Small Town, Big God

Small Town, Big God

A panel discussion with Don Carson, Collin Hansen, Donnie Griggs, Jeff Robinson, Stephen Witmer


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Jeff Robinson: Welcome to our discussion of “Why We Love the Small Places.” All of us know something of the small places here. Many of you we know are ministering in places like this. And we know the temptation, you go to seminary and you get all the education and you go and you take a small church with a few people and think, “This is a stepping stone. This is kind of like AAA. And someday I’ll go to the big leagues, I’ll go to the city.” Well, we wanna challenge that thinking, precisely because we love the Church of Jesus Christ and we love the small places. So, we are glad you’re here. So, many of you have come out. This is very encouraging to us. So, we are here to cultivate a Gospel-centered vision for small town rural ministry. My name is Jeff Robinson. I serve as senior editor for the Gospel Coalition. I’ll be moderating our panel here, which I’ll introduce in just a moment.

So, I have with me, of course, today, our four panelists, Dr. Don Carson, all the way to my left, who is president of the Gospel Coalition. Of course, a longtime new testament professor, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, author of many, many books. We have Steven Witmer. Steven is pastor at Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts and helps lead our Small Town Summits, which partners with the Gospel Coalition, New England to serve rural churches and pastors in that area. You have beside him, Colin Hansen, the editorial director at the Gospel Coalition. Colin is also an elder at his church, Redeemer Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama. He is from a small town, Chester, South Dakota. Beside of him is Donnie…What’s that?

Colin Hansen: Outside the small town.

Robinson: Outside of the small town. So, he is in the suburbs of Chester, South Dakota. Beside him we have Donnie Griggs who is the author, of course, of “The Small Town Jesus.” Donnie is the lead pastor of One Harbor church, which is a multi-location congregation in the small town of Morehead City, North Carolina. So, we’re gonna have each of these panelists, we’ll begin with Dr. Carson to come and tell you how they’re connected, first of all, to the small places, and why they have a passion to see the church, the pastors, and local congregations, flourish in the small places.

Don Carson: Thank you. I should begin with an apology, because I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be talking with a bunch of Dutchmen who are here from overseas to look into getting a TGC Holland going. So, after I’ve done my bit, I’m gonna disappear. And I’m sure I’m losing out because of that. I would like to hear what these others say. Please don’t take it as any sort of insult. Omnipresence is an incommunicable attribute of God. So, I’ve never been able to achieve it.

Many of you will know that my dad was a small church pastor all his life. The book that I wrote, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, could have been titled to Memoirs of an Ordinary Missionary because his pastoral work was all in a cross-cultural context. It was all within Canada, but he had to brush up his French and improve his understanding of French culture and so on as he moved from the English world to the French-speaking world.

I was brought up in the French-speaking world, but he was making the transition. And all of his life, he spoke to vast crowds of 20, 25 on a really good day, 30 or 35. And then when he was in his 60s, there was a movement in French Canada, Quebec, at about 6.5 million people. And at that time there were only about 35 evangelical churches of any sort, they were all either Baptist or Brethren, nobody else was there, as recently as 1972. And then between 1972 and 1980, 8 years, we grew from about 35 churches to just under 500. So, we did begin to see some remarkable growth and suddenly we were dealing with churches with 200 people and 300 people, which was absolutely gigantic. But dad was old enough at that stage to witness some of it and speak at the odd thing but he was not part of the leadership of that movement. So, all of his ministry was characterized by considerable smallness.

But there are certain events that stand out in my mind from that period. Dad was never ever tempted to be arrogant, because, quite frankly, he felt sometimes like a bit of a failure. Now, he shouldn’t have felt that way, but, you preach to 35 people for 30 or 40 years, you might feel like a bit of a failure, especially when you’re reading in columns of popular books and so on how to do this or how to do that and they all end with magnificent success and you wonder what’s the matter with you. Isn’t it encouraging to remember that at the end of the day, God values faithfulness rather than bigness? So, that’s part of my heritage.

Moreover, I was never tempted to build a church through a bus ministry. Inconceivable in French Canada. The notion of beginning a church through a bus ministry was incomprehensible. There was so much opposition to the Gospel from the dominant medieval Catholic Church. In fact, the notion of beginning with children, and then if you get the children, maybe you can snooker in the mothers. And then if you get the children and the mothers, maybe you can get the fathers. And that’s the way I read in English books that you were supposed to do it. I remember reading statistics of the sort when I went to seminary that said, “Don’t you understand that 85% of the Christians in the world today, well, the American world at least, made decisions for Christ by the age of 18? Therefore, start with children.” It’s easier to start with children, once they are old and hard it’s much harder, as if God finds it harder to win old people.

