Vital voices from rural churches

April 25th, 2024

Every few years, whenever a new report on the state of religion in the United States appears, one statistic seems to dominate the discussion. Most churches are small; Most people attend larger churches. The 2021 National Congregations Survey described the statistical reality like this: imagine if you lined up all the churches in the United States from smallest to largest. By the time you reached the church with 360 people, you would have walked past 50% of churchgoers, and 90% of all churches

We hear similar conversations every few years in the news about the reality of rural places in the United States. Most communities in the United States are rural. And yet most people live in urban, suburban, and exurban[i]communities. 

Too often, we allow these kinds of statistics and quick facts to shape the conversation around rural spaces and rural churches. Is there hope for rural communities if most people don’t live in them? Is there hope for small, rural congregations if most churchgoers attend large-membership churches? The question that I hear being asked underneath those questions is whether we should continue to invest time, people, and resources into these communities and congregations. If most people aren’t living in rural communities or attending our rural churches, then what is the point? 

I reject the premise of that foundational question. I reject it because it misses an obvious truth: nearly half of all churchgoers are choosing to attend small and rural congregations. There are more small rural churches than big churches because the people that live in our rural communities and attend our small rural congregations have found that these churches are faithful communities of discipleship. Which means that being rural and being small are not descriptions of failures or deficiencies. It’s a feature of vocation. A feature of vitality. A feature of faithfulness. To be rural and to be small is a gift. Without our congregations, more than half of all churchgoers would not have a church-home. Which means that the future of the rural church is not one of failure and quiet closings. It is a future of life. 

In the aftermath of General Conference 2019, I became frustrated that our conversations about the future of The United Methodist Church were not adequately considering the future of the thousands of rural congregations that make up the majority of our parishes. 

A few months later, as we began adjusting into the pandemic-shaped world, I frequently heard that our rural congregations were doomed. There was no way, it was repeated to me, that our smaller rural churches could survive. 

But then I saw rural churches begin to thrive. 

Rural and small membership churches tended to maintain their tithes and offerings better than their larger peers. We found new ways to be missional in our communities, sharing WiFi to students in need, handing out food, and finding new avenues for community in a socially distant world. We provided avenues to help people get COVID19 vaccines, and found that people who attended rural churches whose pastor encouraged them to get vaccination were more likely to follow through.

At every turn, I saw the rural church prove that not only can we survive, but that we can and are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

If there is a failure to recognize the potential of the rural church in whatever shape The United Methodist Church takes next, it is not just the failure of our denominational structures. Those of us committed to rural ministry have a responsibility to =help our denomination re-imaginewhy the rural church is so important to the future of The United Methodist Church. And I think there are four main areas where we need to help our denomination imagine such a future.

First, we must remind ourselves that Methodism in the United States is a movement built on the rural church. The scholar Nathan Hatch reminds us that, when other denominations established themselves in port cities, Francis Asbury led Methodism through the backroads of the fledgling nation, planting small chapels that still stand today. That was the spark for Methodism’s growth. Like some of you, I’ve had the privilege to pastor a church that Asbury brought into the connection. Today, it is not much bigger than it was in 1789. But its presence is a testament to the reality that these churches persist because of their faithful discipleship. These churches were established to ensure that the gospel of Jesus Christ would not be contained to the growing cities. Asbury recognized that the path to spreading scriptural holiness would need to include rural communities. 

In the next few years, our Annual Conferences and districts will continue to reorganize to adapt to the new realities of a changing denomination. It is our responsibility as rural leaders to guide these conversations so that the work of spreading scriptural holiness is intimately connected and lived out through our rural churches. After all, if we are the majority of churches in The United Methodist Church, then we cannot cede our responsibility of carrying out the work to which Wesley and Asbury entrusted us. 

