A better way to talk about rural churches

October 25th, 2021
Available from Cokesbury

When speaking with rural pastors, district superintendents, and church leadership experts about rural churches, I often hear frustration, such as “We don’t know what to do with these small rural churches.” 

I'm told how sad it is that these churches aren’t growing, for a variety of reasons, most of it with blame placed on the congregation, including assumptions that these small rural churches won’t grow because they don’t want to launch more small groups, or they’re not interested in creating new programs, or they aren’t reaching out to the right age group. 

However, there are more vital, robust rural congregations than we realize. But we’re not able to see them because our definitions of vitality make little sense in most rural communities. 

Consider the 2011 Towers-Watson Report, which attempted to offer indicators of vitality that apply to every demographic, geography, and church size. A careful look at the report shows that the datasets are unevenly weighted to showcase large churches in urban and suburban settings. Apart from the bias, some of the recommendations simply make no sense for a rural, small-membership church. 

For example, the report argued that “regardless of size, more vital churches have more small groups.” A highly vital small membership church, they point out, averaged 5.1 small groups. A low vitality small membership church had 4.5. 

Consider the persistent advice to have more programs for youth. According to their research, a highly vital small-membership church has 1.8 programs for youth, while a low vitality church had 1.2 programs. The distinctions in these metrics further frustration because they are statistically irrelevant to an individual congregation. 

Denominational leaders, who typically are removed from rural settings, aren’t quite sure how to talk about rural places. This follows a larger trend in our nation, where we are often unsure about how to define rural. The federal government has 15 definitions for how to define the word rural

Consequently, we tend to default into one of the myths about rural places. In these myths, rural communities (and their churches) are either farmlands where people are virtuous and pure, or they’re places of social and economic decay. These mindsets seep into our churches. Rural congregations are simple places where people love each other or they’re places of inevitable decline. 

It seems we don’t expect much from rural places. This mindset further suppresses the opportunity for rural churches to make a meaningful impact on their community,[i] and for The United Methodist Church to reclaim a vital feature of what helped it to become a 19th century movement in the United States. To change the narrative about rural places and churches, we need a better understanding of the gifts and the potential of these communities. 

The Urban Institute (which also works with rural places) released a new typology that categorizes rural communities according to their assets, a profound shift from the typical definitions of rural that focus on deficits. In doing so, they placed each rural census tract – a granular, sub-county geographic area – into one of seven asset peer groups. 

These peer groups focus on rural assets such as “diverse, institution-rich hubs” and “remote recreational and cultural areas.” In doing so, the typology can illustrate the potential of each rural place, whether that’s located a vibrant small-town in a manufacturing zone, an area for eco-tourism, and so on. 

One of the best things about this typology is that it compares rural places to rural places, allowing the distinctiveness of each rural community to stand out. This eliminates the temptation to define rural places by what they are not: urban. 

We can think about rural churches in the same way. A rural church can’t sustain a multitude of programs. Members would quickly burn out, and the resources would spread too thin. Focusing on the distinctive flavor of small, rural churches would help us see that just because a small church doesn’t have a large number of missional initiatives doesn’t mean it’s not missional. 

We would notice a great deal of innovation, with some astounding stories to tell. For instance, we would see that there are relational churches, where the handful of youth and children who show up are given meaningful leadership roles that deepens their faith, sparks their imagination, and gives them valuable skills for the future. 

We would find churches that are the sole source of childcare in rural places, allowing hundreds of parents in the county who want to be in the workforce to secure jobs they are passionate about. 

We would notice churches reducing the cost of healthcare – and in turn, reducing poverty – simply by helping people get to their post-hospitalization appointments.

We would find churches that, while they offer few programs of their own, are serving as information hubs, constantly connecting community members to vital and life-sustaining resources, such as food pantries, domestic-violence shelters, and mental-health providers.

We would see churches with a handful of retired teachers reading to students during the summer, which is an effective and simple way to help those students succeed in school. 

By using this typography, the small rural churches altering the DNA of their community are not obscured by the church with a few thousand members and international ministries. Rather, they are applauded for being a place where relationships are known to make an impact, where the fellowship hall is the only meeting space for non-profits in the community, and where a ride to the doctor can help someone avoid poverty or death. 

Rural churches deserve better than the statistical bias we’ve applied to them. They yearn to have their missional stories told. When we hear these stories, we’ll find the vitality that’s been there since the beginning. 

[i] See Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations, by Alan T. Stanton.

comments powered by Disqus