Book Review: God’s Country, by Brad Roth
Brad Roth. God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Local Church. Herald Press, 2017. 223 pages.
While Christian publishing houses are brimming with books about ministry in the city, I know relatively few books about serving in rural churches. Rural congregations seem to be out of style, carrying a connotation of “grandma’s church.” For many rural communities and their churches, it seems as if the world has simply left them behind.
In the last several decades, dozens of church plants and revitalizations have emerged throughout the US in major cities, and praise God for this work. Yet, with many healthy churches scattered throughout cities, rural churches have continued to decline both numerically and in health. Is there any hope for the rural church?
Brad Roth, in his recent book, God’s Country, considers this question and proposes a biblical vision for rural churches. Roth serves as pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kansas. Holding degrees from Harvard Divinity School and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, Brad was raised in a rural community and has a passion to continue serving God and God’s people in rural communities.
At its core, what makes God’s Country so exceptional is that it’s not a guilt-ridden rally cry for rural churches. Roth is not arguing, “If you love Jesus then you’ll pastor a rural church!” Rather, Roth demonstrates that rural churches are inevitable, valuable, and make vital contributions to the kingdom of God. He writes, “We would lose something—many things, actually—without the rural church, for it represents the church’s commitment to the margins, to those who fall outside our globalizing era’s citified version of the good life. The rural church is a sign of Christ’s commitment to being present with people in all places” (15).
God’s Country is actually less about geography and more about the “kingdom vision” of the universal church. No matter the location, whether urban or rural, Christ’s people continually look forward to the coming kingdom of God. Christians all over the world are connected by the blood of Christ, by the Holy Spirit, and are equally members of the New Testament church. It is naïve, however, to think that geography simply doesn’t matter. Pastors need to think clearly as to how they can best apply sound doctrine, particularly ecclesiology, in rural churches. “Ecclesiology is about doctrines and definitions, careful words and models for the church. In a lot of ways, this book is a practical rural ecclesiology” (18).
LOVE THE PLACE
Overall, Roth does a good job driving home two major points in God’s Country. First, the book stresses the importance of loving the place of your ministry. If pastors do not love where they serve, then the probability is enormous that their ministry simply will not last.
Ministry in small towns can be pressing, intense, slow, and small. In the smallness of rural ministry, Roth speaks of the particular sin known as acedia. “Acedia manifests itself as a boredom that anchors its gangly roots in the belief that God is not present or at work in the places or life situations where we find ourselves. Acedia is the humid little whisper telling us that we were made for bigger and better things, that . . . we would really make a difference if we were ministering somewhere else” (42).
Roth’s striking observation reveals much more about our sin and our pride than the nature of rural communities. Many pastors in rural communities simply do not feel like they are making a real and lasting difference. Though rural pastors may be pouring much of their lives into a church, giving countless hours serving a congregation, the payoff seems to be small as they serve in the middle of nowhere. Yet, Roth absolutely affirms that there is no such place as “nowhere” and writes, “I’m convinced that if we’re going to pull acedia up by its crooked root, we’ll have to learn to praise in place. The trouble is that . . . we’ve failed to imagine that God values and is present in rural places, and thus we’ve failed to imagine that all places can offer authentic praise to God” (51).
In the same way that God values the populations in cities, God values the populations in rural areas. In the same way that God calls men and women to serve in the cities, God still calls men and women to faithfully serve in rural areas. The two areas could not be more different, but Christ builds his church in cities and rural areas alike. Christians, therefore, should seek first the kingdom of God as we love our places, serve in our places, and praise God in our places. Can we love rural communities as God loves them?
LOVE THE PEOPLE
The second major point that Roth stresses in God’s Country is loving the people of your ministry. As he tells stories in colorful, and often hilarious, detail, Roth highlights his ministry among the people in the intricate community systems within rural areas. He also makes a note that rural communities are often built on relational trust. Therefore, developing friendships and relationships are vital for pastoring in these slow-moving, rural communities. Thankfully, Roth helps us to understand the patience required for such a work, and it, above all else, must begin with prayer. “We need to take seriously that prayer is work. . . . And prayer is not one work among others. It’s the singular work that permeates and sustains all that we do” (109).
Also, along with prayer, evangelism is a major pastoral undertaking in any setting, and Roth does so well to essentially offer a primer on engaging others in evangelism. Taking his cue from Jesus with the Samaritan woman in John 4, Roth writes, “We don’t need to learn some sort of ‘effective’ evangelism strategy; we need to learn to listen. We need to cultivate an openness to the stories of others. We need to ask questions, keep quiet. . . . Evangelism isn’t about getting up on a soapbox and preaching at someone. It’s about sitting down next to that person and turning down the volume” (135). In short, evangelism is centered on loving people, both in how you speak to them and how you listen.
The mentality of forming relationships with people (church members, lost people, neighbors, coworkers) essentially brings God’s Country full circle. The kingdom of God is typically built one relationship at a time, so as relationships are formed inside and outside of the church, then evangelism will be a natural outgrowth of the church. The heartbeat of our churches will also become more centered on “one another.” I appreciate the way Roth writes of the ordinance of baptism in the life of the local church. “Baptism draws a new line around and among believers. But it also draws an arrow pointing believers out into the world (Matt. 28:19). Baptize and preach. Baptize and teach” (159).
In noting the clear distinction between the church and the world, Roth highlights the boundaries of baptism in helping to define clear, meaningful membership and healthy engagement in the world. “Baptism calls us to become people who go beyond ourselves and a church that goes beyond itself. We are often most preoccupied with how boundaries keep people out. But boundaries also keep us in. . . . Baptism swings us perpetually outward, where we move not only to the margins but also to the horizons of the kingdom” (162).
A HELPFUL LOOK AT MINISTERING IN A RURAL CHURCH
Brad Roth has written a marvelous gem in God’s Country, not only for rural churches, but for the universal church at large. While I sometimes disagreed with Roth’s application of biblical passages, I never found myself at odds with his heart, his love, and his passion for God and for people. I also appreciate that Roth’s essential points of loving place and people moved into deeply practical elements for church life. Roth shows us that true doctrine, even our ecclesiology, should stem from and move toward a love for God and a love for others in our local churches.