A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters, By Stephen Witmer
A Big Gospel in Small Places
  • Length: 216 pages
  • Dimensions: 5.5 × 8.5 in
  • Published: November 05, 2019
  • Imprint: IVP
  • Item Code: 4155
  • ISBN: 9780830841554

*affiliate partner

2019 World Magazine Book of the Year Short List

2019 The Gospel Coalition Book Award

2019 Send Institute's Top Ten Church Planting Related Books of 2019

Kevin DeYoung's Top 10 Books of 2019

Jesus loves small, insignificant places.

In recent years, Christian ministries have increasingly prioritized urban areas. Big cities and suburbs are considered more strategic, more influential, and more desirable places to live and work. After all, they're the centers for culture, arts, and education. More and more people are leaving small places and moving to big ones. As a ministry strategy, focusing on big places makes sense.

But the gospel of Jesus is often unstrategic. In this book, pastor Stephen Witmer lays out an integrated theological vision for small-place ministry. Filled with helpful information about small places and with stories and practical advice from his own ministry, Witmer's book offers a compelling, comprehensive vision for small-place ministry today.

Jesus loves small places, and when we care deeply about them and invest in them over time, our ministry becomes a unique picture of the gospel—one that the world badly needs to see.

"There are billions of people living in small places, yet they are often ignored by ministry-minded people like me. Sure, rural areas are downstream of mainstream ideas, innovation, and trends, but small places are thick with culture and rife with opportunity for gospel ministry: poverty, depression, suicide, racism, injustice, and souls stranded in sin unacquainted with the love of God in Christ Jesus. As Stephen points out, both rural and urban places are easily romanticized. What the world needs is Christians who value the small even in the big—disciples who move slowly and are attentive enough to bring a grand gospel into the nooks and crannies of life. This book has just about everything you need to help you do that, especially if you live in a small place. It offers rigorous research on rural trends, demographics, and the subtleties of smallness; it motivates ministry in those areas with the gospel of grace; it equips you to develop a theological vision for the place of your calling; it immerses you in real stories of rural ministry; and it challenges urban ministry biases with winsome wit, but most of all it calls us to love in place and discover something more of the immeasurable love of God in Christ Jesus for all the world."

Jonathan Dodson, lead pastor of City Life Church, Austin, founder of gcdiscipleship.com, author of The Unbelievable Gospel and Here in Spirit

"In an age when we tend to lionize big strategies, big churches, and big cities, Stephen Witmer movingly calls us back to faithfulness, not least when the sphere to which we have been called is small and unknown. Of course, it is not a question of either-or: either big cities or small towns and rural villages. Dr. Witmer does not try to force us into mutually exclusive worlds, but at a time when agendas favor the big and the urban, he patiently summarizes the biblical and theological evidence for underscoring the small and the overlooked. Read Witmer and (ironically) expand your vision."

Don Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, president and founder of The Gospel Coalition

"Francis Schaeffer observed that there are no little people in God's sight and no little places: 'To be wholly committed to God in the place where God wants him—this is the creature glorified.' There is a tendency these days to quantify the value of ministry. This thinking assumes that bigger is better. The larger the population is, the greater the need. Such a view tends to rule out small places. Stephen Witmer helps us to correct this by showing us that small places are much like everywhere else. They are also different. Witmer makes an informed and winsome case for the importance of doing ministry in the places that many of us are inclined to overlook. A Big Gospel in Small Places will help you to understand not only the need but the unique nature of today's forgotten communities."

John Koessler, professor of applied theology and church ministry, Moody Bible Institute

"This is a book whose time has come. I've long appreciated Stephen Witmer's advocacy for ministry in the small places. And now we have an apologetic, a theological vision for this particular work. He makes the case for small places without patronizing them or denigrating ministry in other areas. I even appreciated his pushback to the urban thesis of the early church. That's what makes this book an important read, even if you could never imagine living in the places where Stephen and I grew up."

Collin Hansen, editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, coauthor of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir

"Stephen Witmer's latest book reminds me of my mom's Sunday dinners. The aroma of the well-prepared content drew me in, each savory mouthful deeply satisfied, and the lasting value has given me ongoing nourishment. I'm excited to invite church leaders from urban, suburban, and rural places to feast on this much-needed book. And like mom's Sunday meals, Stephen wrote the last chapter as a memorable dessert."

