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Book Review: Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell


What do you think of when you think about the rural church (if anything)?

Outdated methodology? Gradually decaying buildings? Rapidly aging congregations? Ineffective in reaching people for Christ?

This list might seem harsh, but more often than not, this is what many of us think of when we consider the rural church. And the reality is that it’s sadly true. Without a powerful revitalization of rural congregations, thousands of churches won’t make it through the next decade.

Shannon O’Dell, pastor of Brand New Church, believes that revitalization is possible—that the rural church can actually be an incredibly effective instrument for advancing the Kingdom of God. And in Transforming Church in Rural America, O’Dell shares this vision as he recounts how God did it in his own church.

O’Dell never wanted to be a rural pastor. His dreams were to pastor a big urban church, with a big urban congregation, budget and building. He didn’t want to be stuck in the sticks. But God called him there, to a small church of 31 people. In the years since he arrived, he’s seen people at their worst as he tipped a few sacred cows and at their best as God matured the men and women of this church for His glory.

When I read the first few pages, I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to get. So I was quite pleased to find that the principles that O’Dell shares ultimately all center around the same thing: Making disciples.

“[The church grows] congregants rather than a congregation,” O’Dell writes (p. 105). “We build people, not organizations. If we build organizations, we will end up with buildings and programs that serve only themselves.”

And O’Dell understands that it’s only through the preaching and teaching of the Bible that this really happens. “A lot of churches might have the look or feel of BNC; it’s the conservative BIble teaching that is causing the transformation.” (p. 130)

That was so refreshing to read, especially in a day when you still hear and read how you can’t grow a church by preaching the Bible (despite the fact that a large number of the fastest growing churches and planting networks are the most conservative and steadfast in their commitment to this). But if you’re going to lead people, your vision has to be from the Scriptures. If you’re going to shape people’s character, it must be conformed to Christ’s (as described in the Scriptures). If you want to see people’s lives changed, it will happen through the words of Scripture (and by the power of the Holy Spirit).

I am so thankful that O’Dell gets this and is passionate about seeing people become equally passionate followers of Christ.

The leadership principles that O’Dell shares in this book are also incredibly helpful—not just for the church but for every sphere. Leaders need to first and foremost live it out in their marriages; if you can’t lead at home, you can’t lead anywhere else. Additionally, I can’t agree enough with his assertion on the futility of leadership via committee (in that, there is none because nothing happens). Deliberating has it’s place, but, ultimately, decisions don’t get made by a committee—because committees aren’t built to “ship” (to borrow a Godin-ism). They’re built to maintain the status quo.

If there is one thing that just strikes me as bizarre it’s the concept of the iCampus, people participating in the worship service via a virtual “campus” (website). Because the rationale behind the concept isn’t terribly fleshed out (it’s really only mentioned on the peripheral of the multi-site discussion in chapter 9), I’m not sure if the format could, with integrity, be considered a legitimate expression of the church. It’s definitely a great idea to allow people to engage, but how do things like accountability, discipleship, service and pastoral care work in such a scenario?

In some ways, Transforming Church in Rural America reminds me of Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev—specifically in that it serves to provide insights and guidance in how to revitalize the rural church while at the same time recounting O’Dell & Brand New Church’s journey from a dying congregation to a multi-campus church with several thousand members that has national and global impact.

Reading how God transformed O’Dell’s church was powerful—especially since at the time I was reading the book, I had just been wrapping up a two-week preaching stint at a small rural church near London, Ontario. That experience made O’Dell’s content really resonate. It’s tragic to see a church without a shepherd to lead, without a vision to pursue and with (seemingly) diminished passion for seeing others come to know and trust in Christ. O’Dell’s insights helped to inform my prayers and even seeped into the messages I preached.

I want to see the rural church in America (and Canada) used mightily to impact their communities, the surrounding area, the country and the world. I believe it can happen. And I’m thankful for the vision that Shannon O’Dell shares in Transforming Church in Rural America. Read the book and see the potential for the rural church.

Title: Transforming Church in Rural America
Author: Shannon O’Dell
Publisher: New Leaf Press (2010)

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