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Don’t Underestimate Small-Town Ministry

When evangelicals think of gospel ministry in New England, they may think of Jonathan Edwards or the Great Awakenings. They may think of the least religious states in the United States. They may think of a region many have labeled “the preacher’s graveyard.” But what may not come to mind is what happened recently: hundreds of pastors and ministry leaders gathering with eager expectation, learning how to better advance gospel work in the small places of New England.

On March 18, Small Town Summits, in partnership with The Gospel Coalition New England, held a New England regional Summit at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with the goal of developing a theological vision for small-place ministry. Previous Small Town Summits have been hosted in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, in towns even people in those states have never heard of. And that’s the point. Our typical summits are intentionally smaller and local, as a way of embodying our message. But it felt like a good time to gather rural laypeople and pastors from around the New England region, and many responded. (The summit was sold out.)

Small-town pastors often tell us that they struggle not only with the normal stresses of pastoral ministry, but also with the extra discouragement of ministry in a small town. Ministry in small places is often slow and not regarded highly in the world’s eyes—whether the unbelieving world or the evangelical world. But on March 18, hundreds of ministry leaders were affirmed in their callings to go to the ends of the earth, including often-forgotten small towns. Rural churches need skilled, solid, vibrant gospel ministry just as much as suburbs and cities do.

Can’t Serve What You Don’t See

Stephen Witmer, a member of the Small Town Summits leadership team and author of the forthcoming A Big Gospel in Small Places, encouraged the packed chapel: “We need to develop a theological vision for small-place ministry so we can see small towns as God sees them. You can’t serve what you don’t see.”

The plenary speakers and workshops helped us to see small-town ministry the way God does, and also to see that understanding our context enables us to be better ministers of the gospel. Richard Lints, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell, helped us develop a theological vision for small-town ministry (just as he has helped Tim Keller cultivate a theological vision for ministry to the city). Brad Roth, author of God’s Country, explained how the doctrine of God sends us to the small places, and Donnie Griggs, author of Small Town Jesus, clarified what gospel-shaped small-town ministry looks like in practice. The workshops focused on discipling women, soul care, church planting, church revitalization, community ministry, the pastor as public theologian, and building a healthy ministry marriage. All gave careful attention to the nuances that ministering in small places brings to each of these areas.

If small-town pastors, laypeople, and ministry leaders are to serve well, we must see that God has sovereignly positioned us in our small places and sovereignly granted us a big gospel. We must see that we’re not alone, and that there are unique privileges, not just difficulties, in our ministries. We must cultivate a vision of shepherding well no matter the size of our flock, and of evangelizing well no matter the size of our town.

Collaboration Rarely Seen

One Vermont church-planting leader commented that in more than a decade of ministry in New England, he’s never seen a movement of so many gospel-centered leaders, outside of their own tribes, working together to advance God’s kingdom. There were even some city and suburban pastors who attended the March 18 summit to know how to better encourage ministry and plant churches in New England’s small towns.

David Pinckney and Ben Ruhl, who serve on the Small Town Summits leadership team, both prayed for ministry in larger places as well during the plenary sessions. We’re not anti-city or anti-suburb or anti-large church. Rather, we’re pro-big gospel.

Large-Scale Revaluation

We want to make sure that small-town pastors, laypeople, and church leaders know and are reminded that God sees and values their ministry. It’s rare for them to hear that preaching a gospel-rich, Bible-centered sermon to 60 or 16 people in a forgotten place is important—but it is.

When a currency is revalued, its value is calculated again, often with a higher value than before. The Small Town Summits team wants to be a part of a large-scale revaluation of small-town ministry. We’re grateful for the palpable excitement in the Gordon-Conwell chapel on March 18. It indicates what we’ve already seen in our state-specific summits: God isn’t the only one who values the souls in the small towns.

For future summits and other events sponsored by Small Town Summits, visit www.smalltownsummits.com.

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