There’s all kinds of implicit theology in all of that too. And I remember puzzling over this when I got, but, you know, fortunately, I had done a science degree first and I knew something about how statistics worked. And it suddenly dawned on me where this 85% of people who are converts get converted before the age of 18. I started looking around at English language churches, and about 85% of the workers in those churches were concentrating on people who are under the age of 18. You know, the children’s clubs, and the Sunday schools, and the boys’ brigade, and the girls club and on and on and on. The young people and junior high, and senior high, and all of that. And then maybe there was a woman’s club or two. And then apart from that, the only men’s meeting at the time was the deacons meeting. Well, not too surprising if you see more converts of people under the age of 18 is that that’s where you do all your seed sowing, you know. But in French Canada, it didn’t work like that. It was a patriarchal society. If you wanted to see a family converted, you had to get the husband. If you got the husband, you got the husband, the wife, the kids in the pocketbook. If you didn’t get him, you didn’t have anything. It’s the way it worked. So, that’s the way I was brought up. I was brought up to think a little differently because that was the framework in which I saw evangelism taking place.

And then, got a little older and I started saying, “Nowhere in the Book of Acts did Paul plant a church through a bus ministry.” Well, take away the bus, chariot mini…well, no. Take away the chariot, through beginning with children first. It’s just not the way it ha… He went after adults. The synagogues first, in the marketplace of ideas and so on. So, there were a lot of independent sorts of lessons I learned because it was a small context, a place that was difficult.

I never found it difficult to believe that Christians would be persecuted because Baptist ministers alone spent eight years in jail between 1950 and ’52 and we kids were sometimes beaten up because we were maudire Protestants (damn Protestants). So, that was the heritage. So, to come south of the 49th parallel and hear Christians whining about how they’re taking away our culture and I don’t know not where they have laid it was incomprehensible to me because I expected Christians to suffer. That’s what the New Testament said would happened. Don’t you see? And that’s what our experience was.

So, I think that you are in a place where you can sometimes face the realities of New Testament language, the realities of the temptation toward self-pity but not the temptation toward pride and arrogance. You are much more likely to be free from too much dependence on programs at the expense of relationships. In small towns and small churches, it’s relationships or nothing. You begin to see how those things really are important, whereas they may or may not be important in the larger context where people are more likely, at least in greater danger, of relying on numbers rather than the integrity of personal relationships.

So, at the risk of history, of a bit of history, I think when I was a young man, some of the emphasis on cities was a good thing. Not that that meant that that’s what you graduated to, but in profiles that were done in Canada and in America, a shocking number of our churches, of Bible-believing churches were in rural areas, small town areas at a time when small town populations were in some cases dying and so on. And meanwhile, proportionally speaking, we were falling farther and farther behind in evangelizing in the cities. So, one can understand why there was a huge emphasis then on the cities, who is evangelizing the cities? And out of this came a whole lot of theory, sometimes over-the-top theory about the priority of cities in the New Testament and the importance of planting in the cities and Paul went to cities and so on. Brother Witmer’s recent book challenges some of the exegesis. It’s worth reading. Is it out yet?

Stephen Witmer: In November.

Carson: November. You have to wait till November. But it’s well worth reading. But, nevertheless, the statistics at the level of a percentage of a people who are being ignored 50 years ago made a strong case. But now we have so emphasized cities that it almost makes people feel like failures if they don’t primarily feel called to cities. And it’s one of those cases where sometimes the danger of the pendulum swing is catching us up. And so, what you are seeing in this room today is part of a reverse pendulum swing. It’s part of recognizing, “Hey, there are lots of people in small towns.” And don’t forget that a lot of the cities, so-called, in the Roman empire were no bigger than the size of our larger villages and small towns. It’s important to get things in perspective. If I had one word of warning for you, it’s, don’t let the pendulum swing too far. Don’t set yourself over against the Tim Kellers of this world. Rather recognize that people are called to different kinds of ministry with different sets of gifts and different sets of priorities. The harvest field is not only white into harvest, it’s big. It’s very big and it’s very diverse. Go and sow some seed.

Colin Hansen: Thank you Dr. Carson. If anybody hasn’t read his book about his dad that he just mentioned, I was just talking about that earlier of how influential that was in my life and hope in many of yours. And if you pick it up, even more influential as you go up here from this place.

Well, living in Birmingham, Alabama, I am almost always the first person that anybody has met from South Dakota, almost always there. And only a couple of occasions can I recall meeting anybody who was from or lives in a place more remote than where I grew up. I mean, I have to…I mean, sometimes friends will joke about, like Jeff did, joke about growing up in a town of 250 people, I have to correct them, five miles outside a town of 250 people in South Dakota. All right, so, got to always clarify people there.

I mean, it was so remote that people in a town of 5,000 people where I went to church would make fun of us for being rural rubes. And then of course lived in all the way in Sioux falls, you know, you’d never heard of where I was from except if you went to the lake near where I was. But farm kids, we don’t have lake houses. So, that wasn’t me. I was always on a riding mower in a pen with cattle. I mean, I’m not sure…I’m also not really sure anybody had ever heard of the college that I’d gone to attend in Chicago. It was always interesting when they found out where I was going, the one response was always clear, “Why would anyone wanna live in a horrible place like that?” In Chicago.

I think we talk a lot about the disdain that we feel in small places from the city, but that works two ways. We have to stay in the cities as well. Robert Wuthnow, a scholar in Princeton from Kansas, he talks about this in all of his writing that essentially you can understand American politics in their essence of rural opposition and resentment toward urban areas. I think you could see that significantly in the 2016 election and a number of other examples there. The one thing that was interesting to me as I began to process my experience, kind of moving away.

