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Q&A: Rural church pastor Shannon O’Dell says big changes helped key big growth

BERGMAN, Ark. (BP)–Shannon O’Dell has a passion for rural churches, but his church is anything but a typical rural congregation.

Just eight years ago when he arrived in Arkansas, it was a classic rural church, with fewer than 50 regular attendees. Today, his congregation — known as Brand New Church — has seven physical campuses as well as an Internet “iCampus” and a combined in-person attendance of more than 2,000. O’Dell’s sermons are beamed via satellite to all the campuses.

O’Dell, who once dreaded the thought of pastoring a rural church, now loves it. In his book, “Transforming Church in Rural America: Breaking all the Rurals (2010, New Leaf Press), O’Dell explains how his Southern Baptist congregation went from being a tiny church in a small town to one of the largest congregations in the state. (The church’s unique name comes from Colossians 3:10, which speaks of the believer being made “new” in Christ.)

God, O’Dell says in his book, has a heart for rural churches. Most Old Testament prophets were called from small towns, and Jesus was “born rural and grew up rural,” O’Dell notes. The majority of churches in America are small.

Baptist Press recently spoke with O’Dell. Following is a partial transcript:

BP: Why didn’t you want to pastor a small, rural church?

SHANNON O’DELL: The main reason it wasn’t even an option in my mind is because there was such an obvious potential for growth and resource in a metro area versus going to a rural place. I just thought that if I am in a metro area, then I am going to have potential that is not found in a small area. Plus I liked Outback Steakhouse, and I knew they wouldn’t have one of those in Bergman (laughing).

BP: Do you think other young pastors share your attitude?

O’DELL: Without a doubt. And I believe that’s why the planting movement in North America is so enormous right now…. But I believe leadership is the ticket, [God’s] calling is the ticket. When that happens, it doesn’t matter where God calls you: Just give me a dusty floor and a barn roof, and I’m ready.

BP: The subtitle of your book is “breaking all the rurals.” What are some rules you think rural churches must break if they are to grow?

O’DELL: Without a doubt, you’ve got to have a called leader. I think there are a lot of great pastors who love God but really are probably just really good Sunday School teachers. In associations, you’re desperate. You’ve got a church in a small town, and the DOM [director of missions] or the associational missionary says, ‘Hey, there’s a guy in a class at the largest church in the county seat of my association. Let’s try to put him in.’ He takes a church, and he’s fry-daddy, because he wasn’t called [by God]. You’ve got to have a called man of God, because it takes more than visiting the hospital and preaching a good expositional sermon. It takes leadership. Leadership is something that is qualified through the call of God and also through, obviously, the Word of God. That’s 1 Timothy 3. The second thing is an accurate structure. The church has got to be structured accurately, because if it has midget structure, it’s only going to grow to be a midget, but if it has Goliath structure, then it’s going to be able to grow and exponentially experience God’s best. But most churches are structured like the Moose Lodge in their local community, and not like the Word of God teaches. And emphasis on the next generation is also needed. It has to be there, and many rural churches are not advocates for the next generation. The fourth thing they’ve got to have is they’ve got to be reaching out to the last, lost and the least. They’ve got to be community-minded: buying shoes for all the P.E. kids in schools, taking care of local missions needs, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, taking care of backpack programs in schools for kids who don’t have nutritious meals on the weekends.

BP: Explain what you mean by structure.

O’DELL: Structure would be the constitution and bylaws and an accurate, biblical structure where the called man of God can be the called man of God. Most churches have a called pastor but they are led by laity, where truly when it really boils down to it, the pastor is not the called, the anointed, the appointed. He is just a figurehead who gets praised when it’s going well, but mostly when it’s going bad they definitely get the oust. And they’re laity within the church that wants all of the control and no responsibility.

BP: Your book refers to what you call “bureaucratic democracy,” when the members vote on everything. Why do you think it’s significant for the church to change that?

O’DELL: It limits you, just like it would limit a pilot if he had to have a vote every time he made a decision to navigate around a storm. I am not going to tell the quote-unquote called pilot whether he can take a left or drop 6,000 feet to avoid a storm, because he sees the vision and he knows what needs to transpire. [In a church,] you need structure in place where you have checks and balances, but the called and appointed leader can take the church where God has called them. We see that in Scripture, very clearly in Acts 6…. A true leader of the church is going to equip people to do the work of the ministry and he’s going to lead it.

BP: Would that always have to include elders? [Brand New Church has elders.]

O’DELL: I don’t think so. I don’t think it always includes an elder board, but I definitely think it is structured where the church votes less and the pastor can establish a called vision.

BP: So what does the congregation vote on at Brand New Church?

O’DELL: A senior pastor. Selling and buying property. Key positions within our church. The annual budget. And we only vote on an annual budget if there is an increase.

BP: What are some of the traditions that your church got rid of that allowed it to grow.

O’DELL: Monthly business meetings, if that is a tradition. Another [tradition] is things that weren’t working, such as traditional Sunday morning Sunday School. We eliminated things that were not growing and were even declining. We created an environment for volunteering and service…. That perpetuated exponential growth. Instead of having Sunday School, people serve in one service and they worship in another.

BP: Does your church have small groups?

O’DELL: Yes. We have community groups. We also have what we call “intensives.” They are four-week punch-in-the-gut Bible studies. We have Wednesday and midweek services where we focus on the next generation, where we do study and adults lead it. Hundreds of students attend.

BP: When do the community groups meet?

O’DELL: They meet on the second and fourth weeks of the month. Intensives are in between those [weeks] at different times. We have intensives on finances, parenting, maturing as a Christ-follower, apologetics.

BP: Do the groups meet at the church building or in homes?

O’DELL: Both. They meet at homes, they meet at the church, and then we have many who meet online. Three of the classes are available online.

BP: Some people might want to know: When we talk about your church growing, is it all about music style?

O’DELL: Not at all. It has very little to do with style. It has everything to do with leadership. Sometimes the style is going to be approached one way and sometimes it’s going to be another. I would definitely say it’s not about style. It’s about leadership.

BP: Explain the significance of volunteers in your church and how the church was structured previously.

O’DELL: What we had before was, every Sunday there were moments of feeding. Now there’s moments of leading. Instead of being fed, they’re being led to action. So the 600-plus volunteers every weekend are serving and doing and have ownership in the vision and the avenue that God is leading us in a church — instead of just sitting back. Volunteering is the key. Our church would not exist without our volunteer base that God’s given us. From the parking lot to the front doors to our cafes to ushering to children. There are prayer warriors prior to the service. We have stage hands. Worship and creative arts. We have a tech team that absolutely blows my mind. It really has mobilized the church, and it has been beautiful.

BP: You devoted an entire chapter in your book to vision. What is the significance of vision, and what advice would you give to rural church pastors?

O’DELL: Your vision has to line up with God’s Word, and then you have to get people on board with that vision. What you value is evident through the vision of the church…. If you have no vision, you’re going to become a reservoir instead of a river. Vision perpetuates growth.

BP: And your advice for rural church pastors?

O’DELL: Get a vision. Get a clear, concise, stated vision that your church can replay, repeat and get on board with. Ours is very simple: Our call is to reach the last, the lost and the least. That’s our goal, that’s our purpose. Everything we do centers around it.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. For more on the book, visit www.newleafpublishinggroup.com/bnc. Visit O’Dell’s blog at www.BreakingAlltheRurals.com. For more on Brand New Church, visit BrandNewChurch.com.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust