By Karen Shearer, Mark Twain District Lay Leader
A pastor friend of mine recently sent me some statistics that may be surprising: 77 percent of our United Methodist churches here in Missouri have weekly attendance of fewer than 100 people.* Furthermore, almost 60 percent of our churches have attendance of fewer than 50 people each week. Those churches with 50 or less, however, account for just 15 percent of our statewide weekly attendance.
Some may say, “So aren’t you stating the obvious? We’ve got lots of small churches, but they don’t contribute a lot.” To my way of thinking, what sometimes is not so obvious is that small membership churches actually do contribute a lot.
In the case of many rural areas in particular, the faith community is critical to the larger community. Just as there are after-school programs and youth activities in more metropolitan areas, there are after-school programs in small towns that simply wouldn’t happen without the local church. There are food pantries and clothing shops in basements and in unused Sunday School classrooms in those small churches. There are assistance programs and mission projects for local communities and communities across the globe. Small membership churches, rural churches in particular, are a vital part of their local communities.
In the same breath, there are ongoing challenges that rural churches face when considering the traditional metrics such as attendance and income. These challenges aren’t unique to small membership churches but often-times seem exacerbated by the general economy and the declining situation in many rural areas. Membership has fallen, expenses have risen, the church building(s) have aged, and a large percent of members are older. Discussions about how to continue moving forward are difficult to consider, yet have been necessary in many of our rural churches.
Against this backdrop of tenacity, passion, doubt and frustration, the Rural Ministry Now: A Path Forward conference was born. A grant became available within our Mark Twain District (north central and northeastern MO), and one of the concepts brought forward was that of an annual workshop specifically designed for small membership rural churches. The vast majority of our churches in the Mark Twain District are small churches. These churches are often a critical foundation of their local communities but are struggling to build a vibrant future in the face of considerable challenges.
Rather than trying to adapt materials from workshops for larger churches, this conference utilizes workshop leaders that are especially focused on small membership rural churches. To that end, our first event, scheduled for February 18, features Dr. Carl Ellis, Executive Director of the Lay Academy for Rural Church Ministries. Ellis’s strength is helping build strong, vibrant rural churches that can identify and pursue their vision. This workshop is designed to provide attendees with resources to take home and implement immediately (visit www.moumethodist.org/rural for more information and to register).
Rural churches are a source of strength, hope and faith for their members and their local communities. They bear a continuing, unwavering testament to Christ’s love in this world. It is our hope to celebrate and continue to build on those foundations to ensure strong, dynamic churches thrive in our communities, regardless of size.