Earning the right to preach in rural America

Stephen Witmer has gained a new appreciation for and calling to ministry in small places.

A New Testament professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a pastor in Pepperell, MA, pop. 14,000, Witmer is now gaining a national audience with his writing and initiatives. So much so that he took time recently to joinOther Side of Texas radio, based out of West Texas. [Note: hear the full interview below.]

Witmer has emerged in a moment in which the country has a new intrigue with rural America, particularly after the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

Whatever one might think of Mr. Trump, many noticed the landslide he collected in the American countryside, which precipitated a new national focus on the dominant rural issues into which the Trump campaign tapped. Issues like economic upheaval within globalization, a rapid transition from labor intensive to mechanized agriculture, poverty, opioid/drug abuse and general sense of being left behind.

Issues with which Witmer and other ministers have long been attuned.

About a year ago, Witmer launched SmallTownSummits.com to compliment large church conferences in New England. An alternative that provides more context for rural ministers, many of whom, like Witmer, are bi-vocational.

“They are small gatherings in small churches in small towns,” Witmer says, with the intention of the gatherings being to “encourage the church in small places and pastors laboring in small places, pouring their lives out in these communities.”

A significant part of his advocacy is respecting the dignity of unknown places, an understanding he partially credits to noted author, poet and public thinker Wendell Berry. And Witmer grasps the good and bad aspects to local identity. For instance, the ups of neighborliness and shared responsibility inherent in rural communities, as well as the downs of brokenness and complexity of relationships.

Contrasting urban and rural ministry, Witmer says that, by in large, big city congregations are often filled with urban professionals who grant trust to a minister who is good at what they do, primarily, competency in preaching. Thus, the minister establishes credibility and earns the right to counsel.

In rural contexts, however, there is an inversion to the urban preaching-counseling dynamic.

“In small places, a minister gains credibility in the pulpit by loving people—being in their homes, serving alongside them. Seen as a real person with stake in the relationship, they’ll begin to trust you to preach the Bible,” Witmer says.

“In small places there is a valuing of relationships, authenticity and knowledge of people.”

Given the economic woes within and the rebuilding of rural America—a consistent focus on OSTX—Witmer was asked about a ministers role in rural economic development. He insists the minister must maintain focus on the Gospel, and part of this focus might be to invest in surrounding small business, in whatever way.

Witmer is currently working on a new book to be published by IVP tentatively entitled “A Big Gospel in Small Places”

Readers and listeners can follow Witmer on Twitter at @stephenwitmer1.

Hear the entire interview below.

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