Small-town pastor, you’ve just stepped into the pulpit. Bibles are open, eyes are up, people are waiting—and it strikes you once again how few of them there are. Just 40 souls (not all of whom are guaranteed to remain awake while you preach). There’s no sound equipment to record your sermon, and no website to post it to anyway. Your congregation doesn’t know what a podcast is, and no one beyond your congregation knows who you are. You will speak for 30 minutes, and your sermon will never again be heard in this mortal life. It will live on only in the memories of those assembled. You’ve labored all week on it. Was it a waste?
As with countless other moments in small-town ministry, this one presents you with a choice. You can pine for something greater than God has given, perhaps even eventually leaving for a larger congregation in a bigger place. Or you can open yourself to the possibility that the greater opportunity you’re seeking lies right in front of you. Rather than ditching your people, perhaps you should dive deeper in.
Gifts of Less
Most pastors I know aren’t yearning for leaner budgets, smaller buildings, sparser congregations, and less influence. So when God gives these things to us, we may miss the promise they bear and the opportunities they provide. In both broader contemporary culture and also Christian subculture, big, fast-growing things are usually considered more desirable than what is small. But Scripture is often surprisingly positive about small things. After all, God’s kingdom comes like a seed buried in the ground, and the world is saved by the faithfulness and sacrifice of just one man. Gospel logic, then, gives us permission to appreciate and explore the possibilities and advantages of what is small. And I’m convinced this is true for preaching.
The vast majority of sermons preached around the world on any given Sunday are preached by no-name pastors to no-name people and will never be heard again.
Preaching that goes big—reaching many thousands in person and through radio, television, or podcasts—has clear benefits. When biblically rich, theologically faithful preaching finds a big audience, more people hear urgently needed truth. I’ve benefited from the ministry of gifted preachers whose sermons are heard around the world. I’ll never meet these men, shake their hands, or call them pastor. But the truth they’ve proclaimed has met me, sometimes shaken me, often pastored me. Solid truth from a big platform is a great thing.
But most preaching isn’t like that. The vast majority of sermons preached around the world on any given Sunday are preached by no-name pastors to no-name people and will never be heard again. And there are big advantages to preaching that stays small.
Small-town pastor, you have the privilege of preaching bespoke sermons. “Bespoke” is a word often used to describe clothing or furniture carefully crafted for a particular customer or user. It’s not mass-produced. It’s not off-the-rack. It’s made with a particular someone in mind. It fits that person perfectly. You can preach like that.
Good sermons that stay small can go where a big sermon never could. If your congregation has 85 people and you’re an even reasonably faithful pastor, you’ll know every one of them with a significant degree of familiarity. You’ll know their histories, griefs, struggles, insecurities, weaknesses, joys, and aspirations. You’ll also be attuned to how they relate to one another—where the tensions and stress points lie, what the relationships are like. You’ll have the kind of granular and overall understanding of your congregation that a big-church pastor never could. And you can preach to that. Your sermons can fit.
You can preach a sermon that would never work as a podcast. It wouldn’t fit someone living on the other side of the country, working a job that doesn’t exist in your small town. It wouldn’t fit someone with a different educational level from the people sitting in front of you. You can preach a sermon that will only fully serve these particular people in your life and in your church. In Love Big, Be Well, Winn Collier’s fictional small-town pastor Jonas McAnn says he wants to preach sermons that fit only in his town, to live a life that wouldn’t make much sense except in his own place. That’s a bespoke ministry.
Small-town pastor, don’t squander the enormous opportunity God has given you. Serve a few people well for a long time. Give them truth that fits their lives.
Bespoke preaching will entail some loss, but not all of that loss will be bad. Along with the loss of influence that results from not having a broadcast or podcast will come the loss of time pressure to squeeze your sermon into a restrictive broadcast’s length. Your sermon will breathe. You’ll also lose the self-imposed restrictions you feel when you know you’re being recorded. You’ll be free to say some important things to your people that you wouldn’t say to the whole world (or whichever few of them happened to click onto your website). You’ll lose the temptations to pride that come from seeing the worldwide reach of your sermons—and the temptations to despair when people you don’t know savage what you’ve said.
Love Particular People
In her novel Home, Marilynne Robinson describes preaching as “parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ.” If we’re serious about parsing humankind’s heart, we’ll start with particular humans—the ones in front of us. We’ll preach specific truth, from a specific text, to a specific people. And even though our words won’t be heard again, they will be seen in human lives. They’ll shape our people over time, and others will witness the transformation (folks in small towns are always watching, after all).
Can you imagine a bespoke tailor feeling perpetually jealous of the thousands of suits sold every week at Brooks Brothers? Can you imagine a bespoke furniture-maker wandering the aisles of IKEA bemoaning her own lack of productivity? Of course not. Small-town pastor, don’t squander the enormous opportunity God has given you. Serve a few people well for a long time. Give them truth that fits their lives. Speak to them in all their brokenness, glory, and normality. Preach to people you can see and know and touch and love. Preach bespoke sermons.