The first session was delivered by Stephen Witmer, pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship and author of A Big Gospel in Small Places, and focused on why small places warrant care and attention.
Which isn't an entirely unreasonable question to ask. As addressed in the previous post, there are good reasons so many resources are spent on places that will have a big impact on a lot of lost people very quickly. Fulfillment of the Great Commission requires that the gospel spread fast enough to reach the world, and with the size of the world's population and the rate of its growth we need to step up that effort some. Being strategic and looking for the places with the fastest growth and largest reach helps ensure as many people as possible hear the gospel as quickly as possible.
The problem is when we only put resources into those places. Because the fact is, if the gospel is going to reach as many people as possible as quickly as possible, someone needs to be going into the places between the strategic launch points. Whether they go from the hub cities, or from neighboring communities, or rise up from within, the farm towns and small places will need to have someone going to them. The model that relies on pouring resources into hub cities cannot then remain in hub cities or its entire justification breaks down. If these are points chosen for their ability to expand then they must expand into the places that were not chosen. If we're focusing on Boston for its ability to impact places like Townsend and Sturbridge, at some point we need to be sending people and resources to Townsend and Sturbridge. That's the point.
Which is fine as a logical and logistical explanation for why there must be investment both in large and small places, but Witmer, as befitting a speaker at a conference for ministers, focused instead on scriptural reasons.
The primary thrust of the argument Witmer presented is not that the hub city model of church planting is wrong or that it relies on expansion, or even that it fails in some way. The argument was firmly rooted in the claim that ministry in small places is, itself, an expression of certain truths about the gospel that simply are not represented by ministry in large places. Where large-place ministry showcases the universal reach of the gospel in its scope, immediacy and power in its rate of expansion, and the wisdom of the gospel through its careful consideration of method, small-place ministry shows how the gospel is also small, slow, and unstrategic.
One of the condemnations of the gospel message I have actually received in my life is that if an all-powerful and all-wise God wanted the world to know the truth of Himself and His message, He should have had the foresight to deliver it somewhere other than a backwater corner of an ancient empire. And I've heard the counterargument that Galilee and Judea actually sit on fairly important trade routes and would therefore have some strategic value to the spread of such a message, but Witmer would appear to argue that the atheist has noticed something about the gospel that we are too quick to dismiss: that Galilee really is a backwater corner of the Roman Empire and really should raise some questions about its utility in a global mission.
Perhaps the answer is that the gospel isn't, at its core, utilitarian.
Is that not what we see in the life of Jesus Christ, anyway? We take for granted that Mary and Joseph were of the line of David, so He fulfills that prophesy, but have we just been assuming that David had no descendants at that time in a more noble position who could have raised the Son of God in some degree of pomp and splendor? Why pick the great-grandchildren that live in a dusty little town doing menial trade work? Why make arrangements for this child to be born in a stable away from the hub city of the region? They run off to Egypt and make no impression on the people there worth recording, then return to Nazareth where Jesus lives in obscurity until His mission begins in earnest and He spends most of that mission wandering around places where crowds could find nothing to eat. He consistently whittled down the number of people following Him, to the point that despite having a massive following at various times and whole cities that wanted to declare Him king and appearing after His death to hundreds of people at once, only 120 are still hanging around waiting for His promise to be fulfilled at Pentecost. How often we consider a church of 120 people to be too small to notice!
Witmer notes that the Kingdom begins very small in scripture, and that God consistently shows concern for what is small. The small places like Bethlehem, the smallest son of Jesse, the smallest bit of faith, the jots and tittles of the Law. In ministering to the small places, we are continuing the work that God has always had for these locations.
"The gospel gives us permission to have slow ministries." One thing that strikes me is that, while we do have moments of explosive growth in the church in Acts, the way in which we read the book can sometimes make us think it was always like that. One story right after another, with Paul being saved outside of Damascus and then going out and beginning to preach and going home where he's pulled by Barnabas to Antioch and then turned around and sent on their first missionary journey. But we know from his other writings that Paul spent at least 12 years coming to understand the gospel with which he had been entrusted before the vast majority of that even happened. How often we try to rush things to fit our timetable, this idealized version of the story in our heads, when God intends to take the time to make sure it's done right.
Witmer repeatedly noted that we should "want revival more and need it less." By wanting it more he wasn't saying we don't desire it hard enough; rather, the point was that we too often treat the big explosive moments as the whole picture and judge ourselves and others by whether or not these experiences are happening. But our validation shouldn't come from how quickly we outgrow our buildings or double our baptisms. These things are great, and we should value them and seek after them, but we cannot treat them as the whole picture of God's work. We should want to see everyone we've ever met come to church and make a profession of faith this Sunday; but when we consider ourselves a failure for having any less, we lose sight of the fact that our entire role is to be faithful in the task. Faithfulness is always marked more by time and consistency than by results.
According to worldly wisdom, the gospel is a mess. Sending your own son to die on behalf of people who hate him in order to win some of them over is a terrible strategy by any human standard. Having all of the work in establishing your religion happen in a place that has no strategic, economic, or cultural importance just seems like poor planning. Pouring yourself out into the lives of a handful of illiterate fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot while turning away scribes and people ready to install a new king almost sounds like planning to fail.
But this is the foundation of our faith. The gospel, and the ways it gets worked out, isn't always going to seem like it makes sense or that it's aimed at making the biggest impact in the fastest way possible. The nature of the gospel actively stops us from thinking that we can only justify the use of resources on the best available options. It gives us permission to focus and really spend time and effort on people who can bring nothing big or new to the table. In fact, it basically requires us to do so. To do anything else not only fails to showcase the way God has consistently worked across the centuries, but also kind of suggests that we think we're big enough deals to have warranted His attention. We misrepresent God and ourselves and only encourage heightened egos if we act like the gospel only belongs to the strategic few.
The last thought I have in my notes from Witmer were his words, that "if you are viewing your people as a stepping stone to somewhere bigger and better, you cannot be loving your people." Is this not what it call comes down to? If we will not love the handful who gather in the small church an hour outside of anywhere, how can we think we deserve to be shepherds over the thousands that gather under a dome in the city?
Church planter and ministry student with a bad habit of questioning authority and writing too much.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation