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    a rural  church surrounded by farmland

    Why So Many Rural Churches?

    In 1909 the US government proposed consolidating churches to one per thousand residents. Would churches meet the same fate as local schools and shops?

    By Charles E. Cotherman

    October 27, 2023
    • Colin McCulloch

      There's also a lot here that's relevant to 'church' in larger urban settings. Maybe the big church model is efficient for delivering (big-name?) teaching or other preaching; and for a certain kind of worship; but it also fails to nurture relationships and community, and fails to enable the discovery and exercise of the gifts of all members, which surely is the practice and doctrine we see in Acts and epistles?

    • Terri B Renfrew

      "To be recognized to have a gaze returned is to be in relationship, and to be in relationship is one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity." Profound; and winsome! Thank you for your insight. The Lord has purposed you well!

    • Gary Mintchell

      Efficiency works well in manufacturing and production (my specialties in writing). Productivity, that elusive economics metric, means little outside the production line. Am I more productive writing two blog posts a day rather than one? Does that matter? I've experienced very small churches, medium-sized, and mega-church life. I remember the church growth courses and seminars of the late 70s and early 80s. If you are going to put together a "rock concert and TED talk" worship, the rock band had better be good and play popular songs. And the speaker must be better than just good plus personable and entertaining. What is the purpose of church? If it is bringing people into life-changing and life-enriching experiences, where does size matter? More important is relationship. Also important is living the goal of sharing the life of the Spirit. Often we measure the wrong things. And then act poorly because of it. Thanks for this thoughtful piece.

    • James Rhoads

      Thanks so much. Having grown up 1 mile from Bud's store and appreciating the friendliness of Bud and Thelma, you gave me a taste of going home. The church in Nineveh was a strong part of my search for a life lived for Jesus. That is what led me finally to a life in church community which does not seek to be a mega church, just followers of Jesus. Thanks for the breath of home.

    For decades, Bud Smith’s Store stood at the crossroads village of Nineveh, Pennsylvania. Behind the two-story white columns, whose formality offered a contrast to the surrounding fields and modest houses, a man and his wife earned a living and literally built a community by selling off parcels of land for new homes. Unlike the dollar stores that dot rural communities today, Bud and Thelma sold everything from work boots and guns to gas, meat, fresh produce, and penny candy. Located between my grandfather’s two farmsteads, it offered a convenient high school job for my uncle and other neighborhood kids. Thirty years later it provided my brother and me with a destination worth a four-mile bike ride.

    If you live in a rural area, you know where this is going.

    About twenty-five years ago Bud’s Store closed. The Smiths’ age and lack of a successor were contributing factors, but just as significant was the nearby construction (almost simultaneously in two neighboring towns) of another store that bore its founder’s name. As it turned out, Sam Walton had discovered a more efficient way to meet the needs of communities like Nineveh.

    What does this story have to do with the rural church? In some ways, rural churches have followed a trajectory distinct from that of mom-and-pop businesses. Many of the rural communities that have lost general stores, businesses, and family farms still have main streets and country roads dotted with steeples. Nineveh is a case in point. The country church just down the road from what was Bud’s Store is thriving today.

    Many other small congregations, however, could hardly be described as thriving. Budgetary shortfalls and a failure to replace aging members of the congregation who pass away are common struggles for a significant number of rural congregations. Other challenges are more subtle. While financial records, annual baptisms, and weekly attendance numbers are hard to miss, a less identifiable and more universal threat to local congregations comes in the form of a shared set of cultural assumptions that prioritize efficiency above nearly all else. To maintain a vision for the importance of local congregations in areas with small populations and seemingly limited potential, we have to face head on the subtle power of this cultural value.

    Our Culture’s Emphasis on Efficiency

    Americans have long valued practicality and sought fast-tracks to progress. Early colonists blended idealism (they were founding a “city on the hill” in a “new world”) and realism (first they had to build houses, plant crops, and make sure they didn’t die of starvation or disease in the wilderness). This heady blend of idealism and pragmatism shaped the history, culture, and religious practices of the new nation.  

    By the late nineteenth century, the disappearance of the frontier and the increasing influence of the Industrial Revolution gave the drive for pragmatic solutions and efficiency a more explicit and culturally dominant role. The nationwide push for industrialization offered new metrics for quantifying productivity and the value of individual workers.

    The name commonly associated with this shift is Fredrick W. Taylor (1856–1915). An engineer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Taylor developed a process of “practical scientific management” that sought to “reorganize and standardize workers’ jobs.” Beginning in the 1880s, Taylor began studying individual worker motions and the time needed to carry them out in order to develop a “one best way” for the completion of each task.” As historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and her team of authors demonstrate in their book Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, these “Taylorisms” had an immediate and far-reaching impact on industries like the manufacturing of textiles. Propelled forward by newly hired mill consultants, who sought to “recommend efficiencies in every aspect of production from bookkeeping methods to machine loads and pay scales,” mills dehumanized their working conditions and downplayed the value of skilled laborers who had developed a lifetime of expertise.

