By Barney Wells
“In this part of the country, there’s a Christian church every five miles, and three in between,” quipped the minister, who had served small-town congregations in the Midwest for decades. Though an overstatement, it does point to a challenge for the rural church.
Many rural churches were planted in the days before automobiles and good roads, when the population density of the rural countryside was much greater and you could travel only a few miles in 30 minutes. Back then, more schools, stores, and churches were needed. Over the years, schools have consolidated and stores have closed, but most of the churches still struggle to continue, many with just a fraction of their former attendance. What can these churches do?
The three best options are (1) merger, (2) cooperative ministry, and (3) becoming a regional church.
Before exploring these options, however, let’s consider the issue of legacy, as in what a person or group wants to pass on to the next generation. Churches have a legacy, and often it is misunderstood.
The small, surviving congregation in a sparsely populated rural context may look back and think, Our great-great-grandparents planted this church here, and successive generations have kept it going until now. It isn’t going to close on our watch. That’s a noble commitment, but it misconstrues the legacy as the church building in that place. In reality, the building—which is often old, energy-inefficient, and not suited to contemporary church activities—has become a sort of memorial to those who have gone before. It wasn’t constructed as a memorial, however, but as a tool to provide a vital Christian witness in the community. When a congregation sees its legacy as providing a vital witness to a community, it becomes much easier to exercise the options below:
Merger: When a number of rural churches exist within a 15- to 20-minute drive of each other, merger makes sense. A lot of discussion by both sets of leaders will be required, but if, by merging, the churches can form one congregation with the resources to support a full-time minister in the community, that congregation can grow.
The congregations might decide to keep the best of their buildings or sell all the buildings and build a new, centrally located one. Uniting the congregations likely will create opportunities that previously weren’t available.
Another merger option is to become a “campus” of a larger church. This again requires in-depth discussions, but it has worked well in some places.
Cooperative Ministry: When rural churches don’t see merger as the best way to provide a vital Christian witness in the community, another option is to share staff. It’s possible for one minister to serve two churches that are in close proximity. While one church might not be able to pay a salary, two cooperating churches could provide a living wage. In a dozen or so cases I have observed, this arrangement can stabilize both congregations and even foster growth in both.
This approach works quite well until the two growing congregations combined need more ministry than one staff member can provide. When that happens, the congregations can begin to compete for the minister’s time and attention, and this often leads to frustration, the minister leaving, and both churches declining again.
Cooperating congregations that plan for growth, not just for maintenance, by having a plan to add staff when certain benchmarks are met, find this a beneficial option for smaller churches.
One congregation can also share other resources another church lacks, such as a musician or children’s ministry leader. Each congregation has unique strengths that could bless another body of believers.
Another related model gaining momentum is for a larger church in a region to reach out to smaller congregations around them and offer encouragement, share resources, and perhaps cooperate in student or children’s ministry. If there is no larger church in the area to lead the way, two or three small congregations can cooperate and become stronger together.
Regional Church: A rural church with vision can conceivably become a regional church. A regional church acts upon their vision to draw people from a 30-mile (or more) range. This obviously is not a solution every rural church can implement; it requires the congregation to act with planning, patience, and determination. The congregation must be willing to try new things and welcome new and sometimes very different people. Surprisingly, the most rural of churches—those outside of any town or village—often have the best chance of becoming a regional church.
Rural churches can celebrate the legacy of past generations and preserve the pioneering spirit of their founders. They can try new approaches to congregational life. They can find a way to foster a vital Christian witness in the larger community, even amid a population decline.
Barney Wells, a veteran of the small, rural church, serves as dean of Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.
Clark Bates, an associate minister with McCook (Nebraska) Christian Church, contributed to this article.