Why do many small and rural churches struggle to find and retain leaders and even to survive? More importantly, what are some solutions? Christian Standard asked Jerran Jackson to lead and manage a project to study these issues. He teamed with four other seasoned leaders who have expertise in the small church to develop this topic.
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By Jerran Jackson and Barney Wells
Many rural and small-town churches are struggling. LifeWay Research found that 60 percent of Protestant churches are plateaued or declining in attendance. And 46 percent say their giving decreased or stayed the same from 2017 to 2018. Churches with fewer than 100 on Sunday tend to be the hardest hit. These make up 58 percent of the American church landscape.
At present, approximately 44 percent of all members of independent Christian churches and churches of Christ worship in a congregation with 2,000 or more in weekly attendance. Yet the latest available data shows the mean size of a Christian church is 115. This means most Christian churches and churches of Christ see about 85 worshippers each week.
These congregations need leaders who can help them reach their potential. However, small churches already find it difficult to attract and retain good leaders. In the past, Bible college graduates often would go to small congregations or to rural and small-town churches to serve. Now, few young ministers are interested in doing this.
In America, 10,000 people reach age 65 each day. That figure is the most ever, and it will soon rise to 12,000 daily. Many ministers plan to continue serving beyond retirement age, but here’s the reality: 69 percent of Americans leave the full-time workforce by age 66. This means that over the next 10 years we can expect a great exodus of full-time ministers. The pool of applicants for single-staff congregations will be very limited, and many small church bodies will be unable to hire a minister.
Ken Idleman predicted, “Churches will be in trouble in a decade or less if we do not, with urgency, get back to praying for and calling out our future leaders and supporting the Bible colleges, where our leaders will be best prepared.”
The truth is, while prayer and Bible college support are vital, we must take other actions as well. While all Christian church Bible colleges still offer programs in general ministry and in preaching, students want to specialize. Ministry degrees range from spiritual formation to social justice, from children’s ministry to seniors ministry, and from technology and creative arts to sports and recreation ministry. Seminaries have tried to offer courses or programs in rural ministry, said Ron Klassen, but few students are planning to go to a rural church.
This article offers analysis of the problems, stories of how churches deal with them, and recommendations for what small and rural congregations should consider. Elders and ministers in congregations with fewer than 250 people on Sunday morning need to discuss these realities. There is hope, but we must not ignore the problem.
Jerran Jackson has served Clarksburg (Indiana) Christian Church, a small, rural congregation, for 40 years.
Barney Wells, a veteran of the small, rural church, serves as dean of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.