I grew up in a rural church. Not to stereotype (as I have been blessed to be a part of others that are the opposite), but it was your “typical” rural church. The average age of those attending was over 65. My sister and I were the only children in Sunday School when they bothered to have it until I was in high school. At that time, we were basically the only ones in the youth group too. In fact, within that denomination in the area, we had to join with three other churches to have a youth group at all. The building was falling apart slowly. As members died off, there was no one to take their place. My parents ended up serving on nearly every committee as they needed people. The congregation was steeped in tradition and by golly, if you deviated from it, you paid for your transgression. Even as a younger child, I felt that there was something missing, that there should have been more to going to church than going, sitting in the same pew, singing the old hymns (I’m not against hymns, please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me), following the same pattern and traditions that had been in place since the 1800’s (yes, that tiny rural church opened in the late 1800’s). It was stale and missing life. Don’t get me wrong, the people there adopted my sister and me like extra grandchildren, and I was blessed to have been able to be around them like that.
After I grew up, I moved away and had a totally different church experience. It was a complete opposite of what I had grown up with. I ended up attending two different churches in college. One was a “mega” church with a variety of music, and tons, and I mean tons of people. After that year, I found a church that needed help in their children’s ministry and attended there. They were smaller, but the minister there was very dynamic. He could preach relevant sermons, the music while not as “modern” as the other church I attended, was still not strictly one kind. And they reached out to people. The church had a heart for reaching out and taking care of the college students who came, and any other visitor, the adults went on missions trips yearly and they did whatever they needed to be the church. The youth group was active and there were tons of children. The difference was night and day for me. I saw first hand a church that cared and was shocked by the difference.
I recently had the opportunity to select Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell to review. I was curious to see what he had to say about the rural church after having grown up in one. When I chose it, I was expecting a book on how to run things like the larger churches in big metropolitan areas. I was very glad to see that I was totally wrong. After reading it, I was filled with hope for the rural American church.
Pastor O’Dell used to be a pastor at one of those really large churches. The kind with more staff than fingers on your hand, and if you sat in a different place in the auditorium each week, you would be seeing people you may have never known were members before. After being on staff there for years, he started to be called to the rural church. Mind you, that call wasn’t an easy one to accept. God was asking him to go from a big church and being known to a tiny rural church pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Can we say culture shock? After fighting God for quite a while, he finally bowed to the will of God and accepted the position. The first part of the book Transforming Church in Rural America is about how he got the call and how he fought it for a long time at first. It was a good introduction into his background and how he got to the rural church. Then, he went through the steps it took to turn a tiny, dirt poor, steeped in tradition, struggling church and has turned it into a church that is reaching out, has multiplied it’s members over and over again, started satellite campuses and is reaching out across the world thanks to the wonders of modern technology.
Transformation happens when you have vision, attitude, leadership, understanding and enduring excellence. These things are cultivated when the pastor has a vision of what the church can be and pursues it relentlessly. Which is a very hard task in any church, but more so in the rural areas. Having a vision and changing is a very hard process. It may mean that you totally need to restructure the church (a lot of churches aren’t being run on a biblical model. The church isn’t a democracy), give up pet projects that aren’t really doing anything and eliminating committees. However, when a church truly seeks to follow after God and do what He commands, the results are far beyond what one could ever dream of. In order to follow through on the vision, it is crucial that there is Godly leadership willing to do whatever it takes to follow through. I can’t tell you it all, or you won’t read the book 🙂
This book also talks about what a blessing the use of technology is and should be to the rural church. Today we can do things that even when I was younger (and believe me, I’m not that old yet), we had never dreamed of being able to do. Now, we can be in contact with missionaries all over the world via the internet. We can send out prayer requests instantly with email, text messaging and using social media. The church needs to find ways to use the communication of the era to reach those who are lost and hurting.
This book, while aimed at the rural church and how it can be transformed, can be used in any church setting. I recommend this book to all pastor’s, staff and leaders in all churches. The ideas can be implemented in any location, and it is a good reminder for the more urban and larger churches, that maybe they should come alongside and help their sisters in the rural areas. We are ALL ONE church. Let’s all roll up our sleeves to get the work done and do what the Lord commands. The rural church needs to rethink some things. But then, so do we all.
There is still hope for the rural church.
I was given a copy of Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell from Book Sneeze for the purposes of this review. All opinions are mine and mine alone. No other compensation was received