Despite rapid urbanization trends worldwide, many Americans continue to live in small places. That’s true in New England, where I live – particularly the further north you drive. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011–2015 American Community Survey, the two most rural states in the entire United States are Vermont and Maine (in each, about 60% of the population is rural), and New Hampshire is not far behind.
There’s tremendous spiritual need in these New England small places. A 2017 Barna study investigating the spiritual landscape of New England found ‘a movement that is quietly revitalizing Christianity in the diverse urban centers of New England, while the broader population of New England remains unreached and spiritually adrift.’ The Barna study concluded that, ‘it is important that in the excitement over reaching those of no faith and other faiths in urban centers, we do not neglect the less hyped but equally urgent need to serve the quiet, out-of-the-way reaches of New England.’
If New England (and the rest of the United States, for that matter) is to be reached with the gospel, followers of Jesus can’t focus exclusively on the cities. We must venture into, and minister long-term in, the small, forgotten places.
That’s why we’ve launched Small Town Summits, which partners with The Gospel Coalition New England to provide collaborative gatherings for small-town pastors and ministry leaders. Our aim in hosting these small conferences in small towns throughout the six New England states is to resource, encourage, connect, and learn from rural churches, pastors, and Christian workers for the glory of Christ. The heart of our approach is a commitment both to theological engagement and to local expression.
There are lots of important conversations to be had these days about small-place ministry. It’s helpful to discuss pragmatic questions such as best practice in rural church planting, positives and negatives of multi-site venues, and bi-vocational opportunities for pastors. It’s important to share practical ministry tips (eat local, love your neighborhood, know your town leaders). But rural and small-town pastors need something more and something deeper: we need theological roots for what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We need a theological vision that motivates and informs our ministry.
In his important book God’s Country, Brad Roth rightly grounds rural ministry in the character of God: ‘The rural church represents God’s commitment to be with all people, everywhere, through the church, which is Christ’s [body].’ Tim Gibson, in Church and Countryside, advances a robustly theological understanding of rural ministry, centered on the regular practice of the Eucharist. At Small Town Summits, we’re seeking to develop a theological vision for small-place ministry that draws deeply on the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’re asking what the gospel teaches us about God and his world, and how the content and contours of this gospel send some of us to small towns and shape our ministries there. The current theme of our Small Town Summits is ‘A Big Gospel in Small Places,’ and we’re discovering that (to borrow and adapt a phrase from Brad Roth) the gospel itself points us toward the small places and tells us what to do when we get there.
We believe it’s important to express this developing gospel-centered theological vision of small-place ministry locally. While we appreciate and participate in the big conferences in the big cities with the well-known speakers, that’s not what Small Town Summits is doing. Our Summits are small, collaborative, and local. We call them ‘Summits’ because in common parlance, a summit is a gathering of leaders who discuss important issues for the sake of taking action. We believe there’s great value in hearing and learning from faithful, unknown pastors, ministry leaders, and Christian workers already engaged in the work of small-place ministry. Because our Summits are small, they’re more collaborative, more contextual (we meet in small churches in small towns), more affordable, and more reproducible. Because they’re local to a state or region, there’s more opportunity for on-going gospel partnerships long after the Summits are over.
What we’re discovering
Our first two Summits were in Loudon, New Hampshire (November 8, 2017) and South Royalton, Vermont (May 16, 2018) and our next Summit will be in Dexter, Maine (November 17, 2018). We’re finding that small-place pastors and ministry leaders are grateful for these gatherings. One recently said, ‘What an answer to prayer. It’s like a cold drink of water in the desert.’ Others have told us that the very existence of a gathering devoted to their ministry context is an encouragement. If you’re from New England, please join us for an upcoming Summit (there’s lots of information available on our website: www.smalltownsummits.com). Wherever you live and minister, please consider the value and importance of seeking to live from and for the gospel together with other small-town/rural pastors and ministry leaders.
Stephen Witmer (@stephenwitmer1) is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts. He teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and helps to lead Small Town Summits, which serves rural churches and pastors.