A few years ago, a ministry friend and partner of mine was attending the Exponential conference in Orlando when he overheard a conversation between two prospective church planters that went something like this:
Planter 1: “How big is the city where you’re planting?”
Planter 2: “About 15,000”
Planter 1: “Hmmm, I wouldn’t plant in a city any smaller than 22,000.”
My friend had to laugh to himself. At the time, he had been a senior pastor in a town with a whopping population of 25 for 15+ years. The church has since sent a significant percentage of its congregation to plant in other rural towns in Kansas.
Imagine the faith required to send hundreds of your members to go and start new works elsewhere when you minister in what some might consider a wilderness! That call sounds like a death sentence for ministry.
A death sentence is an apt description of how many Americans perceive rural ministry. Rural towns are where pastors who couldn’t cut it in the “big time” go to die. Rural ministry is “junior varsity” for those either training for the big leagues or those who will never measure up to move on to “bigger and better” places.
If you need more convincing, look at those we typically platform and clamor to learn from so we can implement the methods that made them “successful.” You won’t find a small-town pastor who has faithfully and effectively served their community for decades often because their ministry isn’t large enough to be of any notable consequence. Have you ever wondered what we are missing when we overlook the small ministries and places of the earth?
Jesus loved small ministries and places.
Jesus loved small ministries and places. He was born into tiny, insignificant circumstances: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2, NIV).
He grew up in Nazareth (population in the hundreds), a village whose reputation is expressed by the following question: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).
Both Jesus and John the Baptist began their ministries in the more sparsely populated regions of Israel. Jesus was unimpressed by crowds and consistently resisted the pull to build a large brand, network, or movement. He did the opposite of what we would advise him to do today, and I have a feeling we wouldn’t be calling him to be the headliner at our conferences. Again, what are we missing when we overlook the small people and places of the earth? Could we be missing the heart of Christ himself?
My husband and I have been ministering in rural Kansas for 20 years. Because I am a talented speaker, singer, and musician, some have asked me why I don’t seek a position at a megachurch or move where my gifts could be put to “better use,” somewhere I could be more visible and have better opportunities.
In response, I point to the day God called me to serve rural communities. I was the new worship pastor for the church in the town of 25 I mentioned previously, and I was reading Return to Worship by Ron Owens. In his chapter titled “To Get or to Give?”, he tells the story of a young lady with a gorgeous singing voice who had been serving her small-town church faithfully, but had recently left to join the choir of a megachurch having been persuaded that she would get more out of a “bigger and better” church that could amplify her talent. He likened her story to David’s theft of Bathsheba in 1 Samuel 12.1
As I read that story, the Holy Spirit said, “You will not be a ewe lamb.”
That day, I committed to serving alongside Jesus in the small, seemingly insignificant places he leads me. My life and ministry are deeply blessed and enriched as a result.
Christ is powerfully present in small places.
So, back to the question: What are we missing when we overlook the small ministries and places of the earth? First, Christ is powerfully present in small places. Of course, he is present everywhere and values all people, but there is a potency in his gaze toward the poor, the powerless, and the disregarded. Throughout Scripture, God intentionally gravitates toward the underprivileged. He chooses the younger sibling over the eldest – not because one is better, but to radically work against the human tendency to elevate some people at the expense of others. He chooses Israel – not because they are the most powerful or populous nation, but because of their insignificance to the world’s great empires that his glory might be made manifest amongst humanity’s weakest. God is with those unimportant to the world because they are profoundly important to him. If we want to be in all the places where Jesus is, there must be no flyover country, nowhere too small or insignificant to be worth our time, nowhere that is beneath our notice.
Not only is Christ present among the small and despised, but his heart and character are revealed through them. If you want to learn to be like Jesus and draw close to him, follow his ministry pattern. Jesus intentionally turned away from the powerful and prosperous and set his gaze and favor on the foolish, the weak, the overlooked, and the outcast, or, as the gospel authors put it, the tax collectors and sinners, those who recognized their need for a savior.