College wasn’t a difficult thing for me because college was still a small town. It was a private university. I didn’t have a car, didn’t have to deal with traffic jams. I still can’t deal with traffic jams. You can do whatever you wanna do, you can’t get that out of me there. The crisis for me, what gave me perspective on small places and the best things that I had been reared in didn’t happen until my wife and I moved to the Chicago suburbs. So when things got really difficult for us, you could drive for 25 miles out of the city before you got to our place and another 25 miles until you got to the cornfields west there. Felt lost in a sea of strip malls. That’s what suburban and urban life felt like for me.

But what was interesting is that my wife didn’t grow up in anything like where I had grown up, but she had the same problems. She grew up in an upper-class suburb in the south. And those two places you would think really wouldn’t have anything in common. We now live in the town where she grew up and I’m raising two children without any personal experience myself of what it’s like to grow up in a place like that. But despite how different these places are, it took me years to be able to understand the one thing that actually united them and became really important to me and understand what God wanted from me wherever he had led me. Actually, it took some help from Wendell Berry to get me there. I’m not the biggest fan of Wendell Berry’s poetry though. That’s good. I’m not trying to oppose that. Or even as agrarian activism, my family farm would probably be about everything that Wendell Berry would hate. So, I’m not gonna talk about that. But the Port William novels and short stories have always captivated me and my wife, which was so interesting because she doesn’t have any context with a place like that. But together, reading those novels helped me to understand what it was that was special about the places where we had grown up. Because when you’re a child, you don’t have any perspective on what’s you’re experiencing. You don’t really understand anything else.

For example, probably the most important thing, other than knowing that I’m a follower of Christ, adopted by God in heaven, the most important thing that I tell people about myself is that I knew seven of my eight great-grandparents. They weren’t just alive, I knew them. Knew seven of my eight great-grandparents. It’s likely that my children will maybe remember two or three maybe of them. My parents never even hardly met any of their great-grandparents in part because they were still in Europe. But I knew seven of my eight great grandparents. Both sets of my grandparents saw most of my Christmas concerts and probably most of my baseball and football games as well, both sets of my grandparents. My aunt and uncle and cousins lived next to us, which of course in my context meant a mile away, which was the closest people to us. So, one direction my mom’s parents and grandmother. My great grandmother lived another mile away from us in a different direction. I went to school with the children of my parents’ classmates and then she went to school with the children of her parents’ classmates and her cousins as well. So, I just didn’t know any other kind of life, that was just what I thought everybody had.

And it was a lot like what Wendell Berry talks about with his dense sort of network of intermarriage and race relationships that go back many generations. I just thought that was how people lived until I moved to the Chicago suburbs and realized it’s nothing like that. And what Wendell Berry had given my wife and me perspective on was the significance of social capital. That was what stood out to me and has continued to guide me. That understanding of social capital still, today. And what we did is vow to give our children, so far as the Lord would allow us, to give them a similar experience. But the way it worked is just like Wendell Berry would have envisioned, he sent Don Carson and the Gospel Coalition for me to work in remote work for a website just like Wendell Berry would have appreciated there. One thing I’ve learned though, continuing to study small places, writing about them, reviewing books, doing podcasts, all these sorts of things, is that not every place is rich in social capital. Not every small place is alike. And not every place had the sort of benefits that I did. I would describe it similarly to the term that Senator Ben Sasse in Nebraska uses. He talks about that Friday night in the school gym feeling. That was what I had. But I realize that not many places or fewer places now have that.

Timothy Carney talks about this in his new book, Alienated America, where he identifies many small places where social capital has evaporated, where churches have disappeared and the American dream has died. It’s helped me to understand I have been one of the lucky and blessed ones. One of the beauties of seeing from the perspective of social capital is that you understand what’s truly meaningful in life. I’m not exaggerating when I say that what I thought was meaningful in life to some extent growing up was the ability to be able to order pizza and have it delivered to my house, because you can’t do that where I come from. And just the thought, “Wow, that would be so wonderful.” I mean, in 20 years since then, I’ve maybe, like, a handful of times ever had a pizza delivered.

But what I’ve often seen described from experts in social capital is that the number one indicator of somebody’s happiness and a community’s happiness is the number of times you see somebody you know unprompted in the grocery store, or at the Walmart, or whatever. Because what it indicates is that you enjoy social capital. Now, you might take that for granted in the small place where you are. But the way I illustrate this is I say, when I lived in the Chicago suburbs working for Christianity Today, I lived five minutes from work and about two minutes from a grocery store. And in eight years, I think I twice saw anybody I ever knew at that grocery store, living five minutes from work. That was just, you just don’t run into people. There was a dearth of social capital.

