which continues in the second section.

“A theological vision for ministry to small places must recognize the deep sinfulness, brokenness, and complexity of people everywhere, in places big and small.”
Page 46

The second section of the book begins to look for application. Witmer encourages the practice of establishing a theological vision in ministry, and points to the example of Tim Keller’s vision for cities as a guiding post. Where the first section guides the reader to see small places as God sees them, the second section challenges the reader to love small places the way God loves them.

The second section also carries the bulk of the book; six of the book’s twelve chapters are here, and the heart of the book’s aim is contained in them. Witmer begins by outlining the argument that the fundamental purpose of the church is to serve as a lens or window. He describes it as “…the church is designed to be see-through. The rest of the universe is meant to look at and through the church and learn something about God” (72). Operating from this understanding, he demonstrates that no one church can properly display the fullness of that image, and faithful service in small places that offer little return in souls, fame, or glory displays the love of God in a way that compliments the power of God as displayed in large, busy, and famous churches. Here, he calls the gospel lavish, referring to the three loss parables of Luke 15 and the extravagant way the shepherd, woman, and father in the parables seek after that which was lost and celebrate their return. The argument he makes, then, is that God is willing to pour great effort into small places for little return, and small-place ministry displays this aspect of the gospel.

He then begins to apply the gospel and the examples in scripture to our models of ministry, arguing that the strategy of God is not always the strategies men would choose and that there is value in the small and slow. This section closes out with a chapter encouraging readers to invest in the place where they are and discussing how that looks different in a small place than in a big place, and then a chapter addressing some of the personal struggles that can make small-place ministry difficult to carry out over the long term.

“Churches and ministers who live outside the circle, who ignore their community, will also be ignored by their community.”
Page 119

Finally, the third section answers the question, “should I minister in a small place,” with a call to ask ourselves a series of clarifying questions. It raises good and bad reasons to go to small places, as well as good and bad reasons not to. Rather than telling the reader to go to small places, it provides guidance on how to determine where God is calling the reader and encouragement to serve there faithfully.

The book ends with a call to place our priorities individually on the place where God has called us, and to devote our love and efforts to that place fully until/if God calls us elsewhere, and to not place a cultural priority on either big or small places.

Critique

There are many topics and concepts that Witmer covers in the book that were also raised and discussed during the Small Town Summits event I attended last month. As such, I will not cover again anything I covered in my posts regarding that event. You may find them by clicking the “Small Town Summits” link in the Categories list to the left of this article.

While the book does allow for its definition of small places to include isolated neighborhoods within cities, much of the language of the book assumes a rural or small-town context. Personally, I found much of it easily applicable to the small and forgotten city where I grew up, a place that cannot be described as rural or a small town in any sense but qualifies as a small place because it had lost most of its population and all of its economic power when the steel industry collapsed. I would encourage readers to focus on what Witmer says about these places and allow them to paint the picture he is trying to present rather than limiting focus to the most overt examples he includes.

Overall, I believe Witmer achieved the goal stated in the introduction. He answers all three of his guiding questions in thorough, detailed, and considerate ways that allow application to all kinds of small places without falling into the trap of assuming they are all the same. Most importantly, he maintains his gospel focus throughout the book. Not only is he concerned with us carrying the gospel wherever we are, he takes the time to clarify the content of that gospel and pours much ink on the role of the gospel in forming us as we work.

“But if the Bible’s clear articulation of the gospel doesn’t shape our thinking, our thinking will fashion our own self-generated gospel, one that conforms to our own expectations.”
Page 66

Witmer consistently returns to the gospel in seeking how to apply it to his topic. He reminds readers that “God uses the gospel not just to save us initially (to make us Christians) but to transform our lives as Christians” (page 67, emphasis original). This driving focus allows him to honestly and clearly express the need for greater commitment to small-place ministry without using that need as a weapon against those who are not currently engaged in said ministry. It never pits big-place ministry against small-place ministry, encouraging readers to praise God for His work in all contexts and appreciate the unique contributions every church has to the body of Christ. This book faithfully calls for love and support among the people of God rather than competition.

As someone who has spent most of his life in small places but has in recent years begun to buy into big place emphasis, the book was personally challenging to me. Ultimately, the book performs well at both challenging anyone who has devalued small-place ministry (whether engaged in it or not) and encouraging those who have committed to it. It is my opinion that this is a resource that should be in a great many Christian minds, whether in professional ministry or as a layperson seeking to carry out God’s personal calling. Every member of the church has reason to ask the following question Witmer presents, and to consider the guidance he offers in helping to answer it.

“What if we considered this question: How is our church uniquely contributing to the universe-wide display of God’s character expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Page 74

Find Witmer’s book on Amazon and ChristianBook. Note: These are not sponsored links. I receive no kickback whether you use the buttons above or search the book on your own. They are merely provided for your convenience. This review was originally published at https://theworstbaptist.weebly.com.

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Tim McLaughlin Jr

Freelance writer and artist, theology blogger, ministry student, church planter, husband and father in New England.