Preaching in All Places: A Review of A Big Gospel

March 19, 2020
Title: A Big Gospel: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters
Author: Stephen Witmer
Publisher: InterVarsity Press
Publishing Date: November 5, 2019
Pages: 216 (Paperback)
ISBN: 978-0830841554

Stephen Witmer urges pastors to see their congregations and communities as God sees them.

Witmer, a pastor himself and the author of A Big Gospel in Small Places: Why Ministry in Forgotten Communities Matters, offers his book as “a theological vision for ministry in small places” (143). Humbly, Witmer indicates that the book results in part from his “rediscovery of things once knew,” (11) which took place during his ministry in a relatively small church in a small town. At the same time, the author displays considerable theological learning, combined with significant pastoral wisdom, which can help his readers both rediscover and discover related truths. Therefore, pastors and members of congregations of any size in any town can receive insight and even inspiration from this work. Witmer helps us connect God’s grace, wisdom, and saving plan to our particular callings as ministers and church members in particular places.

Witmer offers a good theological summary in the introduction to his book, as well as what he calls “My Small-Place Story.” He describes growing up as the son of a pastor in a small town—Monson, Maine (population 700)—and then, with restless feelings, going off to study and work in larger and better-known places such as Wheaton, Illinois (near Chicago), Minneapolis, Boston, and Cambridge, England. As Witmer lived in these “well-known, wealthy, and historic places” he found himself drawn to the “excitement, energy, and resources” of churches there (7). Because of these experiences, Witmer did not plan to pastor in a small town. Instead, motivated in part by feelings of pride and self-importance, he “dreamed of pastoring a large city-centered church” (8). But, in a way that surprised him, he wound up at Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts; as the pastor of that small church in that small place he writes, “there have been seasons of heartache, fear, longing, and pain—but I have loved it” (8).

Throughout the rest of his book, Witmer fittingly integrates social and political insights with biblical and theological expositions. In addition to telling parts of his own story, he also sketches out the lives of both some well-known and some lesser-known pastoral figures. The list of lesser -known pastors includes a Puritan pastor named Richard Sibbes, who reflected on “the nature of weakness” (98). Sibbes’ thoughts stimulate Witmer to ask pastors, “Can we long morefor the numerical growth of our churches while needing it less?” (99). The list of better-known pastors includes George Herbert and John Henry Newman. In dealing with these and other figures and topics, Witmer translates studious information into spiritual insights. For example, after beginning with some material that he passes on from writers such as E.B. White and Robert Wuthnow, Witmer offers several insights that can help readers overcome pride in ways that make for fruitful ministry. In a chapter called “Battling Joy-Killers in Small-Place Ministry,” Witmer concludes with references to George Herbert’s poem, “The Elixir,” along with a collect-prayer about Herbert, both of which can inspire pastors every Sunday—and every day. Like Eugene Peterson, Witmer demonstrates that of the many sources we need for effective ministry, one includes reading good literature. Pastor John Ames, from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, whom Witmer quotes on the final page of his book, offers further testimony to the blessings of literature and learning. Reading Witmer can lead pastors to widen and deepen their own reading.

Another pastor with whom Witmer interacts extensively in his book is Tim Keller. Correctly, Witmer places Keller within a larger movement of urban ministry emphasis that has gone on now for several decades. Also, Witmer quotes or refers to Keller positively in a way that demonstrates Keller’s general theological acumen and specific theological respect for rural places that others often overlook. Overall, Witmer writes as an ally of Keller, while at the same time he “pushes back” against some of Keller’s and other’s assertions about the priority of cities in the plan of God (179). For example, in his final chapter, entitled “Common Reasons to Prioritize Big-Place Ministry,” Witmer takes issue with Keller several times and always in a highly respectful way. When Keller asserts that early Christian missionaries “went into cities and only the cities to preach the gospel,” (Keller, quoted by Witmer, 166) Witmer responds first by pointing to the earthly ministry of Jesus, which was not urban-centered, and then to recent research regarding Paul, which leads Witmer to assert: “In fact, it seems nearly certain that Paul didpreach in villages during his missionary travels” (169).

Such dialogue with Keller and others leads Witmer to explore Revelation 21-22 in a way that provides material for reflection and sermons among pastors who read his book. Witmer recognizes that as John in Revelation shares his vision of the new creation he sees an “urban new Jerusalem” (177). Witmer notes also that the river and tree of life in the heavenly city that comes down to earth indicate that “John’s vision is of a garden-city, and the garden part isn’t less important than the city part” (178). Helpfully and ecumenically, Witmer concludes that “John sees our future as a rural-urban future in which countryside and city mingle, for the good of both and the blessing of all” (178-179). In this and many other ways, Witmer prompts his readers to explore promising implications for ministry in the specific place to which God calls them.

In his book Witmer both addresses his readers directly in a dialogical manner, and he prompts further dialogue with other writers and with our Lord himself. It’s worth noting that a particular strength in the book is its fitting combination of the theological and the personal. By both describing the nature of ministry in smaller places and describing his own long struggle against pride, Witmer helps his readers examine their own hearts in healthy ways. For example, when Witmer quotes John Ames saying in regard to his town of Gilead, “I love this town,” he prompts pastor-readers to seek and practice love for their towns in ways that imitate and unite us to Jesus Christ. In his fitting final two sentences, Witmer writes with creative humility when he states, “Perhaps we can learn to love our small place the way Jesus does. Perhaps in losing our lives there we will find them” (183).

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