Dr. Carson alluded to this, but I thought for a long time that I needed to make my mark on the world by planting a city center church. Tim Keller was and is a role model for me. I never actually wanted to live in a global city. It never appealed to me actually. I just thought that’s what the times had dictated for me. I thought that’s just what I was bound to do. And I couldn’t be more thankful for pastors who do take up that call. Very thankful for them. But here’s one thing I realized, it would actually be way easier for me, despite the fact that I don’t ever wanna live in a place like that. It’d be way easier for me to move to a city center church than to plant a church or take over a church back in Lake County in South Dakota. And the reasons why, Kevin DeYoung just preached from that passage right there, hard to live and to minister in a church where people know who you really are, or they don’t know who you really are because you’re always stuck at age 17 in their memory, or whatever. I see lots of heads nodding on that one.

So people can see through your bluffs, there are people who have changed your diapers ever heard that comment, “I changed your diapers. How dare you?” All those sorts of comments that you see. The social capital comes with the good and the bad. Just thankful in South Dakota, there’s no cliffs. They can’t throw me down like in Nazareth, it’s just all flat.

So, just, in conclusion, I wanna say how thankful I am for pastors who serve, church leaders who labor in these small communities. I wanna tell you about one in particular. His name is Tim Troxell, just read this morning on Facebook that his son’s, his son is about 5 years old. His brain surgery failed. I don’t know if he’s gonna survive. It’s really emotional, difficult. When he moved to Madison, South Dakota, to plant a church, he had little experience. He was in his early 20s, no wife, no kids, only a bachelor’s degree. The town had plenty of churches and those churches didn’t want him there. They were not interested in him planting a church in Madison, South Dakota. There’s also almost nothing strategic about this town of 5,000 people. There are lakes around there, recreational lakes. There’s a small public university. So, I guess it’s more strategic than some other places, but it’s not exactly a world-shaping place despite the motto, “Madison, South Dakota, In Touch with the World.” Okay. If you say so. There were two recent empty nesters who had stopped going to the church where they had raised their children. Truth be told, these empty nesters never really liked church, weren’t interested in it. They attended out of duty. But there was something about this church and this pastor that caught their interest and they tried, they gave it a try. The wife was baptized about a year in, the husband, two years in, and they’d been faithful members of this church for the last 15 years. That’s my parents. That’s emotional. I mean, this was after I left, so they were empty nesters. So, I came to Christ through a retreat movement in that town at age 15, and then they would follow a number of years later. My dad’s a farmer, mom’s a preschool special ed teacher, and they’re not world changers. But they needed Jesus. And so, Tim is one of my heroes, and I hope that in the coming years, I hope that there will be many more pastors and church leaders and families that take up the call to take the gospel to non-strategic places where people know Jesus. Thanks.

Donnie Griggs: All right. My name is Donnie Griggs, and I missed the jacket memo. One of these is not the same. It’s me. I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. And so, this is such a weird dynamic. Typically, when you go to a conference, like, I remember when I first planted our church, I’d come to The Gospel Coalition and I would feel like, you know, everything is about how big is your church and how big is your…like that’s the conversations I would be in. In small town, conversations like this, it’s the only place where you feel ashamed if anyone is like moving into your town or if you get a new restaurant, you feel genuine shame about it. So, I feel shameful. Our town has a Walmart now, and I mean, I’m really embarrassed about that. We couldn’t do anything about, we prayed, they still came, you know. But, so, I got out when I was 18 years old. I moved to Texas and then I ended up moving to southern California.

I say I got out because I mean, I grew up in this town, born and bred there and, you know, you kind of…there’s two kinds of people in the towns like where I come from, those who get out because they can and those who can’t and stay. And so, I got out, that’s kind of how it felt, and I was not looking back. And I got to travel all across the world and do a bunch of short term trips, and God really expanded me and helped me see how much he’s working in all the nations, which was good for me because I thought he was American. And so, that was helpful. And then I lived in L.A. for like five years, and that’s when I discovered church planting and I started reading all these books on church planting and it was all like city stuff. And so, I just assumed that that’s what I was gonna be doing with my life. And I got married, and my wife and I said yes to going back to this podunk little town that I’d grown up in, and there’s like a little conference they were hosting and they asked me to come and I was like, “Let’s do it,” you know. And so, we went back and really just to kind of, you know, really see some friends and whatnot. And I ran into a whole bunch of my buddies, people I’d grown up with my whole life. And it was like they were in a race to go to hell. It was so sad. Since I’d left, it had been about nine years at that point I’d been gone. And heroin and meth had just taken off. And it was just, yeah, it was really sad. And so, we get on a plane to go back to our home in southern California, and we just wept almost the whole flight back. God just broke our hearts. And so, a few months later, fast-forwarding, we packed everything we owned into a little 4runner and started driving from southern California to coastal North Carolina where I’d grown up. The church took up an offering. We got 800 bucks, so, that was helpful.

