Review: Transforming Church in Rural America


Although we all admire the preachers for the large and exciting churches around the world, most of us will never wear their shoes. Most preachers will find themselves in a church with less than 100 in attendance, wearing many hats, struggling to help the church grow, and wondering if this is the dream to which God has really called us. Many of those churches will be located in rural areas of the country in towns and communities that are relatively small. Is there such a thing as building a growing, dynamic, and vibrant church with so many challenges? Apparently, there is. And Shannon O’Dell has not only lived it, he has written a book about it.

O’Dell, Pastor of Brand New Church (a relatively new name for a Southern Baptist church in the rural countryside near Harrison, Arkansas) chronicles his move from a mega church in Oklahoma City to the barely surviving Southside Baptist with 11 people in the choir and 26 people in the congregation. The only technology employed by the church was two microphones and a tape recorder. Things did not stay the same, though, as the passionate and driven O’Dell began to pursue a vision for a great church.

There are so many great stories in this book that illustrate life in a small rural church and the many ‘sacred cows’ that exist. I love the dear sister who was unsure about having a coffee maker in the fellowship room with the word “Bunn” on it. There were also many long committee meetings about where to place a certain breaker box, a disagreement about a new volleyball court because it would have to be built over some dirt that had been donated in someone’s memory, and a reluctance to build adequate bathrooms because they would block a few stained glass panels. Those of us who have been in church business meetings are very familiar with these types of discussions.

Not so humorous are the growing pains O’Dell experienced as he learned some difficult lessons of church leadership. One of those is one I have learned more than once (or I suppose haven’t learned!) is that not everyone who agrees with you to your face is being truthful. And some of those who proclaim to be your friend, are really your enemy if you tread on sacred ground. O’Dell writes:

I began to realize that they hired me thinking they wanted change, but they really didn’t. They wanted to be engaged to change and stay married to their traditions…. I began to realize that many struggling rural churches don’t want a real pastor to lead them; they just want a pacifier to nurse them through the years….Everyone likes change – except when it makes things different.

The chapter on Sacred Cows and Slaughtering of the Status Quo should be read by every new minister going into the field. In fact, this would be a great book to give a new minister. It is full of the stuff you never learn in Bible College or Seminary. But I think it’s a book that people other than ministers need to read. Everyone who is in a position of leadership or desires to see the church roar ahead into our contemporary time should read this book. I hate to give away the end of the story, but I will say that O’Dell’s Brand New Church is today a multi-campus church with an international satellite outreach that uses the greatest of today’s technology to reach into rural areas around the world. To find out how he got there, you’ll have to read.

I want to say that the chapter called Leadership: Resisting the Urge to Settle is the meat of this book. The rest is the story and tons of great observation, but this chapter is the richest and most valuable in my opinion.

In an attempt at balance, I will say that I did not agree with everything in the book. You may, of course, disagree with my disagreements. But just a few of them to note:

– I think O’Dell emphasized his calling to the country church a little too strongly – and intimated that every pastor should have that same certainty. While I do not accuse him of stretching the truth at all, I think most of us struggle to clearly know exactly what God wants us to do. I’m more of the mind that we should be faithful in all we do. I am not of the opinion that God has one place he wants us to be, and if we aren’t there we are not following our calling.

– My understanding of church structure is different than O’Dell, although I think hisshannon-close-hi understanding is common in the Baptist (and perhaps other) denomination. He does recognize and address the dangers of having one Pastor leading the church. But I think the New Testament clearly teaches that the elders of the church feed and lead, and that there is no reference to one Pastor doing all the leading. He is clear that he is THE leader of BNC and is a bishop over the multi-sites. I would reject this as a Biblical structure.

Shannon O’Dell is not the typical young postmodern mega church teacher today. Although I’ve never met him, I have the impression after reading his book that he is a bit kooky. Not loony kooky, but lovable kooky. You know the sort, the ones who come up with the off-the-wall ideas that no one thinks will work – but then they do. I mean, this is the only church growth / evangelism book I’ve ever read that suggests (not once but twice) that it is important that the church smells good when people come in. I love that! He isn’t afraid to tear down a wall or chase his dreams. I would guess that when he leads a planning meeting everyone buckles their seatbelts because they never know where he’s going next. I mean, anyone who would link up satellite via a decked out red hummer so he could hummer-hi reach the world has to be quite a dreamer don’t you think?

If you want to recharge your faith and get back to dreaming about where your church can go … and what God can do … I believe you ought to read this book. I’m glad I did.

Transforming Church in Rural America by Shannon O’Dell was released through New Leaf Press in March of 2010. Win a free copy of Transforming Church in Rural America! Leave a comment and sign up here. One in every 10 comments will win.

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Thanks for reading! And Thanks to New Leaf Books for letting me be a part of the blog tour. You can read other reviews of O’Dell’s book HERE. I purposefully didn’t read any others before I wrote mine. They are all probably much better quality!


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