The Old Country Church: A Review of “Transforming Church in Rural America”

Misconceptions about rural churches and pastoral ministry abound.  Young pastors rarely seek out ministry opportunities in the country unless they are looking for a stepping stone to something bigger and better.

Shannon O’Dell breaks this mold and writes about it in Transforming Church in Rural America: Breaking All the Rurals. Though doubtful at first, he left the staff of a large, established suburban church following the call of God to a small congregation in South Lead Hill Arkansas, population 88 (the city, not the church!).

Through the early chapters, O’Dell recounts, often humorously, the early challenges of ministering in a country church.  Easily recognizable to any rural pastor, these people and experiences helped to fashion and establish his leadership and pastoral direction.

The central portion of the book is dedicated to the core V.A.L.U.E. that developed in Pastor O’Dell’s philosophy of ministry.  Vision – Attitude – Leadership – Understanding – Enduring Excellence.  He closes the book with a challenge to other rural congregations to see beyond the limits that have been self-imposed over the years – to change their concept of success and the boundaries of it.

My first impression of this book was less than enthusiastic.   As I began reading the story of his church’s transformation, my cynicism began to grow.  My thought was, “Great.  Another book on how ‘bigger is better,’ and how if you do it like we do it, you’ll be a ‘success’ as a church.” As a rural pastor, I’ve heard enough such typical church growth tripe from conferences, lectures, books, etc.  This mentality does not suit well with my personal philosophy of ministry.

Before I finished, my perception had changed completely. Let me say it clearly:  This book is not that AT ALL.  The author is emphatic that God’s work and vision for one church is NOT the same for another.  By the time I reached the final section of the book, he was speaking my language.

Though at times the author seems tainted by residual big church mentality, and while obviously not adverse to a growing church (his congregation is in the thousands), he clearly states:

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.
p. 168-69

The ultimate message of this book is not “I’ve got all the answers,” and “if you’re doing it right you’ll have a mega-church in the wilderness.” It is a much-needed challenge to ignore man’s expectations of what a “successful” church is (even if that includes numbers), as well as man’s restrictions on what a country church can be.  The nuanced balance of this thinking is refreshing. I also loved the fact that he is apparently content to remain where he is as long as the Lord allows.

Those involved in rural ministry will relate well to the engaging account of O’Dell’s early ministry.  The VALUE portion presents nothing new, but is solid and valuable leadership material. The section where O’Dell is at his best is the final challenge to other rural churches to quit focusing on numbers AND the limits that that have traditionally been imposed.

I hope those involved in rural ministry will be encouraged by this book.  It would also be helpful for those involved in the training of pastors to consider the message of it. Cities must be reached but not to the neglect of an important mission field. The author is correct when he states that rural ministry should be approached with a missionary mindset.

Many rural churches may be dying, but that does not mean the Rural Church is dead.  Don’t be bound by man-written “rules!” Allow God to write the story of the old country church.

*A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher through BookSneeze.

2 thoughts on “The Old Country Church: A Review of “Transforming Church in Rural America”

  1. Mike Collins says:

    I’m on my second reading of the book, and it is very helpful as you indicated. I am pastoring a church in rural Southern Indiana, in a town of 4500. The church AWA is 50, and the average age is 65+. In the midst of that group, we will often have 8-10 teens.

    My struggle that the book really does not address is finding time/balance as a bi-vocational pastor. I see guys posting pictures of where they are working on their teachings, along with comments like “this beautiful lake side cabin is where I spent my morning in prayer and preparation” – really? I have to work 45 hours a week, and then find time for kids (and their homework, sports, etc), a wife, church meetings, and sermon prep which usually happens after everyone has went to bed. Discussing that challenge would have been REALLY helpful, as I suspect nearly any pastor in rural church works outside of the church.

    But on a positive note, the VALUE discussion in the book was excellent.

    Any thoughts on life as a bi-vocational pastor would be welcome!



    1. Nephos says:

      Thanks for your input here!

      Bi-vo pastors are among my heroes. I know the busyness of pastoring, and for those, like yourself, to carry that burden in addition to a full work-load is amazing. I would be hesitant to be so presumptuous as to offer any time-management advice.

      From my time serving as a bi-vo staff member, I know that while the time available for ministry is less, the expectations (those of the congregation and mine own) are often the same. Living under those expectations can be frustrating, and ignoring them is easier said than done (and can be perilous at times!).

      Perhaps some of my readers (I know you’re lurking and reading!) can share some insight or resources for bi-vocational ministry.

      God bless you for your faithful service, Mike.

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