    The push for efficiency dominated much of American culture by the early twentieth century. Not all changes were bad. Today we appreciate (and probably take for granted) the efficiency of septic lines and the electric grid. But while we can recognize the importance of some changes that accompanied the social and infrastructural reforms of the Progressive Era, the early decades of the twentieth century also demonstrated that efficiency could be used in ways that cut against human dignity and flourishing. World War I proved how efficient we had become at killing our enemies a point reinforced ad nauseum throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

    By the early 1960s, when much of the world lived under the terrifying shadow of another highly efficient weapon the atomic bomb French sociologist Jacques Ellul identified this totalizing power of efficiency as the mark of “a technological society.” For Ellul, it was not technology or technological innovation itself that made a society “technological;” rather, it was its thoroughgoing adoption of “technique,” which he described as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” In his 1964 book, The Technological Society, Ellul detailed how technique and its unabashed emphasis on ever-increasing efficiency had become “a universal language.”

    Technique’s influence has only grown in the decades since Ellul first identified its powerful grip on the modern world. As Alan Noble points out in his book, You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World, when “efficiency becomes the greatest good,” we are left with a world that feels “out of step with our basic humanity.” As Western culture abandons a belief in overarching truth claims or a shared moral compass, technique’s relentless and dehumanizing drive for efficiency fills the vacuum. In a culture devoid of shared value systems, most implicitly agree on the value of efficiency. But efficiency has a cost. Since efficiency always implies competition, we find ourselves in a constant rat race to out-perform others and demonstrate our value. Those who cannot keep up fall to the back, and society moves on.

    The Church in a Technological Society

    The rural church did not escape the expanding push for efficiency. As Shannon Jung and her coauthors recount in the book Rural Ministry: The Shape of the Future to Come, by the first decades of the twentieth century, efforts were underway to bring rural churches under an ecclesiological variation of Taylorism. Theodore Roosevelt’s National Commission on Country Life issued a 1909 report highlighting the positive contributions of rural congregations on their communities, but the report also found rural areas to have more churches than the commission deemed necessary. Based on this assessment, the members of the Commission on Country Life called for the “consolidation of denominational churches” within counties as well as the creation of union churches, which consisted of the merger of congregations from differing denominations into one congregation. They also recommended what they considered an optimal church to population ratio: one church per thousand residents. Taylorism’s “one best way” apparently applied to the church as well.

    While many of these early efforts to quantify the efficiency of rural congregations were carried out by denominational or governmental entities, the drive for efficiency became less institutionalized and more pervasive over time. In post-war America, a push for efficiency within the local church was more often led by a revolving group of church growth consultants and expert communicators who built large ministries through the systematic appropriation of business techniques and large media platforms. But as local churches looked to top-selling Christian authors, famous television preachers, and well-known worship leaders, what they witnessed was a new kind of efficiency that rewarded those who had won the competition for market share. Even as smaller churches looked to examples in worship or church leadership that they could never hope to match, these models provided the standard against which local churches often had to compete in the eyes of their congregants and even in their own self-estimation. No wonder the temptation toward church consolidation and mega churches has been so compelling. Like Walmart, these larger churches have harnessed the power of efficiency to great effect.

    a rural  church surrounded by farmland

    Building at top right was once Bud Smith’s Store in Nineveh, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Garrett Heath.

    In a bigger-is-better culture obsessed with efficiency, small churches in small places face persistent questions. Why should small churches not simply consolidate into larger congregations for greater specialization? Do small places even need a local church? Why not establish a large hub church in each region in an approach like that of corporate chains? Are small churches a poor use of ministry resources?

    Rural churches are usually not built for efficiency. They seldom rely on the fine-tuned systems or specialization a technological society values. What rural churches can offer, however, is an opportunity to be truly known within the church and the larger community. This is something pastor Ronnie Martin noticed immediately when he moved from the sprawl of southern California to a small town in northern Ohio, an experience he recounts in Pastoring Small Towns. Accustomed to seeing “anonymous faces everywhere” he went, after several years pastoring in a small town he found himself encountering “multiple people I’ve known for years in almost every conceivable juncture.” Many small-town pastors can identify. There is seldom a quick trip to the store. On the way to grab a gallon of milk we see congregants, neighbors, and our children’s teachers. Conversations and times of prayer in the aisle often ensue.

    There are faster ways to get our goods than visiting a local store. (A purchase from Amazon comes with no chance of running into that chatty church member in town.) Similarly, the church in much of the Western world faces a temptation to divorce basic features of congregational life from actual relationships. Why employ a local preacher when a sermon on YouTube or a podcast from an expert may offer a superior “product” on a timeline of one’s own choosing? Why support a small church in a town losing population when a longer commute will take you to a larger church that functions as a one-stop Christian resource center?

