"But to the extent evangelicals despise the small places, we will fail them. We cannot serve what we despise."
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."
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.
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.
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.
"Churches and ministers who live outside the circle, who ignore their community, will also be ignored by their community."
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."
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?"
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Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
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