HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. (BP)–After starting or welcoming seven new churches to the Christian County, Ky., Baptist Association over the past 10 years, Larry Baker doesn’t consider the future of rural congregations that bleak.
While there are several small churches in his association, there are also ones like Bethel Baptist that have steadily grown the past four years. Once down to a dozen, Bethel averages 45 to 50 on a Sunday, according to the association’s director of missions.
Crediting a new pastor with giving them hope, Baker said rural congregations have a resilience that helps them persevere.
Nor do many of these churches see themselves as hurting; they like a smaller, more family-oriented atmosphere, he said.
“I’m not as pessimistic as some of these other guys,” Baker said. “It’s been my experience that you can’t kill ’em. The strength they have to keep going is amazing.”
That observation has some validity, according to a former employee of the Home Mission Board, the predecessor agency to the North American Mission Board. Gary Farley has conducted extensively studies of rural churches.
As part of a recent consulting contract with the University of Missouri, Farley examined churches in Kansas City over a 50-year period. Less than 25 percent of those metropolitan churches survived the 1945-95 span, he said, compared to many rural churches that continue for 75 to 100 years.
Rural churches often resemble a yo-yo, he said, drifting down before some new people come along or a group of young people accept Jesus as Savior and bring a growth spurt.
“Some are going to die because the community has died,” said Farley, now director of missions for the Pickens County Baptist Association in Carrolton, Ala. “A lot of these churches were planted when people walked from place to place. It was a six-mile world. Today nobody walks. We all drive.”
It is also hard to characterize the “rural church” because there are so many varieties, he said.
There are many in rural areas that center around families, and continue as long as the family expands and no intra-family squabbles erupt, Farley said.
But others are in areas that have been overtaken by suburban sprawl and have a wide mix of occupational and economic backgrounds in their congregation, he said.
With the latter, those who are flexible enough to allow change and not expect newcomers to reflect their subculture will survive, Farley said.
“One thing I’m seeing in Missouri is the emergence of mini-mega churches in a lot of Wal-Mart towns,” he said. “Frequently it’s the first church in town, had a missions vision, built a new building on the bypass (near Wal-Mart) and become a regional church.”
However, Farley said rural churches need to face reality, particularly the expectation that they should have a full-time pastor.
Fifty years ago this model was emphasized so strongly in the SBC that many people treat a bivocational pastor as a step backward, he said.
But Farley recommended churches reevaluate their ministry and accept their capabilities and limitations. The other step he suggested is finding a niche and doing it well.
“I tell rural churches all the time to find themselves a signature ministry,” Farley said. “Don’t try to compete with these big, emerging churches. Find something you do well that will draw people who need the ministry or want to do it, such as music or ministry to an age segment.
“I know one rural church with 75 to 80 in Sunday school and they take 30 to 40 people on a mission trip every year. If a church can find something to get excited about, it will revitalize them and they’ll do well. That’s the future of the rural church.”
Starting new churches is another way to address the situation, according to Richard Harris, vice president of church planting for NAMB. Of the 1,765 new churches started in the SBC last year, 40 percent were in rural areas, he said.
Harris points to a new church 50 miles from Atlanta as an example of a thriving rural church. Located close to a lake, attendance runs more than 750, with the congregation ranging from farmers to blue-collar workers to multi-millionaires, he said.
To survive, existing rural churches need strong pastoral leadership and a willingness to reach out and serve their communities, said Harris, who accepted Jesus as his personal Savior at a rural SBC church in southeastern Kentucky.
“If they stay like they’ve been, they’re going to die,” the NAMB official said. “There’s a new kind of rural church needed that is more ministry — than program-driven. People are hungry (and) homeless. There are unwed mothers. I haven’t been in an area where churches couldn’t grow if they looked around at the needs.”
Randy Jones, director of missions for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said that rural churches can be revitalized and turned into missions-minded, growing assemblies. But it requires committing to a minimum five-year process and realizing that some who don’t like change will leave, he said.
“A well-equipped director of missions or (a state convention’s staff) can help them walk through these challenges,” Jones said. “But often they don’t call until they’re in serious trouble.”
See related story on the benefits of bivocational pastors:
Bivocational ministry emerging as option for broad range of churches