I admit to some ambivalence when I received Shannon O’Dell’s book, Transforming Church in Rural America: Breaking All The Rurals. I write for small church pastors and leaders, and one of the themes I keep hitting is “small churches don’t have to be big to do meaningful ministry.”
Then I got my copy of Shannon’s book — the story of how a small church became a multi-site megachurch….in a rural county….in Arkansas. The dream of many small church pastors is to take their small rural church, and turn it into a multi-site, mega-congregation reaching thousands.
But even though I keep fighting against the perception that every small church must become a big church, it does happen, and that’s a good thing when it does. Shannon’s book tells us how he and his team did it, and about the life-transforming ministry now called Brand New Church.
The story is incredible, inspiring, and instructive. Shannon deals with the big issues in changing small church life — vision, attitude, leadership, understanding, and excellence. In each of these “value” issues, Shannon tells the story of what he learned, how he applied new insights in his ministry, and what results were produced.
The book opens with Shannon’s own struggle with his call, and then his frustration with ministry in a small, rural church. I identified with his description of the pastor’s office in his rural church:
“The carpet and the paneled walls were decades old and worn; the computer, the desk, and the chair were dinosaurs in their own right. The bookshelves were full of old hymnals, old church training material, dusty cassette tapes of messages from previous pastors, and VBS material…..This was my “new” office. This is where it would all start.” - pg. 29-30
We hauled off a pickup truckload of stuff like that from my office when I came to Chatham six years ago. However, I quickly got a new office (with new computers) not long after I became pastor. Church leaders here were just waiting for a new pastor so he could help design the new office personally. Not every small church is stuck in the past.
Shannon describes the frustrations of small church ministry when he talks about “sacred cows” which are found in more places than India. He offers helpful hints for any rural pastor, large or small with his “Four New Rules About Rural” –
- Small doesn’t have to mean boring.
- Rural doesn’t have to mean a lack of innovation.
- Excellence is not found in the detail or design of a building.
- Success is not found in the building’s size. - pg. 144
That’s good advice for any pastor, no matter what size or age the congregation is. Shannon also speaks honestly about his own mistakes and misconceptions. “I had always equated big ministry with big buildings. If God had given us that right off the bat through our first planned building project, I don’t think we ever would have discovered what he really wanted us to do.” - pg. 153
However, one word of caution to this incredible story. Shannon O’Dell’s drive, vision, and passion have transitioned a sleepy, hide-bound old country church into a rural church phenomenon. Shannon carefully navigated the waters of change and conflict at his church, but not without some battles and scars. Be careful how you apply Shannon’s story to your own ministry. More often than I care to admit, small church pastors who push for “too much change, too fast” discover the only thing that changed was their place of employment.
But even with that caveat, the story of Brand New Church inspires and challenges all of us in small churches. In my opinion, the only thing worse than failing is not trying at all. In Shannon’s words, “LEADERSHIP IS….resisting the urge to SETTLE.”
My take-away from Shannon’s book is to discern God’s vision for your church and its ministry, then do all you can to bring that vision into reality. Whether your church becomes a multi-site megachurch or not, following God’s guidance is the measure of faithfulness for any congregation and its leaders.
You can get a chance for a free copy of Shannon’s book by 1) leaving a comment on this blog post; and 2) filling out the form here (http://tinyurl.com/ruralchurchbk) so they’ll know where to send your book. The publisher will select winners and mail out free copies. (Normally, I don’t promote stuff like this, but you might win a free book, so go for it.)
Disclaimer: I received a complimentary review copy of the book from the publisher New Leaf Press.
Update: I just learned that Matt Svoboda won the free copy. Congrats, Matt!