Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church
by Brad Roth
–Review by Teri Hyrkas
What comes to mind when you hear the term “rural church?” Do you picture bucolic church settings with small, well established, multigenerational congregations? Or perhaps you imagine carefree country churches that are able to shrug off the pressures of changing demographics and economic downturns? These notions of the rural church may have held true at one time, says Mennonite pastor Brad Roth, but typecasting the rural church into former roles does not help it grow into the altered and extended role it has in the world today.
Roth, a graduate of both Harvard Divinity School and ministry studies at the Mennonite seminary in Indiana, takes a heartfelt look the rural church in God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church (Herald Press, 2017). Roth explains, “This book is about reclaiming God’s kingdom vision for the rural church. It’s about learning to praise, abide, watch, pray, grow, work the edges, die, befriend and dream. Each of these disciplines is rooted in the biblical narrative and Christ’s enduring commitment to the rural church.”
In God’s Country, Roth aims to help Christians become aware of the many cultural changes that have occurred in the rural church, one of which is the blending of urban and rural cultures. Due to strategic growth in the suburbs, both from city populations moving out to more spacious locations, and from rural populations moving in toward more urbanized spaces, it can be difficult to identify churches as either urban or rural. Roth says, “[The] differences between rural and urban are hard to track. Are there qualitative differences, some sort of cultural markers that distinguish rural and urban areas, or are we merely dealing in trivialities?…
“The defining difference, ” states Roth, “may be that rural communities are marked by knowing and being known… [and] much of city life is marked by the anonymity that comes with sheer numbers and cultural diversity.”
Roth notes that an additional cultural marker of the rural church is this: “The rural church is a sign of the universal church’s identity, for the rural Church reminds us that Christ’s body is always off center, always called toward the margins, always skeptical of the claims of the dominant culture. The rural Church represents Christ’s commitment to being among all people everywhere, regardless of the value attributed to them by global centers of power. Christ orients the church toward the edges of society.”
Of the eight disciplines Roth names as gateways for the rural church to re-evaluate its purpose and potential, the section titled “Pray: Learning to Pray with the Chickens” is especially inspired. Roth bases this chapter on a story of Jesus leading the disciples, Peter, James and John, outside the city to pray. On this particular occasion, as Jesus prays, he is physically changed before the disciples’ eyes. Luke 9:29 says: “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (ESV) For Roth, this miraculous moment of Jesus’ Transfiguration demonstrates the power of prayer. He proposes that the intercessory practices of the early Desert Fathers and Mothers might find a new emphasis in the rural church if it will lay hold of the opportunity to become a site of transfiguring prayer.
Roth writes: “So often, rural congregations suffer from a sense of lack, defining themselves on the basis of what they are not. They’re not big, not in the ideal spot for growth, not chock-full of the city’s creative movers and shakers. It’s time to reject this narrative of scarcity and encourage the rural church to begin to see itself as the caretaker of a different sort of abundance: space for prayer. What if we were to envision the rural church as the special house of prayer sustaining the global church?
“We need prayer. We need the power of prayer to fuel the church’s ministry. We need prayer that transfigures our reality so that we can discern what God is up to in the neighborhood. We need to take seriously that prayer is the central work of the church, work that releases us for long and patient abiding in our rural communities and holds us in the presence of God.”
Recently I spent a day in the company of pastors and church leaders who came together for the purpose of discussing the rural church. God’s Country was a tremendous help to me and others as our group discussed ways we could benefit the populace in the rural mission field. Of all the constructive suggestions that God’s Country contains for re-visioning the rural church’s place and purpose, it is Roth’s obvious love for Jesus and Jesus’ church on the margins that provided the deepest well of encouragement. Roth tells us that genuine neighborliness, solidarity, friendship and love are vital to a thriving ministry in the rural community. What follows is a quote from Roth’s take on the “Jesus way” of friendship:
“Here’s what happens when we befriend people: we become humans to one another. We stop being projects. In friendship, the other is not consumed, just as the bush was not consumed when God burned bright all through it and Moses had to take off his shoes. God said, I am who I am. God meant: take me as I am. This is what you get.”
God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church by Brad Roth is a spirited, fresh and moving book. The book is obviously directed to the rural church, but God’s Country would be an excellent choice for a small group study in any fellowship.