To the Next Generation of Church Leaders

Three Reasons to Think Bigger than Big

What I’ve come to believe, and what I’m passionate to commend to you, is that the equation of “bigger” with “better” is out of step with the very gospel we set ourselves to ponder and proclaim. In fact, the message and values of the gospel itself will send some (not all) of us to small places, and encourage us to stay there.

 

Dear Future Church Leader,

I began seminary eighteen years ago, with my career path already mapped out. My goal was to become an influential pastor in a big church in a big city.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this plan was fueled, at least in part, by prideful desires for attention and applause. But here’s something less obvious and equally important: it was founded upon a deeply-held belief that bigger is usually better; that the place to go to make a difference is a world-class city; that, for a gifted person, ministry in a small place is somewhat of a waste. It turns out this view was shared by many of my peers and professors.

I would venture to say it is still the view of many aspiring to ministry. Who’s excited about the prospect of moving to a small town to pastor a small church? I wasn’t.

But God surprised me. He called me to be a pastor in a town whose name I had never heard of. You’ve never heard of it, either (for the record, it’s Pepperell, Massachusetts). I’ve been here for a decade and have no plans to leave. What I’ve come to believe, and what I’m passionate to commend to you, is that the equation of “bigger” with “better” is out of step with the very gospel we set ourselves to ponder and proclaim. In fact, the message and values of the gospel itself will send some (not all) of us to small places, and encourage us to stay there.

Please don’t misunderstand me: my goal is not to persuade you to go to a small place. It is to persuade you to be joyfully open to God persuading you to go to a small place if he chooses to do so. For the sake of your own soul, and for the sake of God’s glory in both the small and big places, I long for you to be excited if you receive God’s clear call to Nowheresville.

Pondering the gospel has taught me several things that call into question my previous assumptions. These are the building blocks of a theological vision for small-town and rural ministry that now sustains my ministry.

1. Strategic isn’t always what we think.

A good part of the drive toward urban church planting and city ministry in the past generation has come from a desire to be strategic, to maximize Christian influence in the culture for the sake of spreading the gospel. Cities are full of young, educated, successful people. If we reach them, we will shape the broader culture, preparing the way for the gospel to advance. This view has borne lots of good fruit, and there is much to commend it.

But something important will be lost if this becomes our only way of thinking. As we reflect deeply on the gospel, we see how its message, values, and priorities might lead some of us in a different direction. One of the most precious things about the gospel is that it often appears so unstrategic, so lavish and wasteful, by worldly standards. Think of the shepherd who leaves his ninety-nine sheep to go after one (Luke 15:3–7). Think of Mary anointing Jesus’s feet with a pound of expensive ointment rather than selling it to raise money for the poor (John 12:1–8). Think of Jesus himself befriending the oppressed and the outsider, or the apostle Paul gathering those who were not wise, powerful, or noble according to worldly standards (1 Corinthians 1:26–31).

The gospel teaches us that strategic isn’t always what we think. The best “strategy” to reach someone you know and love with the gospel is not to influence someone else who will eventually influence them. It’s to spend time together, go deep in friendship, and serve them. And, in fact, the very nature of the gospel gives us permission and encouragement to invest in “unimportant” people — the gospel announces that God crushed his own Son for them.

I believe God does call some people, at some times, to big-picture thinking — to considering how to influence the wider culture and the greatest number of people possible. I’m thankful for those whom he has gifted to do such thinking. But we should be aware that strategizing of that sort can easily play to pride and is often best not done by recent seminary graduates and newly minted pastors.

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