New Leaf Press
Most books on rural ministry take a similar direction. Take things slowly. Get to know the people you are serving. Make changes gradually as you lead your rural congregation toward institutional and spiritual transformation. Shannon O’Dell takes a different approach. In Transforming Church in Rural America, O’Dell advocates swift changes and a passion for applying church growth principles to small churches in small towns. With a missionary heart, he shares his belief that too many small churches and their leaders have settled for small visions and small expectations. O’Dell then lays out a roadmap of how to get the rural church unstuck and to “break all the rurals.”
Transforming Church in Rural America begins by sharing O’Dell’s personal journey of ministry. As a matter of fact, the whole book is really based on his ministry story. O’Dell was a well-paid suburban youth minister, and very successful in that context. After years of being a youth pastor, he felt led to become a lead pastor, thinking he would find a well-attended church of high reputation somewhat like the congregation he had been serving. Through a series of circumstances, O’Dell was called to serve as a pastor of a small church in rural Arkansas. Almost immediately the church multiplied in attendance. Within a few years, the congregation began to have a second site. Today it is a multi-site church laying claim to a large extent of the region near where it is located.
Much of the strengths and the weaknesses of Shannon O’Dell’s book have to do with his perspective of rural America after serving in a suburban church. When O’Dell comes to rural Arkansas, he brings a passion for quality ministry that he experienced in previous ministry settings. This serves him well. O’Dell also approaches his new ministry setting with the heart of a missionary, eager to understand the setting he is serving in and to reach the people in that setting for Christ on their terms. One example of this is a cultural understanding of what it is like for a rural pastor and family to live in a setting where they are always watched and evaluated. He says, “A red-hot marriage and a functional family are the most evangelistic tool in rural America” (p. 90). As I pastor in rural America I hear the wisdom in O’Dell’s observations like this one.
The challenge of O’Dell’s book is that it is exclusively drawn from his experience and based completely on his context of ministry. That is not entirely a bad thing. At times, though, it sounds like O’Dell is arguing for a “one-size fits all” approach to rural ministry. The author seems to imply at times that if everyone did things exactly like he did things that they would all have similar results. This is especially the case in the last few chapters of the book, where Transforming Church in Rural America advocates for the multi-site church model of church growth in rural America.
This book might not be the best primer for everyone who is about to enter rural ministry, but it will work well for some. Transforming Church in Rural America is a good blueprint for some entering rural ministry, especially in churches where a need for change and growth is readily acknowledged. Even better, I think this book may be excellent for leadership boards in small churches in small towns. It can spark conversation, and unexpected growth in the congregation and the minister. – Clint Walker, www.ChristianBookPreviews.com
Small church buildings dotting the countryside are home to ministries that often struggle with limited attendance, no money, and little expectation that change can revitalize their future. In Transforming Church in Rural America, Pastor Shannon O’Dell shares a powerful vision of relevance, possibility, and excellence for these small churches, or for any ministry that is stuck in a “rural state of mind.”