GOD'S COUNTRY: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church
GOD’S COUNTRY: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church. By Brad Roth. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2017. 224 pages. $16.99.
God’s Country by Brad Roth was recommended to me by Chad Bird after a brief Messenger exchange about Winn Collier’s book Love Big. Be Well which I had recently read and was about to review. I quickly put it on my Christmas list and was delighted to receive it from my parents as a gift at that time. I started reading the book on January 18th and finished it four days later. I absolutely loved it and recommend it to anyone who serves as a pastor in a rural context or to any denominational bureaucrat who oversees pastors and congregations in a rural context.
Brad Roth has thought very well about rural ministry. He has organized his thoughts in a clear way, done the yeoman’s work of research, and written a wise and accessible book about rural ministry for pastors.
Roth begins his book with some sociological data and definitions. What exactly is “rural”? When have you crossed from “rural” to “urban”? How do the suburbs come into play? He answers these questions while acknowledging, “In fundamental ways, the country soul is the city soul. We’re talking about people, and people have the same hurts and hungers wherever they happen to live” (p.26).
With that said, the social contexts are different; each presenting their own unique challenges. Roth hits the nail on the head when he says, “The defining difference [between urban and rural] may be that rural communities are marked by knowing and being known. We know our neighbors and they know us” (p. 27). He’s absolutely right. I’ve never known so many people in my life than when I moved from St. Louis to a town of less than 100 people. Roth is also correct when he says, “In this way, rural is not just a population designation. It’s a way of seeing the world” (p. 31).
With a marvelous imagination and gift for writing, Roth speaks of Jesus’s feeding of the 5000 and how he instructed his disciples to gather up the fragments so that none would be lost. Rural communities (and their congregations), he posits, are like the fragments. They must be gathered up. An ecclesiology that ignores them is an ungodly one, because Jesus Christ is Lord of all. “The church cannot remain in the city or suburbs and be the church” (p. 34).
Having established this foundation, the remaining nine chapters are meditations on various aspects of rural ministry: Praise of Place, Abide, Watch, Pray, Grow, Work the Edges, Learn to Die, Befriend, and Dream. I wish to comment on just three of these, while commending you to purchase this book and read about the rest.
Praise in Place
C. F. W. Walther, first president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and first president of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis is most well-known for the posthumous publication of his lectures on the Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Walther is still adored by many Lutherans, but he isn’t exactly known for his quick and memorable soundbites. He reads more like Martin Chemnitz than he does Martin Luther. There is one quote, however, that does get cited frequently; the opening remarks of his “Twentieth Evening Lecture” which reads, “When a place has been assigned to a Lutheran candidate of theology where he is to discharge the office of a Lutheran minister, that place ought to be to him the dearest, most beautiful, and most precious spot on earth. He should be unwilling to exchange it for a kingdom. Whether it is in a metropolis or in a small town, on a bleak prairie or in a clearing in the forest, in a flourishing settlement or in a desert, to him it should be a miniature paradise.”
Similarly, Rev. Dr. Joseph Sittler, late professor of theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School reflects, “I think of the notion of selfhood when I hear my students in their senior year talk about where they would like to exercise their ministry, and I hear them say that what they want most of all is self-fulfillment. There’s something rather ghastly about that. I am not ordained to fulfill my precious self. One student had a list of things her first call had to have: it had to be in an urban setting; it had to be with certain kinds of Chicanos, blacks, and poor whites; it had to be in a cultural setting where she could enjoy theater and other activities. I said, ‘You know, it’s as if the Bible says, “Listen, Lord, thy servant speaketh,” instead of “Speak Lord, thy servant heareth.” The Church is going to dump you someplace that may have little to do with your agenda. And it will offer the kind of challenge, humiliation, embarrassment, and opportunity that you didn’t foresee.’ Our obedience in ministry cannot be calibrated with an agenda of clamant desires.”
