“And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” — Ezekiel 47:12
Ezekiel’s vision is at once agrarian and eschatological. The prophet sees a multitude of trees bearing unfailing fruit. This abundance is not mere decadence or ornamentality—the fruit feeds, the leaves heal. The same apocalyptic vision is given to John in the final chapter of Scripture, now a singular tree standing in the midst of the heavenly city. It bears twelve kinds of fruit, and its leaves “are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). Brad Roth portrays this dream in God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church. His last chapter imagines Zion on the migrash, “city and country walking together into the future in neighborliness” (p. 208).Migrash is the Hebrew word for the open swaths of land that surrounded Levitical cities. See Lev 25; Num 35; Roth pp. 208–09. In Revelation’s final vision, “the garden is downtown . . . the holy rural has been brought into the heart of the holy city” (p. 211). The urban church and the rural church can only be taken together, gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.
Roth, then, wants to reclaim a kingdom vision for the rural church, as he makes clear in the first chapter. Raised as an “Illinois farm boy” and trained at Harvard Divinity School, he was called back to the rural church. What precisely is meant by rural is, of course, hard to pinpoint, as it is all too often “either idealized or disparaged” (p. 15). Roth surveys some of the recent sociological studies on life in rural America to help clarify the shape of these communities. He writes with the conviction that “the global church would be incomplete without the rural church” (p. 31). Without the rural church, some fragment would be lost. His book is a practical rural ecclesiology—in his words, ecclesioculture—Roth strives to think competently and kindly of all sorts of churches.See Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 185. Cf. Roth p. 18. Specifically, he wants to give Augustine’s kingdom vision a “rural spin: God’s glorious country is our theme in this work” (p. 35).
Chapter Two offers a re-enchantment of place, taking seriously Eugene Peterson’s observation that “pastoral work is geographical as much as theological.”Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 123. Cf. Roth p. 55. Here, Roth tries to cultivate his readers doxological imagination—their ability to see “all places as praise-able” (p. 39). He is concerned that rural pastors often suffer from a particularly deadly form of acedia, which prohibits them from loving marginal, rural places. Rural pastors can feel as though they are not accomplishing much, a feeling exacerbated by a contemporary evangelical culture in America which almost exclusively recognizes urban ministry as important. Such discouragement usually results in flight or boredom. Instead of this, Roth casts a vision for praising in place, noticing and being attentive to all the ten thousand ways Christ plays in grace. Rural pastors much look for all the particular ways that God is present is their churches.
The majority of Roth’s book is a survey of various practices that will enable rural pastors to do this. Chapter Three focuses on abiding, offering the ministry of presence to communities that are often haunted by “a profound sense of loss” (p. 65). Put concretely, Roth wants pastors to “stay in a church and community at least seven years: long enough for your body to be made from the dust of the place” (p. 66). Watchfulness is the theme of Chapter Four, imitating Christ’s practice of paying attention. Rural pastors must show up as learners, taking postures of thanksgiving, blessing, and mourning while “assuming nothing” (p. 95). Chapter Five is about prayer, which, according to Roth, is all about “practicing the transfigurative discipline of seeing God in and through our present moment and circumstance” (p. 98). Prayer is not one work among others. It is the singular work of pastors, permeating and sustaining their entire ministry. Even rural churches, often perceived as being slow, can get too caught up in the busy, frenzied lifestyle that plagues American spirituality.
The sixth chapter takes up the topic of growth, as Roth believes that “we need to complicate our understanding of growth and what it takes to achieve growth in rural congregations” (p. 119).Success is admittedly hard to measure, especially in relation to the church. It must be more than mere counting. Relationship is ultimately what provides the opportunity for growth. Success is admittedly hard to measure, especially in relation to the church. It must be more than mere counting. Relationship is ultimately what provides the opportunity for growth. Therefore, pastors themselves must become the gospel—as Roth puts it, “our lives are the message” (p. 141). Chapter Seven encourages pastors to work the edges and orient themselves toward the margins of their communities. Pastors must move toward the boundaries that have been constructed, “always graciously helping others over the barbed wire fence” (p. 145). This image of barbed wire runs throughout the chapter as Roth eventually portrays the sacrament of baptism as the centrifugal grace that “swings us perpetually outward” (p. 162). Death is the subject of Chapter Eight. There is a congregational Ars Moriendi that must be learned. This habit of dying well stands against the strong cross-pressures of a culture, even an ecclesial culture, that views death as a failure or betrayal. “We believe that congregations don’t have to die, that they won’t face their own disintegration and mortality” (p. 172). But there are no deathless churches, so pastors would do well to learn to love the dying, “including dying congregations” (p. 177). Chapter Nine exhorts pastors to befriend their communities and get comfortable with not being useful. Rural pastors must befriend people, the community, and the land as they follow the way of Christ. All of this, of course, is grounded in the grace of God’s own friendship—“I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
All of these encouragements are given to pastors as practices that will recover a kingdom vision for the rural church. Roth’s aim is to think competently and kindly about the gifts and opportunities, as well as the challenges and pressures, of rural ministry. I could say much in praise of the book, but my job here was just to summarize it. And besides, the pastors who participate in this symposium will know, much more than I do, the ways that Roth succeeds in creating an ecclesioculture for the healing of the world.