The Future of Small Town Churches

small townRemember in 2008 when Sarah Palin – while traveling through North Carolina – praised small towns for being “the real America”?  She apologized later, saying that she didn’t mean to imply that the rest of the country was less patriotic or less “real” as America.  I believe her apology was authentic.

But living in a small town and living in a city are very different.  One is no more real than the other, but they are culturally poles apart.

As my family travels each summer, we drive through small towns on the way to cities or coastal villages.  And every summer, somebody says, “I wonder how our lives would be different if we’d grown up in one of these tiny towns.”  Short answer:  Extremely different.

According to this article, published just last week, 24% of the world’s best educated people live in the top 100 largest metropolitan areas worldwide. The article points out: “To put this into perspective, these metropolises accounted for just 11% of the global population in 2013.”

This is not to say that there are not smart people – or even very well-educated people –  in tiny towns throughout the United States and the world.  This is not to say that there are no uneducated urban dwellers.  Obviously.

But anthropologists are increasingly saying that those of us with college and graduate school educations are sorting ourselves into more populated parts of the world.  The Washington Post declared that “a ‘nationwide gentrification effect’ is segregating us by education.”  The better paying jobs are in cities.  The amenities that add to the quality of life (restaurants, parks, recreation leagues, museums, theaters) are in cities.

Population researchers are starting to wonder what will happen if everybody with a college degree leaves Small Town America – especially for economic reasons.  The Post article even asks, “What happens to Toledo and Baton Rouge without (college graduates)?  Will this sorting become even more dramatic in the next decade?

And this brings me to the future of spiritual communities in small towns.

We know that – across the board in every size town/city, in every denomination – church attendance and church giving are down.  But issues unique to churches in tiny towns include these:

  • What happens when the pastor is the best educated person in town?  Actually this was often the case in the 18th and 19th centuries in this country.  And it could be true again in communities with seminary educated pastors and parishioners who have not had the opportunity or interest to seek higher education.  Certified local pastors (also called lay pastors or commissioned elders) might not have seminary degrees, but they are still trained for church leadership. Still, the dynamic of a pastor with a graduate school degree, much less a college degree leading a people with a different kind of education can impact the pastor’s feeling of isolation.
  • What happens when the economy dries up in a small town to the point that the community cannot financially sustain a church?  I’m not merely referring to the ability to pay a pastor’s salary; this is also about keeping a church building, paying for educational materials, and pooling funds to help those in need.
  • How do we encourage pastors to move to areas of the country with few amenities?  Many tiny towns offer no job possibilities for their spouses, no schools for their children.

Every day, in my current ministry position, pastors contact me about wanting to move to Chicago.  Every.  Day.  They want to come to the city because their spouse has a job here or their grown children live here or they just love Chicago. It’s a great city full of life and art and recreation and beauty.  I assume that not as many people are clamoring to serve in Ridgeland, Wisconsin – Population 273.

Are we facing a future when many of our small towns will either not have churches?  Are we facing a future when many of our small towns will become suburbs or simply fade away?

Image from along the road in a lovely little town in Northwest, Wisconsin.


5 responses to “The Future of Small Town Churches

  1. I don’t think this is exactly a new phenomenon–I think it’s a cycling phenomenon. The same questions were asked when the Industrial Revolution pulled people into urban areas, and everyone wondered if small towns/rural villages were going to die. Though of course the culture supported the church in more obvious ways then.

    The old circuit-rider model starts to look more viable (again), in many ways. Train people to care for each other and be the church, and only pay a pastor to cover one or two Sundays a month, weddings and funerals, and emergencies.

    I think the big question then, as Presbyterians, is what that means for christian education in those churches. How do we ensure that people can study with the resources and help that comes from having a pastor? (though I think that’s a question for plenty of urban churches with full time pastors, too, given realities of most people’s lives and lack of time to devote to christian formation.)


  2. Definitely about cycling. And love your Christian Education question.


  3. It is a systemic/structural/institutional issue. I was in a small rural church for almost five years. The people of the church were generous, funny, faithful, aging, and wanted to change as long is it didn’t affect them or they didn’t have to work at change. They were heartbroken when I announced I was leaving…without a call to another church/place/ministry.

    As a single, second career female pastor there was nothing for me outside the church. I drove 100 miles to see a movie. I drove 450 miles, stayed overnight, used a day of vacation in order to have any sort of cultural activity. I had to move as I was slowly dying in that place. Those times away always made my preaching better, my pastoral care more attuned, and I was more present to the congregation.

    Small communities are not foreign to me. I grew up on farm in rural Kansas and had a wonderful childhood. We spent hours upon hours playing outside, we were in 4-H, and active in church. So, I know that life. It is a good life. My high school graduating class as 32 people.

    The same issue exists for doctors serving small communities. To be honest I did try the local doctors but found their approach to medicine and health to be lacking. So…again I drove 100 miles (one way) for my medical care.

    I really don’t have any answers just observations and perspectives. We know that many pastors (single and married) need two incomes to be able to live/pay student loans, we have churches unable to afford that. It is oil and water.

    Research will uphold that pastors need lives outside the church and that will vary from pastor to pastor. We know that all kinds of vices increase as pastors feel isolated, without friends to listen without judgement, and are able to “take the hat off” as much as possible.

    If I pare it all done I trust that some form of the church will evolve in the 21st century. God will not run away; the Spirit will continue to nudge and comfort; Jesus will continue to show us practices of compassion, justice, love, grace, mercy, humility, and forgiveness. God continues to create and sometimes that new creation comes out of nothing but more commonly that new creation comes out of something dying…and we are not done dying yet.


  4. I serve in one of those rural areas, pop. 452. I serve two separate churches, in two separate counties, with two distinct personalities. One is on open prairie, elderly, dying… their agricultural knowledge is vast. There are engineers and a retired nuclear physicist among them.

    The other, is in town, young, growing, active… there are many with masters degrees (mostly in education); many world travelers; and surprisingly a number of young college graduates who have returned to this small town… most jobs are in the field of agriculture, but don’t let that fool you. They travel globally to market, to research and bring home what they’ve learned.

    I think we underestimate those we serve. If we only consider formal education, we end up undervaluing or down right ignoring the wisdom of those in our small towns… the woman who has sat at the bedside of dying neighbors singing hymns; the Vietnam vet who didn’t go to college, because he was a medic in the war and although he’d have plenty of reasons to be bitter, he’s the best example of Christ-like hospitality I’ve ever met; the 80 something aged woman who has a passion for making sure “the church” reaches beyond it’s walls especially to women and children in need… locally, in the big city and abroad.

    Spiritually speaking, hunger is hunger. Community can happen in big cities, or suburbs, or small towns… when folks join together to be fed and to go feed others.


  5. I love that 80 year old woman, Hotcup!


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