Roth echoes these sentiments in his chapter “Praise of Place.” Writing about the dangers of the vice of acedia, he says, “So many pastors, reared on a diet of promise and potential, digesting books hot off the church-turnaround press, find themselves preaching to a tiny gathering of graying saints. Hadn’t their seminary professors hinted that they were destined for significant ministry?” [author’s emphasis] (p. 42–43). Rural locations are real places, created by God, inhabited (however sparsely) by people made in the image of God and for whom God’s Son was sent to die. What was it that had Jacob and Solomon so awestruck? It wasn’t the population density, but the intellectual absurdity that God could be found in their respective places: Beth-el and the Temple. Doesn’t Jesus also speak about being in the place where two or three are gathered together in His name? Rural ministry, wherever it is, is a real place made significant by Jesus Christ. It’s not made significant in any other way.
This chapter naturally leads into the next chapter “Abide.” One of the great challenges facing rural congregations is getting their pastors to abide and to stick around for more than a few months or years. We all recall Paul’s vast and extensive missionary journeys across Asia Minor and the Roman Empire with his lengthiest stay being Corinth for eighteen months, but Roth points out that Jesus Christ, other than his forced flight to Egypt, pretty well stayed put. He was not a ‘big traveler.’ As a Lutheran, I’d like to add that Martin Luther also was not an extensive traveler. Yes, he travelled to Rome, but that occurred nearly eight years before his rise to fame following the posting of the Ninety-five Theses. Roth encourages pastors to stick around. “Many of us are addicted to the fresh start, to the new possibility of finally getting it right in a perfect location. . . . The truly counter-cultural move is to stay put” (p. 65). He’s right about the addiction. It’s also fear. “Abiding in rural places and communities reminds us how small we are” (p. 68). People don’t like to be small. They want to be “significant.” But our attitude should be that of Christ Jesus: humility. It’s not about us. It’s about serving, and there’s plenty of serving to do in rural locales.
Learning to Die
The most thought-provoking chapter of this book is “Learning to Die.” This isn’t about individuals learning to die, but congregations learning to die. Though I’m still not sure that I accept all of the premises on which this chapter is built, there is no denying its cruciform shape. Roth writes, “Our society disparages dying churches. While dying individuals can be afforded compassion and the ministrations of medical personnel, family, and clergy, dying churches are looked at with scorn. In the minds of many, churches don’t die; they fail” (p. 167). It’s hard to argue with what he’s said. Now…is it possible some congregations are dying of self-inflicted wounds? Of course! But could it ever be otherwise? The wages of sin is death, is it not? Even the alcoholic dying of cirrhosis is shown compassion in their dying that’s a direct consequence of their failure.
Roth also writes, “I’m convinced that a core Christian virtue is learning to love the dying, including dying congregations. In fact, I think that a lot of the church hopping that characterizes our contemporary moment has to do with fear of being associated with death. . . . We don’t want death to rub off on us. We don’t want to be associated with decay and defeat. Check out that new church down the road! They’re so young!” (p. 177). He’s right. This is a fear for clergy and laity alike. This chapter is not as dreary as you might think. It’s infused with hope, confident of the return of Christ in glory and the resurrection of all flesh on the Last Day.
I’ve already mentioned that I recommend this book to any pastor serving in a rural-ministry context as well as those denominational bureaucrats who oversee pastors and congregations in these contexts. Roth offers many insights. His theological diagnoses of the rural challenges are faithful and accurate. For my Lutheran readers, Brad Roth is a Mennonite by confession, and that shows itself in this book but is absolutely no reason for you to refrain from reading what he has to say.
If I had any inclination in the past to write a book on rural ministry, I don’t any longer. The book has now been written and Brad Roth is its author. Do yourself and God’s Kingdom a favor and take the time to read it.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.
 C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, St. Louis: CPH, 1929. p. 207.
 Joseph Sittler, Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986. p. 58.