Do you pastor a church in Rural America? One book you could read is Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell. I have always had a passion and a heart for rural churches and have previously pastored two rural churches. So when I received O’Dell’s book from Booksneeze to review, my first thought was, “Finally! A book for the rest of us!” It seems most books on church health focus on the big and popular churches, forgetting that about 90% of American churches have 100 people or less. Rural pastors and rural churches have to define “success” in a different way that metropolis mega-churches. I was hoping that O’Dell’s book would be a step in that direction.
And was it? Well…kind of. He still emphasized the importance of numerical growth. It didn’t take him long to point out that even rural churches can go from 50 people to over 2000 if they just follow a few simple steps like he did (pp. 17-18). Sigh.
For the most part, Transforming Church in Rural America is just another book touting the mega-church mentality, but repackaged for a rural setting. It was kind of confusing, however, because later in the book he stated that smaller churches tend to be healthier churches, and God loves to work in obscurity (p. 168). But two pages later, he goes back to talking about numbers, and a bit later, how his church reached over 24,000 people in 110 days. So…is smaller actually better or not?
Having said that, it’s still a good book to help rural pastors overcome some of the unique challenges they may face, such as bringing about change, the importance of family, and hiring staff from the inside.
The best part of the book is pages 80-84, where I believe he touches on the dire need of all churches worldwide, not just in the sticks, but also in cities. He says this:
Flat out, I want as many homosexuals, drug addicts, divorcees, and alcoholics as possible darkening the doors of Brand New Church, because those people want and need change. I want to associate with everything that is disassociated with the church in rural America, because I know that is when God shows up. I want to see the pregnant 17-year-old who was kicked out of her Christian school attend worship. I want the guys whose pickups rattle with the sound of empty beer cans to come one Sunday and decide to stay. I want the woman who has been going from bed to bed trying to find true love to attend and learn about the authentic love God has for her. Because when they show up, God shows up to impact their lives.
So true. Of course, even here, the numbers game has reared it’s ugly head. I would argue that it is not about getting people like this to show up at our church, but rather, getting the members of our church to show up in the lives of people like this. Who cares if they ever “come to church”? What I want is the church to go to them. O’Dell kind of says something along these lines on p. 84:
…Please understand: it is really not about the ten families that have been there forever. It is about the families that will never experience a relevant gospel and never meet the living God unless someone with vision shows up and starts preaching the gospel with their words and their life. Yeah, most rural churches say they want to grow, and they think they want to grow, but they really don’t. They don’t want a real pastor — a true and dedicated shepherd to lead them into new fields of harvest — they want somebody to pacify them, tell them what they already know, and keep things the way they are.
So over all, even though Shannon O’Dell has simply tweaked the mega-church mentality for a rural setting, the book contains many good things that will be helpful for any pastor in a rural church. I recommend this book.