By Kent E. Fillinger
Nonmetropolitan or “rural” counties make up 72 percent of the land area in the United States and are home to 14 percent of the nation’s population. The landscape of small towns and rural America is changing in distinct ways. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, Brookings Institution researcher William H. Frey reported, “Not only has the nonmetropolitan population remained much whiter than the rest of the nation, it is also getting older faster and shrinking in size” (www.brookings.edu).
Almost three-fourths of these rural counties are at least 70 percent white, according to Census Bureau data. The age gap is continuing to widen, with one-third of rural residents belonging to the 55-plus age group, compared with 27 percent in metropolitan areas. Two-thirds of rural counties lost population, according to this recent data. And in all states except Hawaii and Montana, rural areas either declined more or grew less than their metropolitan counterparts.
These demographic shifts, I must assume, also apply to the locations of many of our rural Restoration Movement churches. Of the 429 churches that responded to our 2017 annual church survey, 39 percent reported they were located in a small-town or rural community. These 169 small-town or rural churches were located in 35 states, the top three being Indiana (28 churches), Kentucky (18), and Illinois (17).
Among very small churches that participated in our survey, 59 percent were located in a small-town or rural community, compared with only 18 percent of emerging megachurches. Almost half (48 percent) of the medium and small churches were located in such rural settings, and one-fourth of megachurches had at least one multisite location there.
Only 12 percent of the small-town and rural churches used a multisite model. All these multisite churches were either megachurches, emerging megachurches, or large churches.
Growth rates and baptism ratios for small-town and rural churches (denoted simply as “rural” moving forward) and churches in suburban and urban settings (“urban”) were mixed. Here’s a chart of the data.
With the exception of megachurches, on average, rural churches are 10 years older than their urban counterparts (average start dates of 1937 and 1947, respectively). On the other hand, rural church ministers were younger in every church size except for emerging megachurches and large churches. Overall, the average ages of lead ministers, rural and urban, were 49.1 and 50.8, respectively.
Rural lead ministers, according to 2017 data, have the lengthiest tenures in every church-size category except megachurches and very small churches. The lead ministers of rural churches were a little less likely to be hired from within the church (22 percent vs. 26 percent overall).
The largest percentage of rural churches used only a contemporary/modern worship style (41 percent). The second most common was blended only (31 percent). (For more about worship styles, see my article in the September issue.)
Total giving in these rural churches averaged 11 percent less than average giving in all churches. Average per-person giving in rural churches was less than the overall averages in every category except megachurches and large churches. Financial giving to outreach ministries varied little among rural and urban churches.
The Brookings Institution article “Finding the ‘American Dream’ in Rural America” might help explain the lower level of giving in our rural churches. In it, Fred Dews noted, “Rural Americans, on average, experience lower incomes, lower levels of education, and lower life expectancy than their urban counterparts, and overall, rural communities are more likely to exhibit persistent poverty.”
If poverty is a reality in your rural location, the Human Needs Index, a collaboration between the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and The Salvation Army, could be helpful to you and your church. To learn more about poverty and the physical needs in your state, visit www.humanneedsindex.org.
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.