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SMALL TOWN JESUS: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places

SMALL TOWN JESUS: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places

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SMALL TOWN JESUS: Taking the Gospel Mission Seriously in Seemingly Unimportant Places. By Donnie Griggs. Damascus, MD: EverTruth, 2016. 168 pages. $12.99.

Donnie Griggs is the pastor of One Harbor Church in Morehead City, North Carolina. After spending five years pastoring a church in densely populated Southern California, he went back home and planted a church in small-town Morehead City (population approx. 9200), situated in a county with a population of 68,000. (I serve Cresbard and Wecota, SD—populations 90 and 15 respectively, with a county population of 2400—and am keenly interested in small-town ministry). One Harbor Church, as of 2016, has over 1,000 in attendance every week over three separate worship sites. Griggs has a passion for small-town mission and this book is written to inspire you to similar zeal for small towns.

Griggs asserts, “Small towns have all but been forgotten by many people and by many churches” (p. 16). Unless Griggs is lying to his readers (which is certainly not the case), this has been his experience as a church planter. He recalls again and again how small-towns are overlooked in the “church planting world” for the bigger city. I, Timothy Koch, am a member of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and I can honestly say that this has not been my experience. Small towns, by and large, in the LCMS have not been forgotten, in fact, it’s where most of them are located. Smaller congregations may be looked down upon, they may struggle to find pastors willing to serve them, they may be viewed as stepping stones on the way to a ministry in a larger and more “stable” context, but they are not forgotten.

Griggs defines “small town” as any town with a population of 25,000 people or less. Though he doesn’t tell his readers how he got that number, it’s likely he received it from Princeton Professor Robert Wuthnow, whom he cites multiple times. Wuthnow defines small towns as towns with a population of 25,000 or less in his book Small Town America.

I appreciate Griggs calling attention to the need for ministry in small towns. I live in South Dakota. There are only three places in the entire state of South Dakota that have a population over 25,000 (Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Aberdeen). Thus, if churches were to neglect preaching the gospel to small-towns, almost the entire state of South Dakota would be unevangelized.

I come from the conservative LCMS which has strong Midwestern roots. Griggs is not Lutheran and comes from the coast. This accounts for a radically different experience as it pertains to church leadership. Griggs’ repeatedly states that small-towns are neglected on account of churches adopting a “trickle-down economics” mindset to ministry (see pages 22, 28, 48, 59, 78, etc). The thought process goes like this, “If we can influence the cities, the small-towns will follow.” He rightly criticizes this attitude as unfaithful to God’s Word. I’m proud to say that I don’t see this attitude anywhere in the LCMS.

Another thing that Griggs addresses is the way that ambition impedes our intentional gospel reach into small towns. He writes, “Many of our biggest objections to doing the right things come, not out of biblical misinterpretation, but out of looking out for our own personal interests. Because this way of thinking is so detrimental, let me be frank with you, you should go and repent” (p. 85–86). Confronted with such a clear application of the law, the reader can either (a) repent, or (b) try to justify themselves. I’d recommend repentance.

The last half of the book is about the practical insights of planting churches in small-towns. Some of the insights are simple things like, “Don’t be a jerk when you order food at a local restaurant” or “buy local.” Some of his other insights are deeper, such as, “Don’t ever talk bad about other churches.” or “Don’t seek out people who are at other churches who may be disgruntled and try to get them to join you” (p. 136). The most insightful advice I gleaned was his warning against a “Copy + Paste” approach to ministry. You can’t just copy and paste what one successful church is doing and expect identical results. Such an approach ignores contextualization, and more importantly, the truth that it is the Holy Spirit “who effect faith where and when it pleases God” (Augsburg Confession, Article V.2)

Some of his suggestions will have Lutherans reticent to adopt them without careful consideration. He gives advice about how a church plant should choose its name. It should resonate with the local context. Thus, the church he planted on the coast of North Carolina is called “One Harbor Church” which sounds appropriately contextual. Faithful Lutherans will disagree on the extent to which this advice should be followed. For example, on one hand, you have Bridge City Community in Chattanooga, TN, which resonates with the local context of Chattanooga given the prominence of the Walnut Street Bridge. On the other hand, you have St. Silas Lutheran Church, in North Liberty, Iowa, which does not draw its name from the local context, but instead adopted the historic practice of naming the congregation after a saint. Both practices have their merits, and I repeat, faithful Lutherans will cordially disagree on which method is best to adopt.

This book reads like another typical book that has been heavily influenced by the church-growth folks, except for the fact that it focuses on small-towns rather than large cities. I say that because this book does not offer encouragement to the man faithfully serving thirty people on a Sunday. This book speaks about potential, but never engages or encourages the reader whose church may remain small. Instead it focuses on what God can do with little (e.g., creation, feeding of the five thousand).

The book is not theologically uninformed, but it cannot hold a candle to the theological depth exhibited in Brad Roth’s commendable book God’s Country, for which Donnie Griggs wrote a promotional blurb that appears on the front page of the book.

There are two features of Small Town Jesus that are pet-peeves of mine that I must acknowledge. First, the word “Bible” is left uncapitalized throughout the book. As a former copy-editor for Concordia Seminary’s Graduate School, this drove me crazy. The word Bible is always capitalized when it refers to Scripture (according to every writer’s manual ever written). It is only left lowercase when used analogously, such as “This new book is certain to become the culinary world’s bible on French Cooking.” Second, there were no footnotes. Quotes, other than biblical citations (‘biblical’ is lowercase here because it’s used adjectively), are cited without reference to their source.

I appreciated Griggs’s love and zeal for small-towns. His practical advice is good for any pastor in any context (church planting, small-town, large city, etc). I’m grateful that he avoided harping on established churches in small towns for “doing it wrong.” He never makes that accusation. For those readers who are members of the LCMS, this book will feel more “church-growthy”  than theologically structured. I’d recommend Brad Roth’s book God’s Country and Glenn Daman’s book The Forgotten Church for those interested in books on rural ministry before I’d recommend this one, but with that said, at 168 double-spaced pages, it is a super quick read and not without value.

Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.

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