­
EFAC Australia

God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church

Brad Roth. Herald Press 2017

Sometimes myths get in the way of mission. In the opening chapter of God’s Country, US Mennonite pastor Brad Roth asserts that ‘all too often, rural people and places become objects of our cultural mythmaking, the focus of our fear or pity, meant to be saved or gawked at.’ That tallies with my observation of the Australia scene. Stereotypes such as the bush as hapless victim of natural disasters and economic change or the bush as the bastion of cultural backwardness and prejudice are neither accurate nor a helpful basis for faithful and fruitful Christian ministry. That is why theologically informed and pastorally realistic accounts like Roth’s are vital. Notwithstanding the cultural translations that need to be made at times, the book makes stimulating reading for anyone concerned to reach the millions of Australians who live outside major population centres.

Roth’s book contains a brief but important discussion of what constitutes the essence of rurality. He concludes that what makes a location ‘rural’ is neither the presence nor importance of agriculture but the way people experience the world:

‘The defining difference may be that rural communities are marked by knowing and being known. We know our neighbours and they know us.’ (p27).

For the Australian scene at least this conclusion would need to be qualified. There are communities in the bush, particular those with a mining or lifestyle component, which have quite high levels of transience. Even in more stable farming communities there is often a disconnect between long-term residents and those who’ve moved to town more recently because of relatively cheap housing. Roth’s catalogue of the structural challenges facing rural communities—the industrialisation of agriculture, declining and aging populations, the removal of government and other services—is consistent with the Australian experience, particularly outside major regional centres. More searching is his examination of the challenge of acedia (literally ‘without care’), which he describes 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.’ (p41) His antidote is a commitment to praise God wherever we are, recognise and name the signs of God at work and abide in situations of challenge rather than give in to the temptation to flight. Roth then explores the practicalities of ministry in a rural setting. He explores the process of discerning a community’s structure, working with rather than against its yearly rhythms and nurturing intentional evangelism that grows out of a commitment to sit with people and listen carefully to their stories. A particularly interesting suggestion is that rural churches express an intentional vocation to a ministry of focussed prayer, precisely because the challenges they face should encourage a deep dependence on God. Roth’s book offers a vision for rural ministry that is both wholistic and hopeful. There are certainly points at which I felt his case needed to be strengthened or supplemented. For example, there seems to be a tension in his theology of place. Sometimes he seems to suggest that rural locations have a unique relation to God; at other points their significance lies more in what they share with every other part of God’s creation. This tension is resolved to some extent in the final chapter when he develops the rudiments of a biblical theology of the rural church as a community located both in present realities but also in relation to God’s promise of a new heavens and new earth. It would have been good to have this perspective worked back through some earlier material. I also had some questions about the implied reader of the book. In most sections this appears to be an ordained pastor who has come to a rural community from elsewhere. Perhaps this is not surprising given the actual readership of ministry books! But given the importance of local, long-term leadership in many rural settings I thought it would be valuable to address them more directly. It’s one thing to think through what it means to abide in a rural community when you have the choice of accepting a call to a city church, another when re-location is not even an option because of the ties of family and work.

Notwithstanding the above quibbles this book inspired me to pray and dream about God’s work in our rural and regional places. It’s also challenged me with the need for similar resources that engage more directly with the Australian context—a challenge that I hope BCA and others will answer in the years to come.

Mark Short, Bush Church Aid.

­