    Today, embodied and localized faithfulness may be more important than ever. As sociologist James Davidson Hunter notes in his widely read book To Change the World, a commitment to “faithful presence” in the places we inhabit every day is as formative as it is necessary. As Hunter notes, “Against the limitless horizon of a will that is ever seeking its own fulfillment and pleasure, faithful presence calls believers to yield their will to God and to nurture and cultivate the world where God has placed them … to attend to the people and places that they experience directly.” While Hunter addresses his charge to all believers, the localized faithfulness and stewardship of place over time that he calls the church to is well suited to the experience of rural congregations.

    For most rural churches, faithfulness and presence in a place over time is a central aspect of their identities. They have grieved with those who grieved and rejoiced with those who have rejoiced in their communities faithfully for decades. They have looked for ways to live out the goodness of the gospel with a natural sense of the contextualized realities of place.

    In spite of this history, the cultural pervasiveness of technique does not spare small-town churches. Pastors, churches, and entire movements can still get caught up looking for quick fixes that tempt them to neglect the places and people God has called them to. Sometimes our ambition drives us on. In other cases, it may be our insecurity. Do we really think this place or this church matters? Do we really believe that we matter to God? Can I trust God to provide for me and my family here? Wouldn’t it simply be better more efficient and more eternally significant to move on to the next place or to consolidate churches so we can reach more people?

    Most rural pastors know that these are not hypothetical questions. When I told my admittedly risk-adverse father ten years ago that my wife and I were planning to move back to rural western Pennsylvania from an upwardly mobile university town to plant a church in Oil City, he promptly told me not to do it. I can still remember him saying, “There’s no money there. How will you support your family?” Was Oil City too small and too economically challenged? We had to ask and answer these questions. In the end, God reminded us of the value of small places and his ability to provide. We planted Oil City Vineyard Church in 2016, and God has provided every step of the way.

    A Hunger for Presence

    In the first pages of The Life We’re Looking For, Andy Crouch notes that “recognition is the first human quest.” A newborn spends the first few days of life searching for a face that returns its gaze. To be recognized to have a gaze returned is to be in relationship, and to be in relationship is one of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity.

    It is hard to deny that we live in an increasingly inhuman world, where screens and the virtual realities they beckon us toward are attuned to the consumerist potential of each user with logarithmic efficiency. It feels like for every call to “shop local” to pay attention to the people and places around us another Amazon box smiles up at us from our doorsteps and another Dollar General, with its purposefully decontextualized efficiency, opens nearby.

    In this context local churches can function as signposts of the kingdom of God by helping Christians and their neighbors learn to embrace the God-given and God-sanctioned limitations and potential of their humanity. In a rootless age, Christians can embrace the places they call home knowing that God loves these places and can bring good out of them. Christians can and should do this on an individual and family level, but we should also be involved in this local faithfulness on a congregational level as well. Like parents who choose to show up for their children’s sporting events and school functions, a congregation’s choice to be present in its community communicates something powerful about the value of a place and its people.

    Choosing to put down roots or to keep showing up in the same place year after year may seem like an inefficient use of time and resources. But remember, with God, the question “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (or from Oil City, Pennsylvania, or Aberdeen, South Dakota, or whatever corner of the world you call home) is always met with a resounding “Yes!” God’s choice to place finite humans in his creation with the command to steward one corner of it, is a reminder that none of us as individuals or as a congregation is called to do it all. A “one best way” does not exist for humanity, nor does it exist for the church. No matter how loudly the siren of efficiency calls or how many church growth strategies we encounter, we will never be able to mass-produce a more efficient ministry model than spirit-empowered human presence. God intends for us to pay attention to the local context in which we serve, so we can recognize his presence in every place we cast our eyes or set our feet. Wherever we find ourselves, God has been there first planting the flag of his love and tending his creation with the attentiveness of a master gardener.

    The same Holy Spirit that was active in the person of Jesus now empowers God’s people to be emissaries of the kingdom in every holler and hamlet and high-rise. In our increasingly virtual world, people are hungry for presence and the recognition it brings. It is a hunger the local church is called to help sate.

    Today, the common refrain to “shop local” often serves as an explicit attempt to draw our attention to the people and places around us that produce our food and populate main streets and farmers’ markets. For Bud Smith’s store, these calls came too late. When Bud and Thelma closed their doors, the community lost more than a store, it lost the stories that Bud and Thelma shared with those who entered; it lost the contextualized knowledge of a people and place that allowed Bud and Thelma to care for people as people, not anonymous consumers. It is more efficient to make a profit from anonymous consumers, but efficiency comes at a cost relationship.

    In a technological society, local churches that operate on a human scale rather than a corporate model are uniquely suited to be a prophetic voice for the goodness of geographic rootedness and relational presence. Members of local congregations bear a responsibility to place that goes beyond shopping local; they are called to live local, to pay attention to the stories, hopes, joys, and sorrows of the people and places that surround them. No one church can do this alone. This is the combined call of all churches. It is a call to be present. It is a call to be faithful. It is a chance to remind even the smallest, most seemingly forgotten places, of the goodness of Immanuel, the God who is with us.

    Contributed By CharlesECotherman Charles E. Cotherman

    Charles E. Cotherman is the pastor of Oil City Vineyard Church in Oil City, Pennsylvania, and the program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College.

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