And halfway across the country we hit black ice in Odessa, Texas and rolled down in a ditch and totaled our car. And so we showed up with no money, no car. On the drive-out, I listened to Ed Clowney and Tim Keller preaching Christ in a postmodern world and found out I was Reformed. So, that was really great timing. Got there on Friday, started the church on Sunday with eight people, half of which I think were on drugs still. And, you know, God really has done some amazing stuff in the last 10 years it’s been. And I just wanna be honest with you, you know, God was doing some really cool stuff from the beginning, but it just wasn’t good enough for me. I dealt with a lot of feelings that I had been benched. You know, that God had just intentionally, like, God was passive-aggressively just sidelining me, you know, why would God put me in the middle of nowhere? You know, and I felt ashamed to tell people where I was administering. And it was just this weird…I mean, it was weird to want to be excited about all this stuff that God was doing and yet simultaneously feeling so unsettled about it. And, you know, over time, God has really helped. He’s built and established real deep theological conviction about the place that I’m in and he has given me way more missional evidence than I ever needed to see that he is at work.

And so I ended up writing a book about this, which is the Small Town Jesus you got there, and started traveling and doing little conferences around the country and in the U.K. And the more I went out to try to equip and help, encourage, inspire people, you know, who are thinking about this or doing this, the more I heard story after story after story that I’d never heard. I didn’t know these other stories existed. I just had no idea God was doing so much in little places all over the world. I mean, people contact me from Australia, from Africa, from, I mean… A guy the other day from the Netherlands. I mean, people in small rural places all over the world, God is doing significant work there. I just never knew about it. And so, I’ve been so encouraged and one of my favorite things is we get folks together and this is kind of that forum too, is how you come to something like this and you can go, “Man, I’m not alone. There are other people who are doing this and they love it and they love their town and they’re facing similar challenges to me, but I can be encouraged.” And so, I’m so thankful that this is being taken seriously more and more. This moment feels like a fantasy, you know, really, for me. Just that God has helped us get to the place where we’re taking this kind of ministry seriously.

And so, been pastoring the last 10 years and traveling a whole lot, and I’ve realized, there’s just a lot of opportunities in small towns to do really unique ministry. And then there’s also a lot of really unique challenges, and everywhere is like that. Big cities, suburban, cross-cultural international. I mean, everything’s gonna have its own unique set of challenges and here’s a unique set of opportunities. But, man, I have just seen, you know, Dr. Carson famously talked about this over a decade ago about how one generation believes the gospel, the next generation assumes the gospel, and then the next generation denies the gospel. And I think doing ministry in small town, rural America, I think I’m getting to see all three of those generations alive right now. I’m seeing the grandparents who believed it, their kids who assumed it, and their kids who flat out deny it even in little towns like where I live and where you live. But I’m seeing as we just simply unpack the gospel week after week after week, just things I never would have thought. We have a lot of church buildings where I live. And a lady came to me early in the church plan and she said to me, it was after a Sunday morning service and she said, “I just had one question,” and you never know what you’re gonna get, you know. And she goes, you know, “Did you say that God loves me just because He loves me?” I said, “Sure, yeah.” And she just burst into tears. And she said, “I’ve been going to church for 37 years, every Sunday and every Wednesday night and no one’s ever told me that.” I just didn’t realize, you know, how…And this is not every church in every small town, but how so much of what happens in small town rural places ends up just being morality, ends up being political stuff, ends up being…And people are starved for the gospel. And so we’ve just seen really the simplicity. And there’s nothing fancy about, you know, we’re just going through books of the Bible, opening and just preaching Jesus week after week. But that itself has been really revolutionary. And so, I mean, I think with small towns and rural places, they’re beautiful but they’re broken. And I think if you’re on the outside looking towards them, it may be they look really idyllic, and beautiful, and, you know, great place for vacation, bed and breakfasts, that kind of thing. But if you’re on the inside, you can just be consumed with how broken they are.

I was speaking with a firefighter yesterday called me, wanna know where I was. There was a suicide in our town and he was trying to see if I’d be able to come by. And I told him I was driving through Illinois and couldn’t get there. And someone grabbed me right before this thing started with tears running down their face saying, “Hey, pray for me. I just heard about someone committing suicide in our little town and I wish I was there.” And I mean, the brokenness can be overwhelming. I think that small towns can be kind of like a cruise ship destination. You pull up somewhere in Jamaica and everyone’s happy and dancing around and playing steel drums, you think, “Gosh, I gotta move here, this place is great.” But if you kinda stuck around for a few days, if you maybe went two streets back from where all the touristy stuff is, you’d see darkness and human trafficking and just sadness. And I think that there’s a reality to that, you know, in small town, rural places. And I started serving as the chaplain for our fire department, our EMS. And now that’s extended to another town. And I gotta be honest, I thought I knew our town. I mean, there’s a book about our town and my mom is on the covers, a little girl with my granddad. I mean, this is like my town, but it wasn’t till I started running, you know, ambulance calls and whatnot that I started seeing just the level of darkness and sadness.

Over the last year, doing that, I’ve told numerous parents that their kids aren’t coming home. Numerous kids that their parents aren’t coming home and spouses, that their spouses aren’t coming home. You’re more likely to die of an opiate overdose than a car accident now. There’s a lot of hard stuff, racism, suicide, domestic violence, depression, a whole lot of problems that only Jesus can heal. And that’s why I’m really just grown in this conviction that small towns like anywhere deserve to be taken seriously. And what we can’t afford is to perpetuate what can happen sometimes where small town ministry gets treated like a stepping stone on someone’s journey to becoming a famous pastor. That grieves me almost more than anything else when it comes to this.

