MOUNDRIDGE — Brad Roth, pastor at West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, has spent much of his life in rural settings and his career in ministry. Those experiences led him to write his first book — "God's Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church."
Roth grew up on a farm in central Illinois and ministered in small towns in the state of Washington and in Peru before coming to Moundridge.
"I do like being a rural pastor," Roth said. "I love ministry in general; getting to dive into the Scriptures each week and teaching, getting to be with people at such sacred places in their lives — birth and death, but also all these moments in between that we experience."
He was frustrated as he looked for resources for rural ministry, which were few and far between. Those he did find often came from the perspective that the rural church was like a failed suburban megachurch.
"I felt some of the materials out there didn't look at the rural church as it was," Roth said. "If you're not grounded in that authenticity, then some of the recommendations that you give aren't going to go to a place that's authentic, either."
There are lessons to be learned from bigger churches, but rural churches are unique by being located in areas without a continual influx of new residents.
"The role of the church has to be one of looking out for the well-being of the whole community," Roth said.
In his book, Roth focuses on what rural churches can — and must — do to stay alive.
"It's a way of thinking about the rural church that starts with where the church is at, rather than kind of an idealized vision of the church," Roth said. "It begins in that place, but then dreams about where can the church go and how do rural communities thrive and grow."
"God's Country" starts with principles from the Scriptures, adds in Roth's own reflections on life in ministry and weaves in interviews he conducted.
"I talked with pastors and leaders around the country in different rural congregations," Roth said.
What Roth found in his study was a set of vital practices that many churches used to stay relevant amidst the challenges of opioid addiction, population decline and economic depression.
"In a way that is unique to rural communities, there's no way for the church to thrive if the community isn't also thriving," Roth said. "The destiny of the rural church is tied to the community that it's a part of."
Roth emphasizes church involvement in the community, including through nonprofit efforts.
"Doing this is going to make a very unique impact on the livability of this place," Roth said. "What I've found, in talking to pastors all over the country, is that pastors are doing that sort of thing in their communities."
Plugging into the daily lives of their communities is vital for churches to reach out to both members and non-members.
"This is true in urban and suburban churches, but I think it's more pronounced in the rural church because there is less of a population," Roth said. "If you are not really involved in Kansas City, in some ways, they're not going to notice that as much. In a town of 70 people, there's one church in town; so if that pastor is not out and about, that's obvious."
The fishbowl effect is intimidating for some rural church leaders.
"You can't be anonymous in a community this size," Roth said. "That can be perceived as unworkable for some people. You really have to have a mentality that can deal with that and be willing to roll with it to minister successfully in a rural community,"
Roth said he loves being a part of people's lives as a rural pastor.
"I love the way that it's hard to see the seams between what is ministry and what is life in the community," Roth said.
"God's Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church" is a book intended for pastors and leaders in the rural church, along with anyone wanting to see their church thrive, Roth said.
"The context is rural, and that's what I'm aiming at, but I think, ultimately, we're talking about human beings and human communities and there's going to be similar aspirations, no matter where you live," Roth said.
Roth will sign copies of his book from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Faith & Life Bookstore, 606 N. Main in Newton.