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New Book: Church Revitalization in Rural America

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The lasting solutions to rural America’s churches challenges will be found in rural America. The rural church in America in the twenty-first century must develop new relationships and new ways of doing things to ensure prosperous and socially healthy future. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that the rural American church has so many unique issues. In fact, most of the challenges facing the rural American church today are often the same challenges for the declining rural, urban fringe, and extreme urban church seeking renewal and revitalization. 

Yet, while the challenges are similar, the solutions are more unique. It has been just a little over a year since I completed my study sabbatical focusing on rural church revitalization. Our research revealed three profound types of churches among the rural landscape. The first type were those churches which were benign. These benign churches were 118 (33.71%) out of the 350 rural churches surveyed. Benign churches are the churches which have primarily a maintenance mindset which is displayed by very little effort and very low expectations. The second type we discovered were the bewildered churches in the rural landscape. Bewildered churches are those which are so frustrated that they are all but ready to jump off the proverbial bridge. These churches were 117 (33.43%) out of the 350 churches interviewed and surveyed. They are not only doing nothing they have no desire to seek renewal or life. They are the ones which have the mantra that the last one left alive remember to turn the lights off. The third type of rural church our research and interviews revealed are those who are the bold. 

These bold churches along the rural landscape have leaders which operate more as a community watcher and chaplain for the entire region not just a few church members. These churches were 115 (32.86%) of the 350 churches surveyed and interviewed. Without a doubt these were the healthiest of all the three types. They had a forward focus and were willing to try almost anything to reach their tiny population for Christ Jesus. Those churches were led by leaders who were strong voices for righteousness in their rural communities. They were not only participants with community leaders but they were partners in projects for the good of the area. These bold churches also stretched the usual outreach area around their church from six miles to thirty miles. The bold churches were most interested in connecting with the community. They sought ways to think outside of the box for the betterment of community not just the church. They emphasized newness over deadness. 

I am extremely encouraged at what I have seen and the pastors who are giving it their all for the sake of Christ in these rural areas. As a rural church revitalizer, you cannot settle for just doing a little. You must give it your all if you are going to revitalize a rural church. Successful rural revitalizers stay out front and on the edge. Dying rural churches are more focused on relaxing in a recliner. There have been many who I met that could barely make ends meet and yet their daily walk and Christian experienced makes ours pale in compare. There was such joy and intimacy in these congregations. The pace was much slower and so much more relaxed. These rural churches affirmed the membership and accepted everyone. Pastors of these rural churches were known in these small communities. They were making a difference. This will be the most challenging ministry assignment you will ever face! Might I make one more parting observation? While so many in denominational life are focusing on a small number of urban centers for their future hopes, perhaps such short sightedness will be the cause for us to lose the rest of America. What a sad day that will be. Our Lord Jesus loves the little communities just as much as He does the big ones. Hold on and keep on. Hold on Rural Church Revitalizer. Hold on!

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