This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Book review: ‘God’s Country’

Does God love the rural church? Does God love the rural communities that the rural church is rooted in? Do we love the rural church and its communities?

God's Country
God’s Country

Not the church as it once was or someday might be. Not the romanticized version of a pastoral Eden or the abandoned flyover country we might have conjured in our heads.

Rather, does God love the rural church and rural communities as they actually are? Do we then also love what God loves?

These are the questions that underlie Brad Roth’s God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church. They’re questions Roth lovingly yet firmly challenges his readers to answer in order to begin shifting how we view the rural church and our relationship with it.

Roth is a pastor in the small town of Moundridge, Kan. Half of my biological lineage comes from the town in which he pastors. The other half comes from the town next to it. As a pastor, two of the three churches I have served have been in small Kansas towns.

As a product of these communities, I found Roth provides a lens to accurately see the rural church and its communities not with nostalgia or disdain but with the love that comes from genuinely sharing life with the people of these communities. He also provides a gentle yet firm challenge to how many have come to view the rural church.

Roth challenges many assumptions about rural communities and churches, such as the idea that all rural places have experienced population decline. Or that rural communities are disconnected from the rest of the world. Or that the new is always better than the old. Or that a dying church is an unfaithful church. Or that God is at work in the city but not the country. In the process of challenging our assumptions, Roth names the sin of acedia — the belief that the real center of what God is doing is somewhere else. It’s a sin that leads to a lack of care for, and even a resentment of, the churches and communities that exist in the rural landscape.

In Roth’s description of acedia I found myself both convicted of my own unhelpful attitudes in the past and energized to see rural communities in a new light.

Roth has not written a church renewal book with 10 steps to growth or one that sets out to save dying
churches and communities. This book isn’t a quick fix but an attitude adjustment. It’s about learning to love these communities and to see what God is doing in them.

God’s Country talks about how church growth is less about numbers and more about discipleship. There is a chapter about learning the importance of commitment to a place and earning the trust of those who abide
there. A chapter about how evangelism is less about glossy promotional materials and more about adopting people into families. And by adoption I mean actually living life with others as though they are extended family: having potlucks, celebrating Quinceañeras, grieving lost loved ones, and the like.

There is a chapter about stepping over the invisible barbedwire social boundaries when necessary but also remembering the good and necessary reasons that those boundaries exist.

There is a chapter on befriending people for no other purpose than being friends. Seeing people as friends, rather than as souls to be won or potential tools to get the church work done.

There is even a chapter on helping churches die well and celebrating their faithfulness. Roth makes this chapter fit surprisingly well in a book about the future of the rural church.

Roth sums up the main thrust of his book when he writes: “For all our careful words and fine models, I’m convinced it comes down to this: loving rural people and places, communities and congregations. We respect their unique contours. We treat them with kindness. We love them. For whatever competence we may bring, none of it will matter if we aren’t able to abide by the nittygritty rule of love. Love, and all the rest will follow.”

Roth’s book is essential reading for any pastor who is in or preparing to enter ministry in a rural setting. It is also essential for anyone who inhabits these rural spaces. Beyond that, it is essential for pastors and anyone else who has written off these rural places as irrelevant or assumes God isn’t working there anymore. It is essential for anyone who dwells in the city or the country and needs to be reminded why these two places need each other.

Alan Stucky is pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Wichita, Kan.

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