David Pinckney, pastor at River of Grace Church, Concord, NH, and codirector of Acts 29 Network's Rural Collective

"A Big Gospel in Small Places provides an important contribution to the recent literature on small-town and rural ministry. Stephen Witmer reminds us that the recent interest in rural communities must not be a passing fad driven by popular culture but integrated into and driven by the fabric of our understanding of the gospel itself. The gospel is not just about reaching the masses, it is about lost people wherever they may live. It is about God's value of the unimportant and insignificant. Stephen reminds us that if we abandon the rural places in our mission, then we do more than neglect the spiritual plight of rural people, we neglect the gospel itself. For this reason alone, this book is a must-read for all denominational leaders, seminary professors and students, and those who desire to serve in small towns and rural communities."

Glenn Daman, senior pastor, River Christian Church, Stevenson Washington, author of The Forgotten Church

"A Big Gospel in Small Places is an incredible book that really answers core questions of why ministering in forgotten communities matters. In this book, Stephen Witmer offers very practical advice and compelling theological vision that should make us all consider preaching the gospel both in big and small places. This book should be read by all pastors."

Robert Manda, codirector of Rural Collective Acts 29, pastor of New Life Church, Malawi, Africa

"This is one of the more important books written about the gospel and missions in recent decades. Stephen Witmer takes the gospel seriously: he is more interested in the good news than in church-planting strategies. He takes people seriously: he is more concerned for people than for programs. He understands success in terms of faithfulness to God's calling rather than in terms of fame, in terms of the transformation of people's lives rather than in terms of the numerical size of a congregation. Here writes an academic who wears his scholarship lightly, a pastor who challenges his audience to think deeply, a follower of Jesus who follows Jesus to all the places where people live. Witmer explains that strategic thinking about ministry must acknowledge one of the great truths about God who lavishes his grace on city people, on small-town people, and on village people alike. This book is a pleasure to read, indeed a must-read for professors, students, and pastors who think about gospel ministry in the twenty-first century."

Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mary F. Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament, associate editor, Bulletin of Biblical Research

"What a long-awaited, welcomed book! What rare, refreshing, and compelling insights that validate the selfless investments faithful men and women—my heroes—are making in places that some consider unstrategic. Thank you, Stephen Witmer, for stirring our thinking and quickening our hearts for mighty gospel-oriented work in small places!"

Ron Klassen, executive director of RHMA (Rural Home Missionary Association)

"What a breath of fresh air to understand the gospel as motivator and as the approach to ministry! That's exactly what Stephen Witmer helps us understand in A Big Gospel in Small Places. Clear, passionate, and biblical, Witmer's book lays a foundation for ministry that is rooted in the nature and content of the gospel. He pleads, 'Please think very big about things that are truly big: God's character, God's gospel, God's mercy, God's glory. Know, and firmly believe, and often remind yourself that these truly big things do not depend on the size of your place, your church, your ministry, or your reputation.' Stephen's call is to flesh out the gospel in whatever location or ministry God has called us to. This book will be extremely valuable for anyone in or considering ministry, and it is not just for those in small, forgotten places. But what an encouragement it will be for them! As director of Village Missions, a ministry that serves the forgotten places of rural America, I can't wait to start using and promoting this book!"

Brian S. Wechsler, executive director of Village Missions

"Go Big or Go Home is a motto our culture lives by. Such language is seeped into the church realm leading many to neglect ministry in rural areas in search of assignments in or around the big city. I'm grateful for Stephen Witmer's reminder that we have a big gospel that can make an eternal difference in small places, and that it should be the size of our King driving the steering wheels of our hearts."

Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College

"For over a decade now, I've stood beside my husband as he has pastored in small places—in former coal mining communities and small-town Appalachia. We have seen the gospel flourish; but we've also seen churches founder. We experienced blessing and blight. But never have I read a book like Stephen Witmer's A Big Gospel in Small Places—a book that so clearly captures the challenge and promise of ministry here. If, like mine, your heart beats and breaks for small places, if you long to see the gospel flourish wherever God's people live, this book is for you."

Hannah Anderson, country pastor's wife, author of Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul

"Jesus is for everyone everywhere. Unfortunately, the lure of big cities and their amenities seduces many into feeling the need to plant and pastor churches in areas where there's a perception that a bigger opportunity to reach the lost exists. In the meantime, our small and rural towns have been left behind. In this book my brother Stephen presents us with an amazing opportunity to check our hearts and become intimately informed about the needs of our brothers and sisters in these all-too-often forgotten places."

