The rural sociology department of the University of Missouri asked pastors and lay leaders of about 400 rural churches across that state to list the advantages and disadvantages of rural church life and ministry.
Responses seemed to cluster around 10 advantages and 10 disadvantages:
1. A relational, “like family” atmosphere. The members share many bonds of kinship, vocation, experiences of ministering to one another in times of joy and of sorrow, and a sense of being a co-owner or partner in the enterprise of the congregation;
2. A core of dedicated, reliable workers who are experienced in the programs and ministries of the church;
3. The pastor is allowed, even encouraged, to be a shepherd/leader;
4. Deeply involved in ministry to one another and to the community;
5. Love is experienced in the congregation, this being its primary method of outreach and evangelism;
6. When needs of the church and its ministry are presented, strong financial support is forthcoming;
7. Open-minded and accepting of new ideas;
8. Supportive of other small, rural churches;
9. Abiding faith that has carried many members through difficult times, helping them to grow spiritually. Often this is incarnated in present and remembered “saints”;
10. Actively supportive of the world mission enterprise.
1. The congregation is aged and does not seem to be attractive to younger folk;
2. Traditional or “local” in perspective, not open to change, or welcoming of the new persons, methods or programs:
3. Experiences difficulty in finding and keeping a pastor;
4. Declining population base in the area served by the church limits outreach;
5. Unable to offer a variety of programs and activities due to the limited number of people involved;
6. Shortage of money and other resources;
7. Difficulty experienced in finding persons in the congregation with the ability to lead and teach;
8. The worship experience lacks quality;
9. Competition from secular activities for the time and support of people in the church;
10. Remaining true to the Gospel and proclaiming it properly in an age of secularity.
Note the apparent contradictions in the lists. This is to be expected given the diversity of rural settings and of rural churches. Some are strong and healthy. Others are sick and weak.
Money, leadership and traditionalism are problems in some but are strengths in others.
Some congregations match the first list well and others the second. Others are in between, with elements from both lists. My own experience highlights rural churches’ hospitality and love. The small size of many and their life-long experience with one another and with the Lord enables some rural churches to approximate the ideals one finds in the Pauline epistles.
The Baptist movement in America continues to have a strong rural base. More than half of the churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention have fewer than 2,500 members. Most are small with fewer than 65 in worship. Most have passed their 100th anniversary. Across the years they have experienced good times and bad. They have learned to make do.
They fit their congregation’s needs—comfortably. But here one may find their most common weakness: they are too comfortable.
They need to move beyond personal and congregational comfort zones and apply the teaching of Jesus to their lives. Often their beliefs are so intertwined with their immediate culture that they overlook the larger world.
Many rural churches have problems related to finances, declining population bases, aging and competition from other institutions. But as with us all, the greatest problem is being too comfortable and thus too stagnant in their spirituality.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala. From 1984 to 1997 he led the rural church program of the Southern Baptist Convention. He maintains a website on rural church and community matters at www.pickens.net/~pba. He is co-author of Rural Ministry with Shannon Jung and others (1998). He is currently working on the report of the replication of the Missouri rural church study, The Rechurching of Rural America.