Concerning tiny small-town churches

jamessmSometimes the biggest news stories are sitting right out there in the open where everyone can see them. But that’s the problem. There are trends that are so big that we can’t see them. This makes the big story hard to write because it is hard to pick one piece of it and get it into a newspaper.

So here is a big shout out for reporter Tom Breen of the Associated Press, who locked in on a set of churches in West Virginia and — in a short format — used that snapshot to stand for a big-picture story on the American religion scene. The story? The struggle that small-town churches face keeping their doors open in the age of (a) the fading of America’s old, old mainline Protestant churches and (b) the growth of the whole megachurch ethos in evangelical and charismatic Protestant life.

Breen starts in West Virginia, but quickly expands the scope:

It’s an idyllic setting for Sunday worship: a small, white church on the slope of a gentle hill. Outside the sanctuary, two dogs lie in the shade.

The only problem is that there are just 20 worshippers inside, a situation that’s become common in rural America as small churches struggle with dwindling memberships, aging congregations and less money to keep the lights on, let alone to pay full-time salary and benefits to a minister.

Across the denominational spectrum, rural churches are trying a variety of approaches to the challenge. Some are focusing on recruiting full-time ministers to rural towns. Others are adopting the style of suburban megachurches to attract those who might not normally attend services. Some are holding fast to the traditions of their forebears.

About 52 percent of American churches are in rural areas. Yet more than half of weekly churchgoers attend services in places that are among the most populous 10 percent of congregations, according to the Hartford Institute on Religion Research. That leaves some of the estimated 177,000 rural churches scattered across the country with as few as two regular worshippers.

The emphasis here is on the United Methodist Church because, as anyone knows who regularly drives two-lane highways, the Methodists once dominated middle America and mainstream religion. Now, all of those churches are part of the demographics of an aging, urban, progressive denomination. The result is a lot of pain in small towns.

The story ends, however, with a strange twist — a Baptist who took a tiny church and turned it into a rural megachurch, with nearly 2,000 people. Where did all those people come from? I would assume from other nearby churches that now stuggle to compete with the big show.

There are all kinds of stories that grow out of these small-town, small-church realities. Here are three that I saw firsthand, back on the beat in Colorado — a state with a tremendous urban vs. small-town divide.

• Breen briefly touches on the drive to find laity to lead small rural parishes. The Catholic priest shortage is, of course, putting the Church in a double-bind in large cities and the situation is even tougher out in the small towns. How many priests can the typical bishop spare to ride the circuits in these small parishes? How tough does this make the life of a priest? What happens to the rites that connect priest to people, such as confession?

• What happens to the small churches that are closed? To the precious treasures at the altars? What about the cemeteries? The gifts that families have, for generations, given to these now-shuttered churches? Or what if the churches are sold and they turn into, oh, shops, bed and breakfasts, restaurants? Do you simply sell all that history?

• In Colorado, I thought it was interesting that — in the liberal churches — so many of the ordained women ended up in these small, fading rural parishes. The huge suburban and urban churches (or those that were once huge) tended to be led by men. Interesting, huh? The rural churches, by the way, tended to be more conservative, creating an interesting dynamic with the ordained women. Once again, check the United Methodist churches first, since there are so many of them.

I am sure that I am only scratching the surface on the stories that are linked to this small-town, small-church story. Again, here is a salute to Breen for taking the first step. I hope the Associated Press follows up on this.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Kelly

    That looks just like my small rural parish. In our case, we were attached to a larger Catholic church in town. It is about a 20 minute drive. We have one Mass only on Sundays, and except for Easter and Christmas, there are no Masses offered on holy days of obligation. In the case that we have to close, the diocese has already decided that it would just keep the property as an oratory, so it would be available for weddings, baptisms, and funerals. We have a cemetary on the church grounds.

  • Irenaeus

    Where I’m from, a lot of the smaller Lutheran prairie churches no longer have congregations, but their historical and cultural value (altarpieces in Norwegian and Icelandic and Finnish, etc) is such that they get ‘adopted’ by congregations in (slightly) bigger towns and maintained, and once a summer there’ll be a worship service, festival and picnic and such. Seldom are they sold or destroyed or such.

  • Kristine J

    It’s part of an even bigger story of rural America losing family farms, Rural families becoming smaller (from 5 – 9 children in a family in my youth, now 2 or 3 children in a family.) and the farm help that’s now necessary coming in the form of immigrants from Mexico, giving rural areas the additional burden of health care and bilingual education for the new population. In our congregation, 62% of the population of the local school is below the poverty level, partly because of these changes happening all over rural America. The church issue is also because of other things – weekend sports mania, weekend fund raising breakfasts, lack of importance attached to congregational life, etc.

    We actually came from a large town congregation (Presbyterian) that had become a ‘social issue de jour’ club, and moved to a smaller town church of the same denomination. We now drive over 20 miles each way (instead of a mile) but have found that the people here know how to work together despite differences of opinion, and the Holy Spirit is present during real worship. Yes, the female pastor is willing to accept the lower salary than the male pastor at the large Presbyterian Church, and that seems to be the norm.

  • K Wood

    Wow, this story hits very close to home. I pastor a small town church in southeastern Ohio just across the Ohio River from West Virginia. Total population in the county is approx 25k. Before entering the ministry five years ago, I was a top marketing exec for hi tech companies in Texas. I spent 16 years in Dallas. That’s a huge change to where I am today.