The reality is that I’ve…I mean, I’ve had a chance to speak at some seminaries and whatnot about this. And, you know, the reality is that most people’s first swing at ministry, coming out of Bible college or seminaries, is probably not gonna be downtown Manhattan. You know, probably it’s going to be somewhere like where you and I live, and where we live, where those people live, they deserve to be taken seriously. And so, I’m convicted about that. And I think, that’s the other thing, is that, now as we’ve started taking it seriously, it’s almost starting to become trendy. And it’s crazy how something can go from unsexy to sexy so fast. I wish that could happen to me, but it’s just interesting, you know, how in a matter of no time, you know, small town ministry has started to become sort of trendy and popular and hip. And I’m okay with the awareness, you know, rising. I want it to…You know, but we just have to be careful, trends come and go, and what we need is for, you know, the people on the ground doing ministry in small towns to get deep theological conviction, to be able to hold their ground in mission and apply the Gospel to the community, and have compassion, and raise up leaders. We need that kind of stuff. We need a new generation getting convicted about the possibility of them doing ministry in small town. We don’t need this to be a trend that comes and goes. We need to take small town ministry seriously.

And so, I’m excited for moments like this and how this kind of stuff can be happening. We’ve got a lot of unique challenges that we’re facing. The 2016 election revealed a lot of stuff to the rest of America. The 2020 election is gonna be an interesting one for us in our context. But Jesus is with us. Jesus did ministry in cities and he did ministry in small little villages. Jesus is with you. He’s with me. He cares about our towns. He did big life-changing miracles in small towns, and that’s what he’s doing in our towns. His gospel was the hope for all of their problems, and the darkness, and the sadness, and the confusion that they had. And he’s the hope for us in all of that. And he’ll see us through it.

But God bless you guys for leaning in and considering this. And if you’re here and you’re in small town ministry, we just wanna commend you that what you’re doing isn’t second-rate. We don’t want you feeling like, you know, this is the minor leagues and, you know, if you play your cards right, you might get bumped up one day to the big leagues and be somewhere where there’s a target or something like that. I mean, it’s that little stuff, you know, that gets in our heart, and I just wanna commend you for being where you are.

And if you are someone on the journey to maybe being in ministry, church planting, or taking over a church, I would just so encourage you to prayerfully consider small town ministry. We need more workers, we need more laborers. We’re praying earnestly for more laborers for this field. But I wanna say we need skilled laborers. We don’t just need kind of the, “Well, you know, these guys aren’t gonna really be able to pull it off anywhere else.” No, we’ve got the kind of work that requires skill. We do. And so, if you’re here and you’re going, “Yeah, but I’m really gifted. I don’t know if this will be a waste of my gifting.” Well, there’s a couple problems there, but we’ll deal with that later, but we do need it. So, anyway, thank you, guys.

Stephen Witmer: Thanks, Donnie. Thank you to all of you for being here. So much of why we wanted to organize this gathering is to say, as Donnie just said, your ministry matters. What you’re doing and where you are matters tremendously and I’m really thankful that you all made the time to come this afternoon. My name is Stephen Witmer and I wanna share a bit about how I have somewhat, to my own surprise, come to love one particular small place, a town called Pepperell. And my story begins with growing up in north-central Maine in a town of 700 people. I’m just gonna establish my small town credentials here at the outset, 700 people I know, that’s not as good as Collin, but we were an hour-and-a-half away from the nearest cinema and mall. The last person to bed at night turned out the street lamp. That’s how small we were. When the library burned, we lost both books. No, that didn’t happen actually.

I love growing up in a small town. We had a dog catcher who really seriously thought he was a police officer. We had a town manager who always had a cigar in the corner of his mouth, tons of colorful characters. I love my small town. But somewhere along the line I started to buy into this cultural narrative that I wonder if many of you have bought into. And it was this, that, to make something of myself, I had to get away from my town and get to a big place. And actually, the kind of, in my own mind, the scale of the place and the distance away from my town was the measure of my success. No one ever told me I needed to do that. No one ever explicitly said my town didn’t matter. But somewhere, somehow I picked it up. And I wonder if somewhere along the line if you grew up in a small place, you did too. I think it’s worth pondering. Where does that come from? Why is that so powerful? People I did not know in places I had never lived perpetuated this kind of narrative that was strong enough to blind me to the beauties of the place I had lived my whole life. It’s powerful. We should consider why that is. I did make good on my aspirations to get away and I spent quite a few years of my life, after moving out of my small town, in a college in graduate school. And I lived far from home and I lived at well known and historic places. I attended large urban and suburban churches that were very different from the tiny little rural church I had grown up in. I loved the energy and excitement and resources of those churches. They had big budgets, they had big buildings. I enjoyed being at the center of things. I started to take pride in being at the center of things.

