USDA statistics tell us that 16% of the the U.S. population lives in rural settings. While still a formidable number of people, 51 million, it’s a small percentage of the whole. That said, it’s important for us to realize that just because urban and suburban areas make up the largest part of our population, rural areas still provide social, economic, political, and spiritual stability for our nation. (I also addressed some of this in a previous post found here).
In thinking about this though, I have been wondering about the state of the church in rural areas. Here are some startling statistics from a recent study.
The State of the Rural Church
- 18% of believers attend rural churches. In 1998 it was 23%.
- 33% percent of churches are located in rural areas. In 1998 it was 43%.
- 24% of rural and small town churches are growing. On the downside, this means that 76% of these churches are plateaued or in decline. The exact opposite is happening in newer suburbs. 72% of churches in new suburbs are growing.
- Rural churches were rated higher by attenders than their suburban counterparts in “meaningful worship” and “Growing Spirituality. Suburban churches were rated higher than rural churches in the area of “Focusing on the Community.”
- Rural churches are far more likely to have trouble finding a pastor because ministry interest among pastors tends to lean toward suburban and urban church settings.
I also came across some statics out of the United Methodist church. In 2009 the UMC reported having 33,500 churches. 60% (20,000 churches) were located in rural communities. 3,400 rural churches closed between 2000 and 2009.
What I don’t know is how to interpret these statistics? There are some obvious factors that are affecting the decline.
(Sources: National Congregations Study, U.S. Congregational Life Survey, United Methodist Rural Ministry Survey)
Rural is becoming more rural, something I mentioned in a previous post. More people are leaving rural areas because of increased economic opportunities in suburban and urban areas. There are fewer jobs than their used to be in our rural communities. There are also fewer services than their used to be. Shopping, medical care, and other basic services are few and far between in more rural settings.
Those of us who live in smaller communities are accustomed to driving a half hour or more, one way, for just about everything. The benefits of living in a small community are often nostalgic, but there are drawbacks.
There are also fewer young people in rural communities. With a limited job base, many young people leave for jobs or advanced education and don’t return.
I am sure there are numerous other factors that contribute to these more recent rural church statistics.
What I am wondering is “How should the rural church respond?”