• Small, rural churches can continue to thrive if they focus on the needs of their community.
• Fixation on youth, contributions, and attendance can be counterproductive.
• Rural churches have a better chance if they work out of a sense of opportunity rather than fear.
Older and younger people are not always better when it comes to churches, say United Methodist experts, who advise that community connections and effective service are a better measure of community vitality.
Small, rural churches can be just as influential as megachurches, in some cases even more so if people lose fixation on attendance, giving, and demographics, said Rev. Allen T. Stanton, executive director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College. Stanton’s book, “Rural Return: Building Successful Rural Congregations,” was published in May.
“My goal is to partially reject the idea that the goal is to build a church at all,” Stanton said. “Participation is a good metric. It’s helpful. ”
However, there are many things that visitors do not discover, he said.
“He does not tell you who was formed in that community. He doesn’t tell you what people are learning, “Stanton said. “It doesn’t tell you how many people live off their values. It just tells you who will show up. ”
Rural churches have plenty of landscapes to negotiate.
“Rural communities face unique challenges that are multiple,” said Rev. Zach Kingery, who is on the lead team of the Dakotas Connections Initiative, which received a nearly $ 1 million grant from Lilly Endowment to test new leadership models and support systems. would help rural assemblies thrive. Kingery is also a pastor at United Methodist Churches in Wessington Springs and Alpena in South Dakota.
“It’s not just that (rural communities) the church may be underserved,” Kingery said. “It is also the access to appropriate health care, education (resources) in that area and the type of employment opportunities. They all affect the health of the rural community, as well as the health of the church that serves that community. ”
Rural churches usually do a good job of connecting with their faithful and providing help as needed, Kingery said.
Also, rural people are more likely to be engaged in civic institutions, more likely to support a non-profit organization or their church community, and are only more likely to be engaged, ”Stanton said.
On the negative side, rural communities are sometimes motivated by the fear that the church is failing, so they become defensive and their attitude becomes a struggle for survival, said Rev. Thomas Tumblin, dean of the Beeson School of Practical Theology at Asbury Theology Theological Seminary, where he serves as executive director of the school initiative. churches.
“That self-protective nature will always start pushing us towards implosion,” Tumblin said. “If we can lay down our fears (and accept), we can’t control what follows, then we can ask ourselves, ‘What mission has God given us?’
Focusing on youth ministries in response to the aging of United Methodist membership is not always the right path, Stanton said. “There is an idea that in order to have a vital church, you have to develop a program for young people,” he said. “Because extremely vital churches have more young people, don’t they?” This is a common idea. “
But if you live in a city with an increasing number of elderly residents, why not expand the ministries to people who are ready there?
“In many rural communities, the biggest growth we are currently seeing is retirees moving to those communities because they want a slower pace of life,” said Stanton, who is himself a youth pastor.
“Why will you focus on youth programs? Why not focus on people who have the resources and time to volunteer and want to be involved in the community? ”
Churches are failing because they are losing their sense of identity, Tumblin said. This stems from “doing the church as usual” instead of focusing on what is needed in their community.
“When the sense of mission starts to get vague, we usually lose our sense of direction,” Tumblin said.
In the book, Stanton uses the First United Methodist Church in Gainesborough, Tennessee, as an example of a church that strengthened the sharpening focus of the mission.
The church is visited on Sunday morning by 55 people in a city of about 1,000 residents.
Reverend Tim Dunavant learned that local contractors were upset that graduates of the public school system did not have the basic skills needed to hire them after graduation. Nearly 50% of children in Gainesboro live below the poverty rate.
“(Dunavant) has started this mentoring program,” Stanton said.
The performers were paired with young people and taught them business skills such as carpentry, electrical installations and tiling.
“It has become like a workforce development initiative,” Stanton said. “So the county actually funded it.”
People who enter the ministry to change things can do it in a rural community, “because you may have the only leverage available in that community to do it through the church,” Stanton said.
A village church can be a real anchor institution in a small town, more than one in hundreds of churches in the town, Kingery said.
“(Rural communities) are facing challenges like the mental health crisis,” Kingery said. “The church should be the number one resource in which people connect with each other and fight this epidemic of loneliness.”
One good service is enough for a small church and you shouldn’t feel obligated to stretch too much, Stanton said.
“There’s an idea that more programs are better,” he said. “But the village church, which offers a literacy program, has a great influence in that community. They can actually fundamentally change the community. ”
Some of the problems around small, rural churches boil down to the problem of self-esteem, Tumblin said. But while the press can focus on larger churches, small churches outperform them.
“If a small church can see that they are on the brink of the next wave, unlike those who are lagging behind, I think there is a different sense of hope that is starting to grow,” Tumblin said.
Jim Patterson is a UM News reporter in Nashville, Tennessee.