Thursday, November 16, 2023

David W. Scott: The Challenges of Being a Rural Church in an Urbanizing World

Last week, I wrote a blog post entitled "The UMC is a rural church in an urbanizing world" in which I argued just that. I ended by asserting that there are missional, financial, cultural, and other implications of this thesis for the mission and ministry of the church. This post will expand on those implications.

But before I do that, I want to make clear that I do not think it is a bad thing to be a rural church.

There are plenty of tropes made by urban dwellers in cultures around the globe about rural areas and rural people. Biases and stereotypes flow both ways between the city and the country, but the church's mission strategy can never be driven by assumptions that "those people" are not entitled to the same things that "we" are. As someone who has lived half my life in towns under 10,000 people and the rest of it in small to medium cities, I can vouch that there are differences between those contexts, but one is not inherently a better or worse place. The church must be clear that all people are worthy of the gospel, no matter where they live.

The UMC is a rural church because it has been successful at sharing the gospel with rural people. That is a success, and we should not be ashamed of it. We should also not be content to stay with the successes of the past if they distract us from what God is calling us to do now. But I believe that rural ministry is part of God's call to Methodists in the past, present, and future.

The challenge then, as it always is, is to think critically about the context so that we can better and more faithfully answer God's missional call. I will highlight three challenges posed to rural ministry from the current context of urbanization.

Stagnant and declining populations

The flip side of growing urban populations around the world is that rural populations are often not growing. Indeed, in some settings, rural areas are facing depopulation or population aging as people, especially younger people, move from rural areas to urban areas. Rural areas with a stagnant to declining population mean that there are only so many people that the church can include as members. This number of potential members is further limited when rural areas are experiencing overall declines in religiosity, such as is common in Western countries as a whole.

Small congregations are not necessarily a problem. Most United Methodist congregations are small. But when the Methodist tradition and current denominational systems emphasize growth in membership, that creates a problem because of the gap between expectations of growth and the limited margin for growth that exists in many rural populations.

Part of the solution to the problem of this gap between expectation and reality is to develop better theologies around faithful persistence that can provide a sense of meaning and accomplishment for churches that are located in populations where dramatic evangelistic growth is just not likely.

Another missional implication is that if the church believes in continuing to bring the gospel to new people, it cannot afford to be just a rural church. It also needs to expand into urban areas. Part of the Methodist DNA can help here. Methodist geographic expansion has historically been driven primarily by migrants. Often that has included migrants from rural areas to cities. Thus, the church needs to think about how it can better support its members who move from rural to urban areas and how it can capitalize on them as potential evangelists and missionaries who can bring Methodism with them to the city.

Rural income limits

Rural areas are not necessarily poor, though rural poverty exists just as surely as urban poverty does, even if it looks different. Yet the church faces a couple challenges related to the money it can bring in from rural areas for mission and ministry.

In some rural areas, the church does face challenges in raising money because of poverty and other economic conditions. Appalachia is a rural area of the United States with extensive poverty and many United Methodist churches. Rural inhabitants there have less money, on average, to give to the church. In rural areas of developing countries, many rural residents are subsistence farmers who raise crops for their own consumption but do not earn a cash income. That may mean they have no money whatsoever to give to the church, though they may have other assets and resources to give.

In all rural areas, smaller populations mean smaller groups of donors and therefore smaller total donations than would be possible in a city-wide giving campaign. This is true regardless of whether the rural area is wealthy or poor.

God is more concerned with our generosity than the total given (as in the story of the widow's mite). Yet, when there are price tags associated with certain church-related activities (paying for a roof, supporting a missionary's salary, contributing to a pastor's retirement fund, running a tutoring program, etc.), there is the potential for mismatch between the amount that a rural area can generate and the amount necessary for these activities.

This challenge highlights the importance of connectionalism and cooperation in the church's mission and ministry in rural areas. If one church cannot run a tutoring program by itself because of limited finances or limited volunteers, can it partner with other churches to run the program? This partnership may be ecumenical with churches in the same area or partnership with other United Methodist churches that are not too far distant.

A broader answer to this challenge is that the church needs to think more deeply about how it supports agriculture as the basis of rural economies. This can range from seeing agriculture as the direct source of giving (as in programs like Growing Hope Globally) to recognizing that the better the agricultural economy is in rural areas, the better the community will do and therefore the more resources will be available for mission and ministry in the church (as in the Yambasu Agricultural Initiative).

Inefficiencies of scale

Underlying both of the above issues is a basic challenge of all facets of life in rural areas: inefficiences of scale. In many instances, it is cheaper and easier to provide good and services to larger, more concentrated populations in urban areas than it is to provide those services to small, more spread out populations in rural areas. In the secular world, this economic reality shows up in everything from the closure of rural hospitals and consolidation of rural school districts in the United States to more difficulty in buying things, especially specialized items, in rural areas everywhere to the lack of cell phone and broadband internet access in many rural areas around the world.

In the church world, the rise of megachurches are a clear expression of this same market logic. It is more efficient to provide religious services to 10,000 people who travel to one location than it is to provide religious services to 10,000 people spread out among 200 small, rural churches. More buildings, pastors, and travel are required for rural ministry.

Again, having 200 churches with an average of 50 attendees each is not necessarily a bad thing in itself. The problem for rural ministry arises when a drive toward efficiency in the church comes into conflict with the realities of rural ministry.

Part of the answer to that problem is to question the premise. Is more efficiently provided church ministry better church ministry? Not necessarily so. If the church really values rural ministry and takes seriously the missional call to engage people in rural areas, then it would just accept higher costs. Indeed, mission is rarely the most cost-effective thing to do, but God consistently calls us to missional generosity with our resources. In some instances, it may make sense for the church to think about what missional investment by urban churches in rural churches might look like, recognizing that rural churches are not just recipients of mission but potential sources of mission giving and mission personnel, as the above sections highlight.

Another response to this challenge is to think carefully about what sort of infrastructure is really necessary to carry out mission and ministry in rural areas. If there is a relatively stable congregation of 12 people, does that congregation need a building, or does it make more sense to meet as a house church? Where is it more effective to have a pastor serve a multi-point charge full time, and where does it make sense to have a bivocational pastor serve a single point charge part time?

Again, the Methodist tradition of connectionalism is highly relevant here. Methodists have never believed that each congregation should be completely autonomous and sufficient in itself. We have always believed that the church depends on gifts and assets being shared across and pooled among congregations. As I mentioned in my last post, practices like circuit riding, quarterly meetings, and revivals were a means to overcome the efficiency challenges of rural ministry, and modern-day versions of these old Methodist practices remain relevant for rural ministry today.


Urban (and suburban) ministry has its own challenges that I have not tried to address in this post. Certainly, as the world urbanizes, we must also think more carefully about that ministry context as well. But even as urban areas and churches there grow, the UMC will continue to have a significant rural constituency in many settings around the world. It does not benefit the church as a whole to ignore or take for granted the rural portion of itself.

Ultimately, the goal for the rural and urban ministries of the church should be the same that it is for the church as it extends itself missionally across cultures, nations, and other boundaries. The goal must be for the church in each location to reflectively engage with its local context while the church in all locations joins together in mutual sharing and partnership for the sake of advancing God's kin(g)dom. May it be so, in the city, in the country, and everywhere in between.

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