In doing so, those with power and prestige were drawn to him, their curiosity piqued by this strange new teacher who taught with authority and dared to overlook them. I don’t think they would have paid much attention to Jesus had he come to them first, and he loved them enough to dismantle the lie of their own self-importance. He knew that proximity to the least of these produces the best leaders: Servants who are humble, gentle, and lowly, disciples who never graduate from their need to learn, not just from Jesus but from those to whom they are sent.
While rural ministry is prone to pitfalls like any other ministry, there is a unique opportunity in these places to die to self and learn humility. What could be more against the grain of American culture than seeking the small and ordinary and resisting being swept into the current of capitalistic consumerism that often produces churches that look and act more like corporations than the kingdom of God? Most rural people do not care and are unimpressed by titles, education, wealth, and positions of authority. They love and are proud of their community and want to see it thrive. They value togetherness and developing deep, rooted relationships committed to the long haul, and they aren’t necessarily interested in seeking what is bigger and better.
If you want to learn how to pursue what Friedrich Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction,” rural communities are great places to do so.
Rural people often love and care for one another well and know how to appreciate the simple stuff of life. If you want to learn how to pursue what Friedrich Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction,” rural communities are great places to do so.
For the past couple of years, I’ve had opportunities to enter collaborative spaces with people whose ministries are far grander than mine. While I have appreciated and learned a lot from them, this competitive sense of jockeying for importance still exists. The cultural waters we swim in make it nearly impossible to avoid. Who will offer the most profound word? Who has the best visionary ideas to offer? Who has the best connections? Honestly, it’s exhausting to me, and I often feel like an imposter, a fish out of water. My tiny area of the world is dwarfed in comparison.
Amid these experiences, God has opened a way for me to participate in a ministry to the ladies at the local jail in our small town. I told my husband recently, “Out of all the numerous opportunities I’ve had recently, my time spent with the women at the jail is my favorite. I could meet with them for the rest of my life and be content.” There is something so beautifully refreshing about communing with people who have nothing to hide, people for whom masks and pretending are useless. I laugh when I think about how little I do, how unnecessary I am, and how God’s purpose for me is more about what he wants these women to teach me than what I have to teach them. All I do is share the story of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit moves.
I have the incredible privilege of coming along for the ride and witnessing Jesus at work in the hearts of these least of these daughters who are so dear to their Father’s heart. If you want to be where Jesus is, if you want to learn to be more like him, find the least, the last, and the lost in your city, be it big or small, and resist the tendency to overlook and “despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10).
There are a couple of quotes by Roland Walls from my Celtic Daily Prayer Book that keep me grounded when I am discouraged by my own smallness and tempted to seek the type of success and notoriety the world deems valuable. I hope they encourage you like they have me.
Preoccupation with numbers and busyness is always a symptom of disease. ‘Success’ in the Christian enterprise has to pass through this lonely man, Jesus, who failed completely. So, somehow or other, theologically, and therefore spiritually, the success addict’s disease is that he’s left the centre, because the centre isn’t very encouraging. And therefore it has something to do with what does he think about Christ, and whose son is He, and how far did He get? You can always keep the success story going with the resurrection – but the resurrection of Christ isn’t the flip-over of the coin, it’s showing the value of the coin. It’s the crucified who is risen and therefore got the approval of God. So we’ve got to beware lest we come back with an easy theology of resurrection to justify success.2
Be content to live an anonymous, unspectacular, misunderstood life among people. Choose where possible those places and jobs where people are oppressed or deprived. Let Christ transfigure the darkness in ourselves and in the world. Let there be great care to maintain the simplicity of presence . . . Love what is obscure and little for there you will find Christ.3
– Celtic Daily Prayer Book
These quotes give me pause and remind me to cling tightly to what it means to enter the kingdom of God. It is coming to the end of ourselves, realizing the joy and privilege we’ve been given to participate in God’s mission through small, ordinary acts of obedience, knowing that it’s not about us. May you discover the joy and wonder of Jesus, the God who became small for us, and may you embrace the small spaces he delights to dwell wherever you are in the world.
- Ron Owens, Return to Worship: A God-Centered Approach (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 79.
- Celtic Daily Prayer Book Two: Farther Up and Farther In (London: William Collins, 2015), 1407.
- Celtic Daily Prayer Book, 1408.