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Recently, I had dinner with a group of rural pastors to hear about their ministries. One by one, the pastors stood, gave their name, their church, and their years of service. Then, invariably, each pastor’s face dropped.

"Our church only worships about twenty,” the first pastor said. The dismay and anxiety rippled throughout the room as each pastor shared their worship attendance. The next church reported an aging congregation of sixty. Another pastor serving on a multi-church charge reported that one of their churches only had about twelve people on a Sunday morning.

The pastors were understandably frustrated. They had tried the latest church growth strategies. They’d read the numerous blogs about leadership and had attended the best continuing education events, none of which really spoke to their contexts. Regardless, the enviable metric of “growth” seemed to elude them.

While these pastors all serve rural areas, their contexts are distinct. Some serve in communities that have entered into a period of seeming stagnation, a perception driven in equal parts by changes in the economy and the prevailing narratives about what it means to be rural. It has been decades since agriculture had been a leading industry in their communities, and now its replacement, manufacturing, is declining as well.

For others, though, rural ministry requires managing rapid change. Drawn by the allure of affordable property, a willingness to commute, and proximity to natural attractions, retirees are flocking from cities to these rural communities. This new population brings a shifting culture, and, in some places, an impending change from the designation of rural to suburban.

Conversations on church vitality usually hold up a few key metrics, emphasizing an increase in worship attendance and a large number of youth and young adults.[i] But there are obvious questions about how rural congregations can utilize these measures of vitality within their changing communities. How should a congregation whose growth is spurred by an influx of retirees respond when told they need to have more children involved? Or, when a congregation of twenty has a strong missional presence in a declining community, how are they to answer the critique that their church is stagnant or even dying?

In my office, I keep a post-it with a short phrase that I often hear from my colleagues in rural economic development: “If you’ve seen one rural county, you’ve seen one rural county.” Because rural communities are complex, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It stands to reason, then, that rural congregations need an equally flexible marker for their vitality. Rural congregations occupy the centers of busy town squares and dot the sides of unpopulated state roads. Bound together only by the label “rural,” vitality must look different in these different spaces.

In working with churches and other rural leaders, I have found that thriving rural congregations share three key pillars of vitality.[ii] These are not metrics in and of themselves, but areas in which rural congregations should strive to develop context-specific measurements in order to set clear goals.

First, thriving rural congregations demonstrate a clear theological identity. These congregations conduct worship services and foster conversations that connect their parishioners’ faith with their weekly lives.

This theological identity also carries a deep theology of place. They know their own history, and in their own language they can tell the story of what God is doing in their community. They remember both pain and joy and hold together the tension that runs between sorrow, repentance, and hope.

This theology of place serves as more than idle memory. Instead, it builds the foundation for the second key trait: thriving rural congregations understand their local communities as a place to cultivate, announce, and invite others to participate in the Kingdom of God. They understand that they have a responsibility to the surrounding community.

This may look different in each congregation. In some places, this may be organic as members hear and respond to what they see in the community. Or, churches may develop ongoing missional programming. The result is that the congregation strives to face outward, yearning to see how they might be a part of God’s new creation.

Lastly, thriving rural congregations are sustainable. At its most basic level, congregations are able to pay their bills and keep the lights on. This presents a unique challenge—and opportunity—for many churches as giving patterns continue to change. It’s commonly reported that younger generations have less disposable income and a skepticism of institutions, resulting in lower tithes. Meanwhile, the 2018 tax reforms are likely to spur an overall reduction in charitable giving.[iii]

In many rural areas, bi-vocational pastors are becoming standard, creating opportunities to deepen the congregation’s commitment to their place. Programming budgets are also decreasing, which means that pastors will need to be more adept at cultivating partnerships with other organizations and funders. These are challenges, but they are also opportunities for new modes of ministry.

At the end our dinner, I asked our rural pastors to share stories of where God was at work through them. With excitement, they shared stories of their small congregations raising money for community-based literacy programs. They shared their commitment to preserving and sharing the history of their 150-year-old, one-room church that once doubled as the schoolhouse for African-American students. They shared stories of their few high school students who had become active leaders. These are places of important and life-giving ministry.           

Church vitality is not simply about growing a church, though that may be a natural outcome. Neither are these vital churches limited to the growing suburbs that surround our major cities. Thriving rural congregations have a deep commitment to seeing and being a part of what God is doing in the world around them. They offer a reminder that the narrative we often tell about rural ministry is misinformed. Being a rural church does not mean being a church on life support. Instead, they are places of meaningful and impactful transformation.

[i] Take, for instance, the UMC Call to Action: Vital Congregations Research Project. De Wetter, David, et al.. Towers Watson, 2010. 

[ii] These cores represent a commonality in several reports, including the Thriving Rural Communities Summative Evaluation Report and work compiled by GBHEM.

[iii] Fox, Richard, and Joshua Headly. “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—What Nonprofits Need to Know," Philanthropy Journal News, 29 Jan. 2018.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Rev. Allen T. Stanton is the Executive Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College. Before coming to Martin Methodist College, he served as the pastor a small United Methodist Congregation in North Carolina. Prior to serving in the local church, he served as the Rural Church Fellow at the Institute for Emerging Issues, a non-partisan public-policy think tank at N.C. State University. At the Turner Center, Allen focuses on how rural churches can become leaders in economic and community development and building strong community partnerships. Allen has written for a variety of publications, 

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