I came across this article today about a Church in the rural town of Bergman, Arkansas (population 407). They began with 31 members and have swelled to include nine towns in northern Arkansas. This congregation is now averaging approximately 1,000 people each week with 60% of the people making the ten mile drive from nearby Harrison, Arkansas (est. pop. 12,700).
Pastor Shannon O’Dell says, “When church is done right, they’ll drive from anywhere…” Apparently for Church to be “done right,” according to O’Dell, the Church needs to be “pastor led,” rather than congregational or democratic in polity.
“If there is one thing I could say to the rural church it is: The reason they don’t grow is that they are structured un-biblically,” he commented. “Families in power want all the power in the small local rural church with no responsibility — you’re so trapped you can’t move forward.”
Although the structure is certainly top-down, it seems like the ministries function more from a paradigm of broad involvement and participation. Perhaps it is congregational in practices and discipline, rather than congregational in control,
After doing most every job himself the first two years of his pastorate in Bergman — “secretary, preschool, youth, and sometimes music” — O’Dell said his primary responsibilities now include sermon preparation and mentoring (formerly known as counseling). “The rest I give to my staff who always confidently and competently get the job done.”
In the end, it seems that O’Dell has a missional focus and a passion for transformation. You may not agree with his leadership philosophy and top-down rhetoric, but you can certainly agree with his passion to reach out missionally to rural America.
“If God called you to the backside of the desert in Africa, your peers, family and friends would celebrate and support you. Why is it we don’t even think about going to the backside of rural America to watch God build an emerging church for His glory?”
Questions: Could he do this while serving a two-point charge? Could his leadership style mesh with UMC polity? What do you think about this in particular is it a one in a million deal or is it repeatable? Is this what God expects from rural (or any other) congregations? If we say no, are we just using that as an excuse? If we say yes, can it happen anywhere?