The Endurance of Rural Congregations

Holy Spirit dove windowImage by hickory hardscrabble via FlickrThe little rural church I serve, along with two other retired clergy, has two dozen members, if you carefully count everyone whether there or not.  No one is young.  The church growth gang (now called church transformation) calls it a declining and dying congregation.  The thing is, it’s been there for over a hundred years and has never had more than a couple dozen members.  People come, people go, people die, people come.  Now and then it has tolerated clergy attempting to be full time, but, for the most part, it has got along fine with a long line of supply clergy.

Right now they have the services of three experienced, well respected pastors who provide both continuity and variety.  A skeptical colleague wondered out loud about how long they will last when we are gone.  My guess is at least another hundred years.  Fifty years before I came on the scene they were served by a local professor who was also an Episcopal priest.  Others have included clergy skilled in mission work, new clergy trying out their wings, another professor, and even a high church priest who may have been the only one who knew what to do with a maniple. 

That’s all be beside the point.  Small rural congregations don’t really depend on seminary educated clergy.  It’s nice to have them, but not a necessity.  They don’t even depend on a flow of new families with young children.  They do depend on the economic viability of the towns they are in.  Dying towns beget dying congregations.  But if a town can sustain itself, an otherwise healthy, small rural congregation will just keep on going.  It has more to do with the spirit of the place and the Spirit that fills it than with experts on church growth and transformation.

What might be the nature of that Spirit filled spirit?  From what I can tell, it is the genuine love and care between members, and for the community, that transcend the petty irritants of small town life in which there are no secrets.  It’s the joy of worshiping whether with or without music.  It’s the making of parish decisions, sometimes with more than a little contention, right in the midst of a Sunday morning service.  It’s the embrace of whomever comes in the door, no matter who they are, with a naive lack of awareness that their embrace may be more than a stranger desires or can stand.  It’s the genuine concern for others in the community who are suffering or in need.

It requires one more thing. It requires an openness to a subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit. By subtle presence I mean an atmosphere of the Spirit’s presence, unseen and unheard, yet there.  I don’t think you can make that happen whether by loud proclamation or through sophisticated consulting.  A small rural congregation without that subtle presence may indeed be declining and dying, and we have all seen that happen.  One with that subtle presence will probably continue from generation to generation as long as there are generations to be had.

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16 thoughts on “The Endurance of Rural Congregations”

  1. I really enjoy your articles about this congregation. Your fondness for them is clear, and the points you make in this piece are, in my opinion, insightful and valid. My favorite Geezer has visited it with you, but I haven't. I am intrigued by your articles and would very much like to meet these wonderful people some day. Thanks for an interesting, inspiring read!

  2. Great post CP,I have been exploring the concept of intentionality lately and I wonder what the intention of 'large minded\” christianity is? Especially at this season. I read with interest a communiqué about \”evangelization\” during this time of year and how to grow your congregation using the Christmas celebration. The message appeared to be one of morphing the message to be as convenient and unchallenging to the newcomer as possible. There is, in your description of the little church community, a feeling of a community of faith, one that has faith that they will continue without having to adjust their message so that it is palatable and convenient to all.Bruno

  3. \”I don’t think you can make that happen whether by loud proclamation or through sophisticated consulting.\”I so agree with your thoughts today and with your quote above. It is the Holy Spirit within that sustains them, that brings them back year after year in spite of small differences, in spite of economic gaps in the congregation, in spite of whomever comes through the door. I also believe that little congregation will be here 100 years from now. And as to Bruno's comment about evangelization during this time of year….I think even the hardened heart is sentimental over the adverse birthing of a baby, but I also think that in the light of day the sentimental \”baby story\” disappears. The evangelization may occur with just ONE personal, sincere contact of one casual handshake at the door, or one personal hello in a pew – we do have a lot to learn about what evangelization really means:) I mean maybe I do……xo

  4. If on some Sunday morning a young person of college age joined you and your dozen souls, Steve, do you think she or he would notice \”the subtle indwelling of the Holy Spirit\” in, say, the small kindnesses and courtesies of tone and manner in the simplest of exchanges? Which would then inform how a question is asked, a point shared?––Or am I being naive here about the crustiness of ingrained habits of mind and the incapacity of the young to pay attention to the spirit of the most ordinary kindness? And not just the young: how skeptical would both your post and the above be read by experts in \”church transformation\”?

  5. Well written post. I could not help but be reminded in thought of the \”ecclesiastical\” novels of the mid-Victorian English novelist, Anthony Trollope, and his small town Anglican clergy and rural parishioners. I think that I have met the widow of the \”professor who was also an Episcopal priest\” there in Dayton. Dr B

  6. Thank you for your article. I pastor two small rural congregations that have had little or no growth for the past few years (the same could be said of the towns they are in). My denomination does not understand or accept small churches. Either the pastor has failed or the demographic is wrong. Both churches have been small for many, many years and continue to survive. I get little support from my denominational leadership because my churches are not growing. So thanks again. It is good to hear that small churches also have the Holy Spirit. I knew this, but it does not seem my leadership has.

  7. Dear Anon of the two small churches,You are not alone. I doubt that most regional and national church bodies have much understanding for or patience with small rural congregations. CP

  8. CP:Thanks for this post. I have to say that from my own personal experiences the past four years and also from what I have witnessed on a denominational level in the UMC, I have really begun to question the conventional wisdom in reference to churches and growth and vitality.Twenty-five years ago when I was in graduate school and serving two little country churches in NC, both were concerned about declining and closing. At the time, each church had anywhere from 30-40 in attendance on Sunday morning. As of today each church still has 30-40 in attendance. Some have died, others have been added.I would like to link your post on my blog and add some further comment at some point, if that is OK with you.

  9. I was thinking of Pamela Jarboe, whom I met and talked to recently on the St Pauls parish plege visit. She is an Englishwoman who met her husband in a college in England where both were studying, married and came to this state. As I think I recall, he became a high school teacher in Dayton, then became an Episcopal priest also in Dayton. That's not exactly a \”professor and priest\”,but close. Dr B

  10. What an inspiring post! And so similar to what small churches in Vermont are experiencing. Consider some of the concepts in the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church. It is published by CrossBooks, but cheaper at, where it is also available in the Kindle version. God bless and keep up the great work in those small churches.

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