Rural churches may sometimes feel isolated and overlooked, but some people are watching, and it's not just within the church. The Rural Sociology Department at the University of Missouri - Columbia has been studying rural churches in Missouri since the 1950s.
The study was originally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which hoped to modernize rural churches and saw them as an engine of community development.
The study found the rural church in Missouri wasn’t disappearing, but it was changing. The study took place in 1952, 1967, 1982 and 1999, and looked at townships with populations under 2,500.
“Throughout the study there were roughly 600 churches present in the areas being studied, and the last round again found about the same number of churches. But they weren’t the same churches – only about 300 were the same. The other half had closed and had been replaced by other churches,” said Dr. Jere Gilles, Rural Sociology professor at the University of Missouri and coordinator of the study in recent years. “The ones that were still around were parish-based ministries that were active in their communities.” said Gilles.
Often when people think rural Missouri, they think farming. That line of thinking is about 60 years out of date.
“The people of rural Missouri working in any field relating to agriculture has been in the minority since the 1950s,” Gilles said. “Now, fewer than 15 percent of the population in rural areas is involved in agriculture in any way. That’s from 10 years ago. It’s probably lower now. In most rural communities there are more retirees than farmers.”
Politics, or at least the perception of politics, has also changed. The survey taken in year 2000 found that no one wanted to self-identify as a liberal or a fundamentalist – terms that were perfectly acceptable in the 1950s.
“Even though the terms are accurate, almost no one will self-identify as a liberal or fundamentalist anymore,” Gilles said.
Better transportation complicates things, Gilles said. Most of the rural churches in Missouri were established in locations so that the members could get there in less than an hour, either on foot or by horse and buggy. That translates into a few minutes in a car, and not many people will choose one church over another just because it is five minutes closer in a car.
Transportation has also changed the composition of the community and how people view the community in which they reside. In some rural areas, the majority of the residents do not just not work locally. They don’t even work in the adjoining county. When they are spending so much time commuting through the week, the weekend becomes the only time to catch up on basic domestic chores and making time for church on Sunday morning can be a hard sell.
Gilles said that the whole culture has become much more monetized, citing that people eat out more, pay for childcare and pay for other services they used to do themselves. Churches have also become more monetized, paying for things like janitorial services that used to be taken care of by volunteer labor.
That can be applied all the way to the top. Gilles said in many churches, preaching and pastoring were originally not considered to be a combined position. The churches hired a preacher, whose duties were limited to preaching the sermon on Sunday morning. Pastoral care and administrative functions of the church came from within the congregation. The same can be said of early Methodist churches. A circuit rider served several churches, and faith development came from class meetings within the congregation. The churches were run locally, by community volunteers, like a one-room school house. But later, people started redefining what it means to be a church and feeling like it wasn’t a real church if it didn’t have a pastor.
Gilles looks at his on home church, Olivet Christian Church, in a rural area just east of Columbia as an example. The church is 150 years old but is only on its third full-time pastor. It used to have part-time preachers.
Some small town churches have moved out of town, seeking better parking and highway exposure, with some success. Usually when that happens, the old church building is taken over by another denomination.
Some churches have dwindled to just a few members. Gilles said sometimes that is OK. The church still serves an important role in the community.
“The rural church is often much more vital than people would think,” Gilles said. “People in the congregations are often more deeply invested in the church than the average person at a larger congregation.”
The overall population of Missouri is expected to reach 6.8 million people by 2030, growing by about 1.2 million since 2000. But even in growing counties, it can be hard for rural churches to grow.
“The new comers are not part of the community. Sometimes they don’t even see the community as a community. They do all of their shopping in a larger town, where they work. They might have little connection to the community where they reside,” Gilles said.
There can also be a conflict of value differences. The existing congregation may place a high value on a historic structure or historic furnishings. The newcomer may think things
need to be modernized.
“Sometimes in growing communities, the churches are choosing not to grow,” Gilles said. “The newcomers might have a higher income and education level than others in the community. If they go to their local church, they might feel they should be in charge. They are used to being in charge at work and in other aspects of their life. Having big differences in education and income and having differing values and views of the material world are not trivial. The people in the church may feel that the newcomers look down on them.”
This varies greatly between communities, though. Gilles said there is a trite saying among sociologist: If you know something about one large city, you know something about all large cities. If you know something about a small town, you know something about one small town. Large cities are diverse within but not so diverse between. Small towns are usually not diverse within but are often very different between. It comes down to basic math.
“At the crudest level, we’re talking about sample size,” Gilles said. “If you roll two dice, you might get two ones or two sixes.
If you roll 3,000 dice, you won’t get 3,000 ones. The last time there was any homogeny between rural areas was when most people were connected to agriculture, but that’s been over 60 years ago.”
The diversity between communities makes it challenging for hierarchies, like United Methodist Conferences, to know how to best provide support for rural churches.
“Bureaucracies have difficulty with diversity,” Gilles said. “Rural areas are more diverse, more different than urban areas, and it’s more difficult to know what to do to support them.”
A summary of the 50-year rural sociology study was prepared and presented as an online book entitled The Rechurching of Rural America. Authors of the book were Gary Farley, John Bennet, Jere Gilles and Arnold Parks. Parks is certified lay speaker serving Saint Paul (New Bloomfield) and Paris Fork. The book can be found at ruralchurch.us.