Second, if we are to take seriously our history, and we are to take seriously the work of spreading scriptural holiness, then we also must take evangelism seriously as a central pillar of our work. But before we do that, we must realize that we have not always understood evangelism well. It would be hard to argue that Asbury did not care about evangelism. But when Asbury traveled across the rural communities of this nation, he did not expect that every chapel would become a megachurch. Think about these two statistics. One, again, half of all church goers in the United States attend small-membership churches. Two, rural communities are increasingly attracting new residents who want to move into quieter, more spacious communities. Sociologists are calling this the “rural brain gain” —middle-aged families and recent retirees moving back to rural spaces to raise their kids and retire in a rural community or small town. 

If we are to adequately support our rural communities, we will likely need more rural, small membership churches, not fewer. At its core, evangelism is about bringing people to participate in God’s kingdom. Asbury did that not by growing megachurches, but by planting more and more small churches that were equipped to disciple their new members in a community of care and accountability. If we are successful with our evangelism, our individual churches may not grow, but there will be more of them. Moving forward, our evangelism must embrace that we need more small churches for the nearly half of people who desire and need a small church to disciple them. 

Third, we need to be able to reclaim vitality for our rural congregations. Part of that reclamation is about being better able to understand how and why rural churches do what we do. Part of that is being able to articulate what makes the work and mission of rural congregations unique and purposeful. 

In Elkton, TN, the main street drives by the post office, the elementary school, and the church. That church is a tangible symbol of that town, and a vital institution. This small church of 25 participating members routinely provides services that no other organization in the community can provide. They pack meals and provide school supplies for students at the nearby elementary school. They offer a tornado shelter—the only one in the town—for families that have nowhere else to go. They preach the gospel each week. If the church were to disappear, the town would never be the same. It is a vital rural congregation. 

We cannot sit and wait for others to articulate to rural churches how to be vital. Instead, those of us committed to leading in rural churches must be the ones who define what rural vitality looks like to the rest of our denomination. I mentioned a moment ago that in many rural places, the largest growing demographic is recent retirees moving in as they begin their second half of life. In these towns, our vitality cannot be based on how many children are in our doors, but by whether we are making disciples to the people that are actually in our community. 

In smaller rural congregations, mission work is done organically by people caring for their neighbors, volunteering in other organizations, and by their leadership in the community. Their participation in the church is through the work of ensuring that the church can continue to be open—to maintain finances, clean the sanctuary, and cook meals. Rather than launch new programs that bring the pastor and laity closer to burnout, we should measure our mission by the tangible impact of our members, and how we disciple our members to make God’s kingdom known in their everyday work. 

Vitality in rural places should not just be a replication of vitality in a suburban community. Vitality should be as nuanced as our rural communities are, reflecting the diversity of the rural people that live in these places. We must imagine a new path of vitality for the rural church, and we have to be the ones who communicate that to our colleagues throughout the connection. 

Fourth—and I think this might be most important—we must acknowledge that pessimism about our future is a luxury. And it is a luxury that we no longer have. I am fortunate that I get to hear stories from rural churches all over the United States. I am inspired by what I hear. They are lifegiving, and they demonstrate the power of resurrection. These stories are a tangible reminder that the Kingdom of God is near. And only our leaders in rural churches can tell those stories.  

We no longer have the luxury of being pessimistic about the future of the rural church. The resurrection of Jesus, the movement of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the work of the people called Methodist over the last three hundred years have shown to us that we are called to be a people of honest and resounding hope. 

The future of The United Methodist Church and the future of our rural congregations are intimately tied together. If The United Methodist Church is to live into its mission, our denomination must take seriously the role of rural congregations. The United Methodist Church must emphasize the importance and diversity of rural places and the diversity of rural people and find ways to resource and equip rural congregations to strengthen their ministries. But in order to do that well, we need more rural voices. We need more rural stories. We need more rural advocacy. 

As rural leaders, we cannot sit by and wait to see if our denomination acknowledges this future. We share in the responsibility to shape and guide what comes next. Let’s help The United Methodist Church embrace a future of vital rural congregations.



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