I accepted a review copy of Shannon O’Dell’s Transforming Church in Rural America somewhat disingenuously. I fully expected not to like the book at all, but I didn’t say that to the New Leaf Press rep who asked if I’d be interested in it. Because I was interested in it; I just figured I’d hate it. With a subtitle like “Breaking All the Rurals,” I was anticipating yet another implicitly condescending plan for transplanting megachurchianity into small, rural churches.
To be fair to myself, there is actually a touch of that in this book. But to be fair to O’Dell, it is clear that his ministry and this literary product of it are based on a love for reaching the lost and a heart for rural communities and the small churches in them. So many outside the rurals — and a few inside — think of pastoring a small church as something you do on your way in or out of ministry, like it’s the 3rd World of pastoral ministry, only not as “sexy” as mission to the real 3rd World. To his great credit — and to the great strength of his book — Shannon O’Dell is not one of these.
In the very first chapter, he challenges assumptions and rebukes condescension about small churches in rural areas, even laying out a biblical case for the primacy of “the wilderness” in Scripture, which is something virtually unheard of in today’s missional conversation. Then late in the book, O’Dell writes this:
The emergence of the mega-church in the last two decades hasn’t helped us come up with the biblical definition of success either. The stats say that 61 percent of churchgoing Americans attend churches running 60 or less. And yet we look at the churches that have grown into the thousands and think that’s the standard and should be the norm . . . We have got to break the “bigger is better” rule. I had gotten sucked into that mentality before God started breaking the rules I had about the rural church. Here is what I believe now: the smaller they are, the healthier they are, because that’s where God likes to work. God works in obscurity. If you are sitting back and saying to yourself, “I want to have great numbers and great facilities,” you are missing it.
This is a consistent resound throughout the book.
The further strength of Transforming Church in Rural America lies in O’Dell’s challenge to the professionalization of the pastorate. He knows that the ministry architect behind the scenes is not a form of shepherding that will cut it in the rural environment, so he is honest that pastors in rural areas who want to see spiritual growth (and conversion growth) in their churches will have to have vibrant prayer lives and visible presence in the daily lives of their flocks. There is plenty of humor in the book, jokes about Wal-Mart and Nascar and the like, and also plenty of sarcasm about sacred cows in old churches (pews and organs and that typical “old church” smell), but his heart for his community is everywhere in the book.
In all, I enjoyed very much the first, say, 80% of the book. It reminded me a lot of Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev, which is a very meaningful book to me, an important part of my past ministry life. When O’Dell was engaging me most, he was telling the story about how he led the revitalization of a little country church, much the same way Driscoll’s story of Mars Hill’s early days really resonated with this (at the time) struggling church planter.
My only problems with the book crept up in the last 20%, in which I believe O’Dell goes off the script of his story and off the script of the biblical vision for mission. The old script for the church growth movement shows up. To his credit, he does not use “excellence” and “vision” in the exact same way as everyone else has been using it since the late 80’s, but it comes quite close. I am predisposed not to care for “Internet campuses” and the like, and while I’m a tweeter, blogger, and Facebooker, the sections on converting one’s senior citizens into tech-savvy text-messagers just seemed weird. It seems a skoshe schizophrenic in places.
While O’Dell consistently says we should value small churches in small communities for the unique subcultures they are, and that bigger isn’t better, he apparently sees no discord in defining excellence in terms of lights, creative sets, and satellite feeds. When it comes to a vision for church growth in the rural areas, it is apparently great to love a church right where they are but better to get them to look more like a church in the city. The value of transforming a small rural church to look sort of like a mini-LifeChurch.tv is just sort of assumed. (That’s what’s defined as “excellence.”)
For my part, I think creativity and technology are great, even in churches, but this is just where my tracking with O’Dell’s love for his church stopped. I believe what the book assumes is a classic mistake of priority: the pastor’s vision becomes the vision of the church and the mission of the church serves that vision. But the Scriptural priority, I think, is God’s mission, which precedes time and will outlast us. My job as a pastor is to tailor my vision to God’s mission. The way of the church growth movement leads to lots of involvement and volunteerism in the church; the old/new way leads to lots of involvement and witness in the community. (One would hope.)
Still, despite those quibbles, O’Dell’s book is solid, sensitive, and surprising. Honestly, if you’re interested in ministry and mission in “the rurals,” I can’t think of a book I’d recommend more highly. But, then, I can’t really think of any other books along this line anyway. So in that regard, Transforming the Church in Rural America gets to set the bar, and thankfully it sets it reasonably high.
You can read the Intro and first three chapters of this book here.
Also: You can win a copy of this book. New Leaf Press is giving away one copy of O’Dell’s book for every ten comments. This isn’t a highly commented blog, so your odds are good. Simply leave a comment relevant to the post, then go fill out this form.
This book was provided to me free of charge by New Leaf Press in exchange for my blogged review on this date. I was neither asked to nor obligated to provide a positive review.
UPDATE: New Leaf Press tells me they have picked two winners: Chris Heck & Jamie Bickel. They will mail your books this week, friends.