23 November 2023

10 Dos and Don’ts of Small Place Ministry

Written by Tim Wilson
Photo by Ivy Barn on Unsplash

Imagine a young man moving to his first ministry position. After three years as Assistant Pastor at a city-centre church, he moves to a small village. Would there be differences?

I’m sure instinctively you’d think yes. But what exactly are those differences? It can be harder to find out than you’d think.

After 8 years of pastoring a church in a village, there are some things I’ve learnt. Here are my 10 dos and don’ts of small place ministry

See Jesus’ vision for your village

In recent years, there has been a renewed vision for urban ministry. This is good, but it has left many people in smaller places wondering what Jesus’ vision is for them there.

We need to grasp what Jesus’ vision is for small places. Remember this is the God who was born not in downtown Jerusalem, but in the little town of Bethlehem. The one who went to every town and village, teaching his disciples to do the same.

The gospel is for all and so must go to all. God delights to do great things in small places. We can trust him to do this again in our small towns and villages.

Once you see that vision, you can be content. You’re happy for friends in expanding urban churches. You can say, ‘Praise God for what God is doing there, and praise him for the slower work he’s doing here too.’

Don’t be a practical atheist

An atheist business consultant could write many church growth manuals. The focus is on group dynamics, marketing and cultural influence. Looking at a church in a declining village, an atheist would conclude it will fail.

But we aren’t like any secular organisation. We have a God who answers prayer. A God who says the fields are white to the harvest. A God who has started revivals in small places and will again.

Stop being a practical atheist and remember you have God on your side.

Do share ideas with similar churches

Small churches can learn from bigger churches but you are far more likely to get helpful insight from churches in similar areas.

For example, perhaps you need a new Sunday School curriculum. You might be tempted to ask your friend who is a kids’ worker at a big city church. However, her situation is very different. She works full-time and has a host of volunteers and dozens of kids.

You’d get more useful information from a church with a Sunday School the same size as your own.

Don’t chase silver bullets

We’d all love to believe that if we used a certain evangelistic course it would spark a revival. The reality is there are no silver bullets. If there were, Jesus would have told us.

Too many pastors waste time convincing reluctant congregations to the latest ministry fad. It’s not glamorous but the reality is we sow the seed year after year and God alone brings the growth.

Do plant trees

Planting trees is very different to planting flowers. It can be years before you see the effect of your labour. But the result is quite spectacular and sturdy.

Good churches in small places are like trees. You can’t rush them. They will grow slow and steady, but if they are grown right they will be solid for years to come.

Don’t think because you’ve seen no fruit in one year that you won’t in seven. The nature of growing a tree is that it takes time, and so it is with a church in a small place.

Don’t behave like you’re on the London Underground

A Londoner who moved North told me she couldn’t understand the social nature of our area. Why did we greet every stranger walking their dog?

Right or wrong, this is the culture of most rural places. This presents an amazing opportunity. I’ve lived in a large town and a city, both of which it was very hard to get to know neighbours and local people. Take advantage of this cultural inroad.

Do lean into your congregation’s strengths

It can be tempting to focus on all the things you don’t have in your congregation – a pastor might wish they had more musicians or more gifted evangelists.

Here’s a potential change of perspective. What if you had a sovereign God who ordained exactly the team needed for your church?

If that were the case (and it is), you wouldn’t complain about what you lacked, but you’d look at what you have.

For example, you might not have many young people to get a youth group started. But you do have several retired people with many close friends. What if you looked at trying to reach people your congregation actually knows?

Don’t burn out your congregation

Here’s a classic situation, a young man comes from a big city church and tries to replicate everything that his big city church did.

The problem is he has fewer volunteers and many of them don’t have the energy they once did. Either the pastor and his wife run themselves into the ground trying to do everything. Or they somehow persuade the congregation to do the same, burning them out in the process.

Try to be reasonable in what you expect from people. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. That’s not only for you pastors, pace your congregation too.

Do celebrate small wins

Can you imagine a local bookshop giving an annual report and comparing its income to Amazon? It would be ridiculous wouldn’t it, of course, they will never get the same money,

But how easy is it for us to do the same? I remember one year preaching at a carol service. We had a full room, but I knew the number of non-Christians was small. I considered not mentioning a course we were running in the new year. After all, who would come?

It turns out one woman in the congregation heard that and signed up. The group was small (only two!) but it was a very fruitful time.

Don’t despise the day of the small things, rather celebrate the small wins

Do know your community

Every community is different and a good pastor knows his community. I spoke recently to a pastor in a village dominated by dairy farming. This shaped the times of day that meetings could be held. That’s a pastor who knows his area.

There are no shortcuts here. Listen to local people. What are their struggles, what are their perceptions of the church, and what would draw them in?

This will be much more effective than copying and pasting what worked at a different church.

Don’t neglect the gospel

When numbers are vital to survival, it can be tempting to focus on numbers. If you hold a village fete with no gospel content, half the village comes out. The congregation are thrilled to have such an impact on the community.

But Jesus wasn’t preached.

Now don’t get me wrong, that can be a means to an end. But the key is: don’t forget the end. Don’t forget that you are there to preach Jesus.

It may be you are rejected. It may be the seed lands on stony ground. Fine, sow the seed again and trust God to bring the growth.

We have one strategy for saving souls, proclaiming Christ and him crucified. Don’t stop proclaiming him.

Written by
Tim Wilson
Tim Wilson is pastor at Wheelock Heath Baptist Church in Cheshire, England. He and his wife, Natalie, have three children. He earned an MA in Church Leadership from Union School of Theology. He is on the steering group of The Rural Project a partnership to further the gospel in the rural areas of Britain. He writes regularly on Substack, and you can follow him on Twitter (@uk_timwilson).

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