Christian Scholars Examine Rural Church Crisis

( [email protected] ) Jun 21, 2004 05:43 PM EDT

"It's sad," said Raymond Buford, who attended the last service of his church in Ivanhoe, California two weeks ago. "We think we are a religious nation, and we are not. At one time we were over 140 members."

Buford’s church is not the only church that is closing its door. As many rural churches across the nation are struggling, Christian scholars are looking into the issue and trying to address the difficulties that rural churches are facing in maintaining their congregation and what can be done to prevent rural churches from closing their doors.

Experts say rural churches face particular challenges in trying to maintain both their congregations and their buildings. Some of the main reasons given by experts include:

-- Increasing number of people are moving from rural areas to urban and suburban areas.

-- Rural churches tend to be old and the buildings are not appealing to many Christians.

-- Churchgoers prefer big churches than small churches because of the various programs offered by the big churches.

According to the National Trust’s report in 2001, 20 percent of prairie churches in North Dakota sat vacant, which indicates that the population is becoming increasing urban and suburban.

Concerning the issue over rural churches not appealing to the new generation of churchgoers, L. Shannon Jung, professor of rural ministry and director of the Center for Theology and Land at Wartburg Theological Seminary and the University of Dubuque, made a comment during the interview with Iowa City-Press Citizen. She said:

“Lots of rural churches don't pay attention to their appearance. They have a mindset that they simply have to open their doors and people will come in. People don't do that anymore. When people pass by a particular church building, some of which are very old, they think that it looks like an antique rather than a growing concern.”

Flavil Yeakley, professor director of the Harding Center for Church Growth Studies at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., commented on today’s churchgoers’ preference over big churches.

"In the last two decades, at least, we've seen more of a migration from small churches to larger ones," Yeakley said. "The big churches can offer programs that the small churches can't."

Unlike in the past, people are becoming more accustomed to commuting longer distances for work, school, or entertainment, which makes them more wiling to commute for church that they want to attend.

David Rozen, director of the Hartford Seminary Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn., commented:

"The vast majority of congregations are commuter congregations these days. That shouldn't be a surprise - not many of us live where we work these days, ... but probably finding a style of worship and education and mission program that fit the person are more important than the church being close or local."

However Jung shared a different view on the issue, saying that small rural churches do offer services that large mega-churches can’t offer.

She said people come to church “looking for friends and community,” and “that is what rural churches still provide.”

She added: “The average size of the United Methodist Church is 52 members, with 75 percent of the churches having fewer than 108 members. You find a large number of Presbyterian, Lutheran and Episcopal churches who are very small with congregations of less than 100 in worship. They may not provide all the services that larger churches do, but they provide something that people still need: a sense of individual attention. Instead of hearing about a large church's aerobics classes, you might hear someone asking if you would like to go fishing.”

Jung believes there is hope for rural churches to grow in number. Referring to the churches in rural areas that are finding second lives – a wedding chapel in Elizabeth, Ill., a tuxedo shop in Asbury, Iowa, and dozens of antique malls around the country, she said some of the more active rural churches are already remodeling themselves to provide various services that new members want.

"I see a lot of very exciting rural churches that are maintaining the building, or modifying the building for new uses, adding day-care centers or elder care centers ---- the services that larger churches offer," she said.

Jung also expressed her wish to strengthen rural churches:

“Part of my job, is to strengthen rural churches and to enable them to continue to be as vital as they possibly can,” she said,” So I know that there are many churches that have been resurrected and are doing wonderful ministry. In these so-called ‘turn-around churches,’ the leadership says, "We really have to change what we are doing if we want to continue to do ministry here." I just want to stress that these turn-arounds are happening as well as the closings.”