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Revitalizing Rural Churches

How can congregations keep the faith in an era of consolidation?

If you’ve ever been part of a school district consolidation effort, you’ve seen parties on both sides fight to keep their school’s identity alive. As passionate as people are about their alma maters, it’s nothing compared with what happens when churches try to merge. Despite the strong aversion to change, however, resistance may be futile.

The Southern Baptist Conference (SBC) is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. Even though it added 374 churches between 2013 and 2014, the church, as a whole, lost more than 236,000 members during that period, the biggest one-year drop since 1881. 

Frank S. Page, president of the SBC executive committee, says that while some in the church blame faulty reporting for the numbers, “the reality is that we are simply not sharing our faith like we once did.”

According to a statistical review from the United Methodist Church (UMC), the second-largest Protestant denomination, membership in the U.S. dropped by nearly a half million people between 2009 and 2015. In that time, 1,798 UMC churches closed their doors.

Not all churches are seeing membership decline. The Catholic church, which is the largest religious body in the U.S., has gained 28 million members in the past 50 years, due, in part, to Latino immigrants. During that same period, however, the number of parishes actually decreased, partly due to a drop in the number of priests and nuns. 

Big Changes

One facility that closed in recent years was Green Plain UMC in rural Warren County, Iowa. The Reverend Amy Johnson was the pastor for Green Plain and three other churches in the Southeast Warren Parish at the time. She says the congregation made the painful decision to close because declining attendance made it difficult to pay the bills and still do mission work. 

After Green Plain's closing, two more churches were added to Johnson’s charge, forming a new, five-point parish that formed a 50-mile loop around two school districts. Most Sundays, she preached in three churches, rotating between them and counting on lay leaders and guest ministers to fill in. 

Since then, the parish has reorganized again. Today, two of the smaller churches in Johnson's former parish have joined together, while others have joined with other nearby churches. The UMC has established a circuit system to help smaller parishes join resources for things like Bible studies, confirmation classes, and other youth activities.

Johnson, who is now pastor in another Iowa parish, says, in order to succeed, parishes need to reimagine the meaning of church and embrace change. “Unfortunately for so many in rural settings, change and death are synonymous. The truth is, though, they do not have to be,” she says. “The world will always need farmers, always need rural life, and always need Jesus.”

Once a merger or consolidation happens, Johnson says the congregations need not only to accept the situation but also to embrace their new connectedness. For rural communities, that doesn’t necessarily mean being in frequent contact; it means sharing a culture. “The irony is that the world gets a little smaller every day, and no one is better equipped to understand our new smallness like rural America. No one does small better than we do,” she says.

Rural Revitalization

As a field outreach minister for the Iowa Conference of the UMC, the Reverend Dr. Jaye Johnson helps many small rural churches deal with declining membership and potential consolidation or pastor-sharing agreements. He is married to Reverend Amy Johnson (previously mentioned).

He says vital congregations have three things in common:

  1. They embrace the reality that we are all connected to God and one another.
  2. They encourage people to embrace one another and others more fully.
  3. They evoke action by making the most of people’s gifts and building a network of relationships.

While communities were once connected through churches, schools, business, and local government, Jaye Johnson says connection has been damaged over time, leaving each individual entity competing for resources instead of working together. “The church needs to go out and provide those connections and resources, and give people a sense of purpose,” he says. “That’s what revitalization looks like.”

He says the notion of one pastor per church is outdated and congregations need to think about what church is. “Some people are attached to a building, but in Biblical times post-Jesus, there was no physical place for church,” he says. “The building is not as important as the relationships.”

As nice as it is for a church to feel like a family, Jaye Johnson warns that families are closed units – you’re born into them or you marry into them. “The question is, how do we intentionally adopt people in?” One answer, he says, is to challenge the norms and expectations. “What do you want people to say in 50 years about how we made faith possible today?” When congregations make that shift in mind-set, he says, “The sky’s the limit.”

For those struggling to accept consolidation or closure, Jaye Johnson suggests rural churchgoers open the hymnal to “I Am the Church,” which proclaims: The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is a people.

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