As Sunday morning dawns across rural North America, millions of people awake, arise, and prepare to make their way to worship in one of the more than 200,000 churches that dot the countryside and cluster in the towns of this country. For the most part, these are small congregations with fewer than 100 persons in attendance. Most have existed for a century or more. Typically, the churches have been bonded by ties of kinship and place, a history of shared experiences, pleasant memories, deep commitments to the continued viability of the church and a vibrant faith. Some of these rural churches serve as the anchor or the center of a small community. Other rural congregations seem to be a community within themselves. They are in a place, but not really of it. Still others are part of a set of congregations that serve an area, cooperating, competing, creating and continuing a sense of community among the residents of the place.
Sunday, in most of these 200,000 places of worship, is a wonderful, warm experience. Accounts of the events in the life of each person are shared. Any absences are noted and explained. Intercessory prayers are offered. Words of encouragement, praise and consolation are exchanged. Feelings of love and mutual support pervade the place. Hope is restored. Self-esteem is enhanced. The presence of God is experienced in deep and powerful ways, personally and collectively. God is worshiped in a variety of ways–ritual, music, and sermon–depending on the heritage of the congregation.
Certainly, there are the “down” times as well in each of these congregations. Sickness and accidents strike loved ones. How is this to be understood? Death too comes, seldom when and how one might select. Families have troubles. Relational problems may disrupt the harmony of the congregation. Most often, however, peace will be restored and equilibrium re-established.
Many of the rural congregations are smaller and the membership older than they were in the remembered past. Questions about the future of the church sometime rise to the surface. Some ponder. Some pray. Some act. Some muddle through. Some find new health and vitality. Some die. Some vow to be a “faithful remnant”. Generally, however, the people in these churches seem to see the hand of God working in the life of the congregation. They hold a deep faith that God will bring victory. It may not be a return to joys of the “golden” past, but it will be an appropriate victory for this time and this place. God will accomplish His purposes in and through the life of this church.
The rural church is where I call home – the Independence Church at Stockton Mo. It’s a small place dedicated to service on September 16, 1916, by my great-grandfather. It’s the place my grandparents and parents grew up in. It’s the place that my aunt and uncle were married in 64 years ago, and that they kept going by themselves for a number of years as the wallpaper fell off the walls and the old place needed new plaster and more love than two 70-something year old people could keep up with on their own. It’s the place that others wanted to tear down so they could build something with a kitchen and running water instead of dealing with an old outhouse, but a place so dear to my heart that I couldn’t allow that to happen for a number of reasons. It’s God’s house and I love it more with each passing day. She may be an old building, but God’s not through with this old place yet. We are still paying the bills, supporting various missions, and providing help for the less fortunate as we become aware of their needs. We’re doing God’s work and I wouldn’t change places for all the gold in the world.
The Independence Church shows the kind of spirit that researchers from the University of Missouri found again and again as they have studied the life of about 500 congregations in 99 select Missouri townships repeatedly since 1952. This is a unique study in North America because it has longitudinal data from a set of rural churches extending back for almost a half century….only half as long as we’ve been holding services, but the longest running study of rural churches. Their study offers the possibility of understanding how churches at the grass roots have responded to the waves of change to have swept across our heartland. (The 1982 data was reported in the book “The Rural Church” written by Edward Hassenger, John Holick, and Kenneth Benson.) The researchers from the University of Missouri also worked in conjunction with the Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS) to prepare their report as to the current state of rural church life in America. The central purpose of their research was to ascertain principles that have contributed to the sustainability of rural churches across the past half century, and in the final chapters share their conclusions about the factors that have contributed to the sustainability of rural churches.
With the help of the reports mentioned above, and my personal experiences with regard to keeping a small rural church viable, I hope to give you an inside look at life in the rural church. With the Lord’s help I hope to reveal what is happening in many, many tiny places across our country among persons of faith. It is my desire to provide an authentic look inside the churches of the countryside, from lighting the fire early each Sunday morning to caring for our neighbors when times get hard. I hope to also present the larger picture of what has happened to the Christian faith in rural America over the past 50 years, or so.
Please join me as I endeavor to share with you over the next few weeks about life in the rural church. While we may be small, we are mighty in our work for the Lord.