Shannon O’Dell Is Breaking All The “Rurals”

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 ( 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!

17 thoughts on “Shannon O’Dell Is Breaking All The “Rurals””

  1. I believe his church is in Arkansas not Nebraska.
    I found his ideas refreshing in one main area…it concerned the rural church. The overwhelming majority of stats, ministry-models, ministry tools, and emphasis is on suburban and urban churches. There is a gaping black-hole when it comes to useful tools applicable to the rural, small church. This book and Tom Nebel’s “Big Dreams In Small Places,” are the only two resources I am aware of that are specifically aimed at rural churches.
    Now, I know the current theological fallacy that God only cares about the city is widely accepted. But they seem to have forgotten that in addition to the New Jerusalem there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth (one of their arguments in favor of city only ministry). Have they forgotten the whole earth is the Lord’s and everything in it?
    So I applaud the positive stories coming from rural places around the globe. To which, I add Brand New Church’s story. God is at work in people’s lives…no matter where they are.
    I did appreciate your comments on the book, very nice.

  2. David, thanks for the heads-up on Arkansas. What was I thinking? Anyway, got that fixed, and thanks for your comments. While lots of folks think “rural” when they think “small church” not many resources are available, but lots of good stuff is happening in rural small churches, as you know. Thanks for stopping by, and register for a free book!

  3. Thanks for tellings us about this book. I also enjoyed the webinar you did recently. I gave copies of the notes to my elders.


  4. Chuck,

    I would like to read the book… I am actually personally familiar with the church. I lived in Mountain Home, Nebraska for 10 years and he planted a “site” their awhile before I left.

    I have heard very positive and negative things from the community, but I am definitely wanting to read this book and see it from his perspective. I fully endorse the idea of uniting smaller churches(sites) from different communities, but at what point are sites “too far” from each other. Some of his campuses are over 3 hours away from each other… How do they come together to discuss church business matters? Who makes all the decisions?

    Sadly, in this case I do think church autonomy is somewhat abused…

    Sorry for rambling… This might kill my chances, but even if I dont win I will probably buy this book, review it, and then give a perspective from a guy that is personally familiar.

  5. Has anyone read this book already?

    Does he address the leadership structure of BNC? Who controls/decides what to do with the finances of all of these different locations? Clearly, they cant come together to decide how to be good stewards of the finances…

    Anyone know?


  6. Matt, thanks for your comments. Interesting to hear from your perspective. Yes, I read the book, and according to Shannon it is a pastor-led church that only votes on 4 issues — calling the senior pastor and the annual budget (plus 2 more I can’t remember right now.). Sounds like a megachurch organization, and Shannon talks about others being “under” the authority of the pastor, etc. This would not fly in our town, but then he’s not in my town. Good to hear from you. Let me know when you post your review. -Chuck

    1. Chuck,

      A lot of the heat he gets in Mountain Home, Arkansas has to do with the fact that there is little to no accountability between the churches and Shannon. How could there be???

      A good friend of mine, that I talked to today actually, used to be on the praise team at BNC in Mountain Home and he has informed me quite a bit about BNC.

      It is funny that you mentioned it “wouldnt fly in your town.” I would of said the same thing about Mtn. Home… And for the most part, it doesnt fly, but I think in every town there are a few people that wouldnt mind this type of thing.

      From what I can tell, BNC, isnt all rural now. There NWA campuses- Fayetteville and Huntsville cannot be described as “rural.” I do think that is actually a positive for them though. With Fayetteville in the mix they get city resources helping rural locations.

  7. David, thanks for your comments, and for tuning in to the webinar. Hope it was helpful. Good luck to both you and Ronnie on getting a free copy of the book!

  8. That book sounds like an interesting read. I especially liked your summary of what to do. Find out what God wants for your church and pursue that with all of your passion.

  9. It’s interesting that the anti-rural bias you’ve dealt with here is exactly the same in the arts, where nothing is considered to have value unless it’s from a city.

    That said, I question the whole ethos of one big church anywhere. A big church by its very nature draws people from a wide area, which means a lot of extra polluting car journeys. It also means a big building, with big energy requirements just to keep the place going.

    A collection of smaller churches does seem to be more sensible, and from the comments that seems to be what is being described here, but why does there have to be any connection at all? In our work we’re aiming to have several small arts teams which will hopefully look very different and no centralised leadership so we stay well under the radar and no one person can control all of them.

  10. Chuck,
    Sounds like an interesting book. My family and I thought we wanted to attend a smaller church (rural or not), but every one we tried turned out to be a big disappointment. We finally joined one that’s huge with about 1,000 to 1,500 in attendance. Other than being Baptist the church is nothing like what we thought we wanted. And, as Andy says, we have to drive a lot of extra polluting miles in our car to get there. In the end, the choice of a church is very personal and it doesn’t always seem to make sense.

  11. I read the book, and I pastor a rural church. 2 facts that O’Dell just happened to ommit are 1) He didn’t just throw a dart at a map and hit Bergman, Ark. The town of Harrison, Ark is only 7 miles from Bergman, where O’Dell’s family lives. His father is a very sucsessful bussiness man, his brother owns the Christian Book Store, and the main Staff (prais leader, etc) are HOME BOYS. Between O’Dell and his staff, they are related to half the county, where they don’t take to outside “yankee’s” coming in and telling them how to have church. and 2) he just happened to ommit the fact that yes, he did build a mega church with lots of members, but a lady in the little Baptist church died, and O’Dell got his hands on a huge chuck of money. (Several million, or so) MANY LOCAL PEOPLE IN THE BERGMAN AREA THINK HE IS A FAKE WHO STOLE THE MONEY. Either case, If you are planing on following his plan for your small, rural church, MAKE SURE YOU ARE A HOME BOY, WITH WEALTHY LOCAL FAMILY AND FIND ANOTHER LITTLE OLE LADY TO PART WITH A FEW BUCKS TO BUILD THAT NEAT LOOKING BRAND NEW CHURCH.

    1. Ken: I have personally met Shannon at a our asscociation’s conference on building Kingdom churches. He offered to help our small churches and pastors. He has a passion for Christ that surpasses just about anyone I have ever met. He doesn’t seem to be the person that you and the skeptical people paint him to be. Maybe his family is blessed, but that makes it even harder for a man to follow God’s leading to a church of 30+/- with a pastor salary of 21k. He stepped out on faith and THEN God blessed him. He even rufused to sell his books at the conference. Our rural small churches need to be helped along with a fresh vision of what God wants to do through them. So may God bless his efforts to help others do God’s will. One of BNC’s main focus appears to be helping the poor and needy. We shouldn’t be jealous, instead we should step out in faith and see how much God will bless our lives, families and churches. My prayer is that God will bless you as you seek to save the lost and minister to those around you.
      Trusting in Jesus

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