Thursday, November 9, 2023

The UMC is a Rural Church in an Urbanizing World

The UMC is a rural church in an urbanizing world.

This is perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but it underlines important facets of the history and present of The United Methodist Church in many locations around the world, facets that have significant implications for the mission and ministry of the UMC in the present age.

In this post, I will share some historical and anecdotal evidence to support the two components of the argument: first, that the UMC is in many ways a rural church, and second, that the world is urbanizing. In a future post, I will look at the missional, financial, cultural, and other implications of this thesis.

The UMC Is a Rural Church

I know of no database that has yet been compiled that conveniently provides the percentage of UMC congregations or congregants in rural vs. urban areas. This is true both in the United States and even more so around the world. Thus, my argument will be more historical and anecdotal than statistical.

In the United States, the classic elements of Methodist history - circuit riders, class meetings, camp meetings - were all associated with Methodism's spread along the rural frontier of the new United States. Circuit riders were a successful innovation to bring religion to small, widely dispersed rural settlements. Class meetings kept the faithful going between visits from the circuit riders. And camp meetings provided a place for rural people to gather together for religious (and secular) experiences not available in scattered communities of a few dozen people. These elements combined to allow Methodism to spread well across the new republic, mostly in rural areas. While Methodism would eventually get into urban missions (at the end of the 19th century), and while there were some areas (such as New York City) that had early urban Methodist congregations, the focus for most of US Methodism's early history was on the rural hinterlands, not the cities.

The success of this rural strategy is still apparent in the distribution of UMC congregations in the United States today. Prior to disaffiliation, the UMC had more churches than the US had post offices. This was not largely the result of plentiful churches in urban and suburban areas but rather the continuation of the many rural congregations started by early Methodists, especially east of the Great Plains (where almost all the population lived prior to the Civil War and where the majority of the US population lives still today).

Indeed, if you compare a map of congregations per county in 2020 of United Methodists and Catholics, you can easily tell the more rural composition of United Methodists (on top below) and Catholics (on bottom). The Catholic map allows you to clearly identify Dayton, for instance, because of the urban nature of US Catholicism. The United Methodist map includes many congregations per county in entirely rural parts of Appalachia.

If a rural focus, rural distribution, and rural character has marked US United Methodism, this is true in many other countries around the world.

The current largest episcopal area in the entire UMC is the North Katanga Episcopal Area. The portion of that episcopal area in the DR Congo is almost entirely rural in its composition. There are, to my knowledge, no cities of over 200,000 in an area that contains almost a million United Methodists. These United Methodists, like many in the United States, live in small towns and villages.

In Zimbabwe, although there are now United Methodists throughout the country, an early comity agreement with the British Methodists meant that the British Methodists focused on the cities during the early evangelization of the country, while the predecessors of the UMC focused on the rural area. It was only after United Methodists migrated from rural areas to cities that the denomination opened churches in urban areas.

In Mozambique, there was no United Methodist congregation in the capital and largest city of the country until decades after the church was established, a testimony to the early rural focus of the church on one district of eastern Mozambique.

In Nigeria, the UMC has a strong presence in Jalingo, a state capital about the size of Des Moines, Iowa. But, like Des Moines, Jalingo is merely an anchor for Methodism that is spread throughout the rural areas of the territory as well.

Manila is a huge metropolitan area, and the UMC has always had a presence there, and one of the three Filipino episcopal areas is focused on Manila. But the Baguio Episcopal Area to the north includes mostly rural areas and small cities. Baguio itself, the urban center of the area, only has a population of about 345,000.

The UMC in Norway has congregations in the nine largest cities in Norway. But it also has congregations in three small villages north of the Arctic Circle. If the UMC there is perhaps concentrated near Oslo, it has by no means shunned rural areas.

This is not a comprehensive survey, and there are, of course, counter examples. I have already acknowledged United Methodism in metro Manila. And The United Methodist Church in Liberia, for instance, has a urban flavor to it because of its historic base among Americo-Liberian settlers, who were originally based in Monrovia and other newly formed urban areas.

Still, looked at broadly, I think it is fair to say that The United Methodist Church at very least has strong rural roots in many places throughout the globe and that these roots remain evident in the geographic distribution of the church to this day.

The World Is Urbanizing

Many of the historic, rural roots of the UMC described above were set during the 19th century. It is fair to point out that most of the world lived in rural areas in the 19th century. A rural focus for the UMC was notable but not out of line with the experiences of the majority of humanity.

But there has been a dramatic transformation of where and how humans have lived in the past century, as ever larger numbers and percentages of people congregate in urban areas, a process social scientists refer to as urbanization.

The United States became a majority urban country about a century ago, in the early 1920s. At the present, almost 80% of the US population lives in urban or suburban areas. Only 21% remain in rural areas of the country. The trend in other developed countries was similar, a steady march to the cities beginning in the late 19th century and continuing on such that the vast majority of the population lives in urban areas at present.

Yet urbanization has not only been a process in developed countries. Over the past half century, there has been a massive population shift in developing countries as well, as people flock to cities. The majority of the world's population now lives in urban areas. The World Bank predicts that by 2050, 70% of the world's population will live in cities.

This move from rural to urban areas (and the creation of many new urban areas) represents a fundamental change in human societies that has implications for all areas of human life. But religion is certainly one of the areas impacted by the shift to cities. And The United Methodist Church, as a church with rural roots that is facing a rapidly urbanizing world, would do well to be cognizant of the missional, financial, cultural, and other implications of this process of urbanization and what they mean for the mission and ministry of the church. I will explore that further in a subsequent piece.


  1. I am a retired UMC Elder in very rural area in East Texas (Newton, Texas). Our presence in this particular rural area has significantly decreased over the last 30 years. Disaffiliation increased this decrease. This article resonates with my actual experience. I think the work that Jonathan LeMaster-Smith has been doing is crucial to our survival in rural America. There are a lot of hurdles to over come if our presence in rural America is to flourish in the future. Or, perhaps, the GC prefers to let our rural presence diminish and focus on our witness in cities? I look forward to future essays on this subject.

  2. I think the other truth is that as urban populations expand in the US, so does the urban sprawl. UMCs that used to be in rural areas are finding that they are now part of the suburbs. The open question is whether congregations can adapt from a rural mindset of ministry where everyone knows their neighbors to a more urban mindset where the social bonds are not as strong.

    1. Tom, I think you're right about the expanding suburbs, and you're spot on about social bonds not being as strong in urban/sub-urban areas and that being a major challenge for the church.

    2. Tom, check out Robert Putnam's classic Bowling Alone research.

      Churches in the city do not need to accept the decline of community relationships. But they can work to create networks of relationships very effectively, if they know how. In many ways churches in urban areas can recreate the community that younger Generations are seeking. Ecclesiola en ecclesiastical, relational villages in the urban landscape. Community organization is now an intellectual discipline that even offers master's degrees in the field.

  3. David, thank you for this excellent analysis!