The significance of the places I was living began to make me feel significant. And throughout my twenties, as I studied for ministry, quite like Collin, I had an aspiration to be a pastor of a large city-center church. That was kind of the trajectory that my life and training seemed to have placed me on. But God surprised me. As he often does, God intervened and surprised me. And for over a decade now I’ve been the pastor of a small church in a small town. My church is on Main Street in Pepperell, Massachusetts about an hour northwest of Boston and it just a few minutes from the New Hampshire border. And Pepperell is not so much a place you travel to as one you travel through. You kind of work through Pepperell to get to Nashua or some other bigger place. Pepperell is a former mill town of 12,000 people, has kind of a rural vibe. There are many horse farms, there are lots of fruit and vegetable stands, there’s some excellent fly fishing and a couple rivers. There are no stoplights. Few summers ago we had a moose wander up Main Street. That’s not normal, but it happens. When I step outside my front door at night, it’s dark and quiet and I can see the stars. This is almost exactly the kind of place that I was doing my best to get away from at age 18. So, what happened? How did I get back here? How’d I get to a small church in a small town? And the simplest way of explaining how I got to Pepperell and how I got to love Pepperell, more importantly, is that I was called to a church there. I don’t have time to tell the story of my call to Pepperell Christian Fellowship, but it is honestly one of the most encouraging stories of my life. It’s one of the clearest instances of God’s leading direction call in my life. And I’ve kind of, over the years, heard more and more of it from the church’s side now that I’ve been there for more than 10 years. But, the way I got called to a small town was by being called very clearly by God to a church in a small town. It turned out it was kind of a package deal. I couldn’t come to the church unless I came to the town.

To borrow and adapt a phrase from Eugene Peterson, I did not choose a small town, instead, it was given to me. And I think God knew that it would take a crystal clear call to get me off that big city trajectory and back to a small church in a small town. Over the past year, over the past 10 years, the last decade, I’ve come to love my town of Pepperell in something of the way you grow to love a spouse or a child over the course of many years as your life becomes deeply interwoven with theirs. You don’t love them as something apart from yourself, you love them as something that is now wrapped around you, that your own life is enmeshed with. You don’t assess them, your spouse or your kids, objectively as separable from yourself. The deeper you go in relationship with someone you really know and are committed to and love, the more weaknesses and wonders about them you discover, and you are delighted by the wonders and hopefully you are compelled, you are drawn to the weaknesses, because it’s part of their story and it’s part of your story. And you don’t run away from the weaknesses, you move toward them. You realize that person you love is both better and worse than you first thought they were.

You know, I think Pepperell, like many small towns, is sort of like Mary Poppins’s handbag. It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. So, the further you go into life in the town and with the town and for the town, the more you discover of its wonders and its weaknesses. Donnie was right. The further you look, the more you look, and you know this because you live in small places, the more brokenness you find. But also the more wonders you find, if you know where and how to look. Aren’t there hidden depths to your town and the people in your churches and the relationships you have that are delightful? And there’s depth and there’s life in these places that are often easily overlooked. I’ve, in Wendell Berry’s words, become a member of my community. I’m not apart from it now. And so, it matters to me deeply. That’s the short story of how I’ve come to love my small place.

I long for more of us to tell the stories of how we’ve come to love our small places. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to host this session, to begin a conversation, not about just going to small places but about loving small places, because I think in our world, in our circles, most of the stories, the success stories are the suburban and urban stories of how I came to a large place and fell in love with it. And we love those stories. We wanna celebrate those stories, but we need to have more people telling their stories of how they came, not to their place as the second-best or a steppingstone, but as a destination, a place to love, a place to be part of. And I think we need contemporary stories, and we also need stories from church history. And believe me, there are so many beautiful stories from church history of people coming to and loving a small place.

I wanna just tell you briefly as I close, the story of one person who came to a small place and his name was George Herbert. Many of you know him as the 17th-century poet, great poet, and he left his post as the orator of Cambridge University. If ever there was a prestigious influential post, that was it. And he became a country pastor in a small parish in the village of Bemerton. There’s a clue to why Herbert did what he did in his poem, “The Elixir,” in which he uses the famous image of the philosopher’s stone as the key to performing humble, menial tasks in a way that is delightful to you and glorifying to God. And he says the secret, he calls it the elixir, is to see God in all things and to do all things for God. So, here’s what he says in this poem,

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.

That which God doth touch and own, that’s the elixir that transforms humble, forgettable ministry into something of infinite importance and great soul delight. God touches and owns it. And Herbert saw and believed that God had touched and owned his little village of Bemerton. Herbert wrote this book called The Country Parson. I’d love all of you just to order it on Amazon if you’re doing small place ministry, order it wherever, and read it. It’s short, but it’s insightful and it’s about small place pastors and ministers contextualizing themselves in the places where they live. And it became famous in the decades and centuries after Herbert died. And in that book, The Country Parson, Herbert wrote that a country pastor holds the rule that nothing is little in God’s service. If it once have the honor of God’s name, it grows great instantly. I hope you can hear that and receive it wherever you’re pastoring or ministering, living as a layperson in a small church in a small place. If God touches and owns it, if he claims it, it grows great instantly. Herbert is commemorated in the Anglican communion every year on February 27 and one of the [inaudible 00:51:05] for that day based on his poem “The Elixir” has been on the wall of my study for years, I often, as I’m doing my sermon prep early on Sunday morning, look over at it and pray the words of that prayer. It’s the last thing I do before I head out in my study to church. And I wanna invite you to pray these words with me. Thousands of others over the course of centuries. This prayer reads this way, “Our God and king, who called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet and a priest in your temple, give unto us the grace we pray joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the Holy Spirit. One God forever and ever. Amen.” Thank you.

