September 13, 2023 -- Dennis Rew
Growing up in Philadelphia, I would think of the endless possibilities of gospel influence that lay before me in a city of 1.5 million people! "Just think of the impact I can have with all these people being here,” I told myself. "After college, I'm coming back here to plant a church. The bigger the place, the bigger the impact.”
Well, God had other plans. I did not come back home to plant a church. However, I did end up in another large city on the opposite side of the state, Pittsburgh. "It's not as big as Philly, but it's still big enough to have an impactful ministry,” I thought.
The Lord graciously allowed us to serve in Pittsburgh for 12 years, but then God began directing us to one of the least populated counties of Pennsylvania.
Lord, seriously?! There were 60,000 people in my 2.4 square miles of zip code growing up. Now there are 40,000 people in the entire county! My wife and I knew that God was opening the door to serve at this church, but I had to wrestle with my dreams of making an impact on lots of people.
God had actually been working in me for a few years leading up to this moment. He had been tearing down the idol of pastoral ministry (a topic for another day) and the idol of making an impact. Was I willing to sacrifice my desires for what He wanted me to do? Sounds like a crazy question for an experienced pastor to be asking, doesn't it? Yet, that's exactly the question I knew God was asking me. In the Fall of 2018, my wife and three girls packed up our stuff and left the city. I'd be lying if I said that we never had moments of "What did we just do?” It was a transition for sure!
Slowly, we began to get our footing in the ministries of the church and in the community. In a bigger city, with so many activities and options to engage with, it can be a challenge to figure out where to even start. However, in our small town, options are few, so we did not need to look very hard. There are only a few restaurants in our town, one coffee shop, and a Walmart (Side story – An unsaved friend in Pittsburgh asked us why we were moving to such a remote area. She asked us what was there? We replied, "Well, there's a Walmart.” Her response, "It must be the world's greatest Walmart!” It became a joke between us).
However, as I walked into Walmart this morning and saw a handful of people I knew, it was as if God was reminding me that I can be just as much (if not more) of a gospel influence in this rural county than in a big city. Here are two simple reasons why:
Fewer people. Yes, that sounds backwards, but what I've discovered is that in a small town, you see the same people repeatedly. Yes, it's true that being in a small town can feel like living in a bubble where everyone knows you're the new pastor in the area even though you haven't told them personally. However, you have repeated interactions with the same people multiple times per week. A trip to Walmart can turn into a counseling time! In a big city, people are everywhere, and they are often in a rush and don't really care about some guy they've never seen before, even if he is a pastor. In a small community, repeated interactions breed familiarity, and it begins to open up opportunities.
Limited capacity. We only have so much capacity to minister to people. Jesus poured into 12 guys (and a few women). Sure, he traveled and preached to the crowds, but he spent much of his time invested in a few disciples. The idea of making an impact on the multitudes sounds appealing on the surface, but it's probably not the reality for most of us. Maybe that's why most churches in America are under 100 people. We will have more influence going deeper in relationships with a few than having shallow relationships with many. We aren't Jesus, and even he was limited in his earthly capacity in discipling people.
Throughout Jesus' ministry, he ministered in cities and small towns. In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman from the town of Sychar. After her encounter with Jesus, the woman goes into town (vs 28) and begins to tell everyone in the town what had happened. Verse 29 is amazing to me and tells us that this woman had enough of a relationship and influence on the people in this town that "they went out of the town” and came to Jesus, and "many from that town believed in him.” (vs 39). God used a small-town woman to influence many with the gospel.
I've been in our small town now for almost 5 years. I've made it a point to talk to neighbors, visit the library, join the small YMCA, sit in the coffee shop once a week, and participate in community events. You'll notice this is all everyday life stuff. It's been amazing to see how God has built relationships and opened doors of gospel influence in these 5 years. My wife and I have commented that even though we're still "outsiders” to many in the area, we have come to know and love a lot of people both within our church and community. By God's grace, I have come to realize that the bigger the place, the bigger the impact is neither biblical nor true. In some ways, rural ministry can provide a greater opportunity for gospel influence than urban ministry.
Dennis grew up in Philadelphia. After graduating from seminary, he served as an Associate Pastor and Church Planter in Pittsburgh, PA. Following a brief stint in the banking and commercial real estate industries, Dennis accepted the position of Associate Pastor of Family Life at Covington Baptist in Covington, PA. Dennis has been married to Valerie since 2004 and God has blessed them with three wonderful daughters. As a family, their desire is that Jesus would be on display through them as they serve in Tioga County, PA.