Belafae Johnson, pastor of Purposed Church, Mascoutah, IL

"Stephen shows how every place, no matter the size, needs the gospel. This book provides a theological foundation and shows the importance of ministry in rural America. And not only does Stephen provide this theological foundation but he also gives practical ways to do ministry in smaller communities and places. As a pastor of a rural church and a supporter and planter of small-town churches across the country, this is one of the few books on small-town ministry that truly provides insight into what it means to take the gospel to villages and towns."

Michael Houle, small town specialist Vineyard USA, Multiply Vineyard, senior pastor, Valley Vineyard Church

"Stephen Witmer has written an accessible, experiential, and theologically rich book. It's a vital read. Drawing on the latest research and tapping into the abiding treasures of the Scriptures, Witmer challenges the prevailing missiological trend to prioritize the city. He calls rural and small-town leaders to 'love deeply what God loves perfectly.' This is Witmer's rallying cry, and it rings true. It's time for the rural church, from its unique vantage, to point the way for the church universal to reclaim its cruciform message, question the prevailing metrics of success, and embrace its vocation to become, in Witmer's apt phrase, 'see-through to the gospel.'"

Brad Roth, pastor of the West Zion Mennonite Church, Moundridge, KS, author of God's Country

"We need churches wherever there are people. My friend Stephen Witmer has written a very useful book on how Christians can minister fruitfully in small places. This book is rooted in a robust gospel-centered theological vision that helps Christians to disentangle their value from any particular zip code, whether in a city or in a small town. I found the last chapter on the reasons for prioritizing big-place ministries to be a gracious response to the urban apologetic."

Stephen T. Um, senior pastor of Citylife Presbyterian Church of Boston, author of Micah for You

"As someone who has written a book on small-town ministry, and has spent countless hours speaking on small-town ministry, and coaching small-town pastors, I highly recommend this book. Whether you are considering the importance and validity of small-town ministry or currently in the trenches loving and leading people in small towns, you need to read this. It's encouraging, helpful, accessible, thoughtful, and clear. Great work, Stephen!"

Donnie Griggs, author of Small Town Jesus

"Stephen Witmer's A Big Gospel in Small Places is compelling because it is a simple depiction of the deeply normal, deeply human life of small places, a life that many evangelicals have regarded with indifference for far too long. For several decades now, evangelicals have thought more often in terms of size, efficiency, and influence than in the more humane and Christian terms of fidelity, affection, and rootedness. There is a call in this book to love small places and serve them faithfully, of course. But there is also a call to cultivate a certain patience in one's own life, a commitment to belong fully to the local life of one's home place, and to view all of this work with a smiling affection borne of the confidence that God smiles on such a life. This is an exceptional book and one that I am happy to commend to others."

Jake Meador, author of In Search of the Common Good, editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy

"With A Big Gospel in Small Places, Stephen Witmer shows himself to be an important voice in a welcomed trend of finally giving small towns, and ministry in them, the attention they have long deserved. This is a thorough look at the needs, blessings, and challenges of small-town ministry from someone who knows his subject well, refuses to idealize it, takes on the challenges with open eyes, and calls us to engage these towns and churches with all of our hearts and minds."

Karl Vaters, author of Small Church Essentials

Read an Excerpt


Foreword: Ray Ortlund
Introduction: My Small-Place Story

Part I: What Are the Small Places Like?
Small Places Are Better and Worse Than We Think
1. Taking a Fresh Look at Small Places
2. Why Small Places Are Better Than We Think
3. Why Small Places Are Worse Than We Think

Part II: How Can We Minister Fruitfully in Small Places?
Developing a Theological Vision for Small-Place Ministry
4. The Source and Goal of Small-Place Ministry: A Shaping Gospel and a See-Through Church
5. Strategic Isn't Always What We Think
6. Small Is Usually Better Than We Think
7. Slow Is Often Wiser Than We Think
8. Fruitful Small-Place Ministry: The Circle and the Arrow
9. Battling Joy Killers in Small-Place Ministry

Part III: Should I Be Ministering in a Small Place?
Reasons Not to Do Small-Place Ministry, Reasons You Should, and Reasons to Consider
10. Good and Bad Reasons Not to Do Small-Place Ministry
11. Good and Bad Reasons to Do Small-Place Ministry
12. Common Reasons to Prioritize Big-Place Ministry

Conclusion: Pray Big, Trust God, Work Hard


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Stephen Witmer

Stephen Witmer is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and is an adjunct professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is also cofounder of Small Town Summits, an organization that serves rural churches and pastors.