Robinson: Well, we have a couple of minutes left. I know some of you have submitted questions to us. I wanna encourage you, if you have other questions, I’m gonna, in a moment, before I pray we’re gonna deal with one question maybe and then I’m gonna give you my email address. At The Gospel Coalition, we’d love to write articles about things like this. But wanna deal with at least one question. And this is for Donnie, because I think this is a common issue with those who go to a small context. You’re an outsider. Small places tend to be very tight-knit, at least my little hometown up in north Georgia, Blairsville, Georgia. I absolutely love, tends to be very tight-knit and they’re not really open to outsiders. So, Donnie, I think you wrote an article for us in the last couple of years addressing this. How do you acclimate yourself to those people and them to you?

Griggs: Yeah. I think just to acknowledge it as a challenge is gonna be helpful for you. I think you’ll get seriously blindsided if you come in from the outside into a small town and don’t think that the thing. And it can be very tight-knit and hostile to people from the outside. I’ll say something to encourage you if that’s your situation, is that, I’m from where I live, born and bred there. As you heard, I’m a local and being part of the community, you know, for my whole life, all my formative years means there are blind spots in the town that I’m blind to because I’m part of the town. And so, when God sends you from the outside into a small town, I mean, that’s a real benefit. You’re probably gonna pick up on some stuff that people like myself would miss because you’re coming in with a fresh set of eyes. But I would encourage you, it’s kinda basic missiology, come in with this heart to serve. And in lots of ways learn, ask lots of questions, read what you can, lean in, you know, and then over time you’ll really earn the right to be heard. And so, it may be better to take that route than to come in on the first Sunday and do your first sermon on the top 10 idols this town needs to get rid of today kind of thing, you know? But just to, over time, begin to like, you know, get to the place. And here’s the last little tip I’ll give you, is when you talk about the town, say “our town” don’t say “this town.” And that sounds like semantics, but if my wife was here with me, like, “This wife and these kids,” you’d be like, “Something’s wrong with this marriage.” There’s an affection that people pick up on when you say, “This is our town, this is my town.”

Robinson: Well, thank you, Donnie. Well, at The Gospel Coalition, we will continue this conversation. We have a multi-volume book planned. In fact, that’s how this conversation arose just a few years ago that we will be contributing to and others. As I said, my part in this is I’m from Blairsville, Georgia. And you hear me talk, you say, “No kidding.” Say he ain’t kidding about that. But I pastored in Louisville, Kentucky, not a small place of course, but a few years ago, 10 years ago, we helped plant a church there. My best friend pastors. It’s thriving. We do everything we can to support through our church and through personally that church. I want the Gospel to take Blairville by storm. And I pray the gospel take your small town through your ministry and by his grace by storm. Let me pray for you as we dismiss.

Father, we confess with our Lord Jesus Christ that apart from you we can do nothing. But father, we’re thankful for your grace and your mercy that you have called us. You’ve called us out of the world, Lord, to yourself as Christians, but also as ministers of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And Lord, you have ordained that that gospel spread from shore to shore, from sea to shining sea all across the globe. And Father, you’ve called some of us to large places, some of us to medium places, some of us to small places. Lord, and many of us will never be famous, will never have, Lord, thousands of followers on Twitter, or a popular blogger at The Gospel Coalition, Lord. I pray that those things would never enter our minds as we seek to be faithful wherever you’ve called us. And Lord, I pray for these men who are laboring in tough places, in obscure places, Lord, that you would slay the enemy of pride that would tell them, “Well, you can do better.” We know that wherever your church is, we cannot possibly do better and that you have promised to build your church and that the gates of hell will not overcome it. So, God, I pray for every pastor in here. Maybe those who are frustrated, maybe those who are thinking, “Well, this is just a junior varsity. I wanna make the varsity team in an urban, or suburban area, at a larger church.” I pray, Lord, you would correct that thinking, you’d use them, God, that they would be faithful, they would endure. You grant them your enduring grace every single day not to please man or look to build their own kingdom but look to you, to please you and to build your kingdom until you come. Father, do it through us in these small places and do it in us, God, for your own glory. We thank you for this time together and pray you’ve been honored in it and go with us now the rest of this day. I pray all this in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.

“Over the last year, I’ve told parents that their kids aren’t coming home; kids that their parents aren’t coming home; and spouses that their spouses aren’t coming home. You’re more likely to die of an opiate overdose than a car accident now. There’s a lot of hard—stuff, racism, suicide, domestic violence, depression—a whole lot of problems that only Jesus can heal. And that’s why I’m really just grown in this conviction that small towns deserve to be taken seriously. What we can’t afford is to perpetuate what can happen sometimes, when small-town ministry gets treated like a stepping stone on someone’s journey to becoming a famous pastor. That grieves me almost more than anything else.” — Donnie Griggs

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.