    There’s more than one story within this post. Tom Breen has done a good job of capturing several of them. In my part of Ohio, the United Methodists are hit with several “whammies”: 1) Churches were planted 150+ years ago by preachers who traveled by horseback. Consequently, churches are often between five and ten miles apart – comfortable walking and/or buggy distance in 19th century travel modes, but much too close together in a car-based environment. 2) The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged in 1969. Suddenly the number of small rural churches belonging to the same denomination just doubled. 3) Fierce independence among congregations makes consolidation nearly impossible (Breen touched on this). 4) Dwindling population base combined with aging congregations means more (perceived) competition between congregations. There’s often a zero-sum mentality. If one church gains two members, then somebody else must have just lost them.

    Tmatt, you’re right about the liberal/conservative divide between the ecclesiological ranks and the rural pews. A church in the community down-river from me was a strong congregation about 20 years ago. Membership was somewhere around 240 and 160+ were regular worshipers. Then the bishop appointed a liberal female clergy to that church. She was only there three years, but most people left and never came back. Today, that church is part of a 4-church “charge” that shares a part-time, retired pastor. It has about 25 in worship.

    So what’s the solution? I can guarantee that it is not as simple as adopting “mega-church” styles. My cynical side says Mr. (not Rev.??) O’Dell’s church growing to thousands of members could be based more on his personality and personal preaching style than on the casual dress code and “non-traditional” worship. When he’s gone, how many will go with him?

    My hopeful side says O’Dell’s church has grown because people have found a way to truly worship God, and have been blessed/transformed in the process. When O’Dell goes, the people will stay and continue working for God because they aren’t dependent on the pastor but on Christ.

    I do believe that healthy churches attract people. And spiritually healthy churches can use a variety of worship styles. But you have to start with a spiritually healthy pastor, supported by a spiritually healthy core of lay leaders.

    The mainline denominations, unfortunately, have focused much of their attention on other matters. Too bad Breen didn’t get the UM Bishop for WV to comment. I’d like to know what he’s doing to support spiritual health in Big Isaac.

  • Sam Greening

    I spent most of my career in the UMC and I’m definitely not a hater. Most of my family is still Methodist. But I finally came to the realization that the bishop and cabinet are no more likely to be Spirit-guided when making life-changing decisions about congregations and pastors than are the congregations and pastors themselves. I am now a minister in a church with a congregational polity.

    It’s interesting that larger, healthier, growing UM churches are increasingly able to conduct a search process similar to that of other denominations (all subject to the bishop’s approval, of course) with the largest churches even “calling” pastors from other conferences, while smaller, needier churches are still dependent upon the system for decisions regarding who (if anybody) will serve as their pastor.

    I hesitate to comment on the church which suffered after having a liberal woman appointed to be its pastor. I don’t know the situation, but I personally like to hear more depth in critiquing a situation than simply mentioning the hot-button words female and liberal. It is not uncommon in that denomination for pastors to be more liberal than their congregants, and yet be very effective ministers. Many excellent women have also served churches who wouldn’t have chosen a female, but nonetheless maintained the status quo (or even grew) during her tenure. Apparently this was not the case at the church in question, but if the change was that dramatic, I suspect that there might be more to the story. I have seen conservative men serving conservative congregations and have the same effect on them. Some pastors – male, female, liberal, conservative – simply do not have a pastor’s heart. Here is where I think the true problem lies.

  • K Wood

    It is not uncommon in that denomination for pastors to be more liberal than their congregants, and yet be very effective ministers. Many excellent women have also served churches who wouldn’t have chosen a female, but nonetheless maintained the status quo (or even grew) during her tenure.


    I appreciate your response. I did not mean to imply in my post above that just because the appointed pastor was a woman and more theologically liberal than her congregation, that she was incompetent, or that the church’s implosion was her fault. Knowing the people in this area, I am certain that blame could (and should) be shared all around.

    I tried to state that the bishop and cabinet from that time period did not really appreciate the environment in which this particular pastor was appointed. There was a complete disconnect between clergy leadership and laity. Not only did they create a situation that harmed a rural church, they probably deeply scarred the pastor as well. I cannot say for certain, because I don’t know who the pastor was. And since I wasn’t in the area at the time of this situation, I don’t know details beyond the hearsay of people reminiscing 20 years ago. And we all know what time does to unhealed wounds.

    One of my favorite persons is a clergywoman with more liberal religious views than my own. When we served together at a larger church in another part of Ohio, we discovered there’s room at the Cross for both of us. She’s now doing very well serving at another church near Columbus. But she would not have been successful if she’d been given my church — not because of anything about her gifts, skills and talents, but because of the dynamics in this area.

    So, I’d like to amend my “rules for a healthy church” to not only include a healthy pastor and core leaders in the local congregation, but in denominations where the pastor is sent rather than called, the body responsible for the sending must also be spiritually healthy!

    Next week is the annual conference gathering, and delegates to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference are being elected. I think much will be revealed about the spiritual health of the bishop and district superintendents and other leaders by their behavior that week. Will the liberal/progressive and conservative/orthodox find means of gathering together under that same Cross? I am certainly praying for that to be true!!

  • momly

    Most small rural churches are served by women because of economics (small churches can’t afford a breadwinner’s salary) and the stained glass ceiling (large churches don’t hire women as senior pastors).

  • Mark Byron

    My wife is a Presbyterian (PC-USA) seminary grad and one of her good gal-pals from there just got done with a stint pastoring two small churches in the prairies and is interviewing with a small church in a neighboring state. In her case, she was more conservative than the folks in one of the churches.

    The stained-glass ceiling might be a problem with the pipeline as well; there were less female pastors getting ordained decades ago. While ordination numbers might be close to 50-50 today (if Union-PSCE in Richmond is any indication), they were much more male slanted in the past, and it’s the veteran pastors who will get to lead big churches.