Five Reasons Rural and Small-Town Churches Are Making a Comeback

By Thom S. Rainer

The obituaries of rural and small-town churches are premature.

Indeed, we continue to see clear evidence of hope and promise for both the churches and the communities. While the need is still great in the cities and more urban populations, we cannot ignore God’s work and opportunities in less populous areas.

What is taking place to give us such optimism and hope? Allow me to share five reasons. I must admit I was surprised at some of the research I found on this topic.

  1. The migration trend from these less populated areas has reversed. There seems to be conventional wisdom that people are fleeing rural areas. There is a good reason for this perception. It indeed has been a negative trend for decades. But did you know the trend has reversed? Did you know the rate of decline in rural populations began reversing in 2011? Did you know the population in rural areas actually began increasing in 2016? This development is huge and should not be ignored by church leaders, denominations, and networks!
  2. There are a lot of people in rural and small-town areas. The population number depends on how you define rural and small town. If you include any areas under 2,500 in population, there are 60 million people living there. That is a huge mission field that cannot be ignored.
  3. More church leaders are expressing a calling to rural churches and small-town churches. Though our data is anecdotal, we have confidence we are seeing a trend. We began to notice it more in our conversations with Gen Xers and Millennials, but we are seeing this trend even among older Boomer pastors today. Much like the move to replanting and revitalization, we are seeing a calling among these leaders to become a part of these churches and communities.
  4. More church leaders are serious about rooting themselves and their families in these communities and churches. Part of the calling we are hearing is a desire to establish roots in these less populated areas. For many decades for many leaders, these churches were perceived more as stepping stones to the next opportunity. This attitude is shifting. The metaphor is changing from steppingstones to roots.
  5. The simpler life of rural or small-town areas is becoming increasingly attractive to many people, including church leaders. Simply stated, many people are weary of the frenetic pace and cluttered life often emblematic of more densely populated areas. There is a desire to return to the basics of an uncluttered life. Church leaders are among those seeking this life balance.

The revitalization and replanting movement is growing. Among those churches in this growing movement are churches in rural churches and in small towns. It is an incredible thing to watch.

God has not given up on rural and small-town churches. We shouldn’t either. Let me hear from you.

Posted on November 25, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • As usual Rainer is ignoring the bad news that the SBC is in trouble. A few rural churches may be doing better but the outlook for SBC churches in general is bleak.

    • Marguerite Colson says on

      Steve –

      Your ignorance is only exceeded by your bitterness. In two sentences you got so much wrong:

      1. Rainer never mentions this issue is about the SBC. His view is much broader.

      2. Rainer never says that all rural churches are in good health; instead he points to signs of hope.

      3. Your “as usual” comment is unfounded and reeks of bitterness and ignorance. Rainer has been one of the few voices on churches that causes us to face reality. He never ignores the tough news. Review his books, podcasts, and blogs. Have you ever read his book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church”? You simply don’t know what you are talking about.

      I don’t know if you are a rural church pastor, but if you are, I suspect your church is declining for reasons other than demographics. Your attitude stinks.

  • Ben Muncie says on

    Thank you for the encouragement Thom.
    Small churches are great places to know and be known.

    Next month will be 6 years pastoring a church in a town of 200. We moved here and have been accepted as part of the town because we live like we are part of the town. We help our neighbors rake leaves, we attend town meetings, we participate in our little festival, and help whenever we see a need.

    Regarding pace of life: small towns have fewer distractions, so most of the options available to fill our time involve other people from town. It’s up to the pastor to get outside and be friendly. I have friends who are always too busy and never have enough time, but that is because they create a hectic life for themselves. We all have the same amount of time each day.

    I have been part of a variety of church sizes, and I have found that small churches have an easier time, if the core group is willing, to maintain a church-family environment. I believe that a church atmosphere starts with the pastor, so if things are not going right I scrutinize myself first. Most of the time the problem is me, but the good news is that when I make a change in myself the impact is felt pretty quickly in the church because we are a small ship (we can turn quickly).

    I struggle with feelings of failure because we haven’t seen drastic growth – part of the problem is my leadership and part of the problem is our location. But I have decided that God has placed me here and he will use me as long as I’m willing to to follow Him.

  • Victoria Petros says on

    I moved from a large City to a small town. Unfortunately I see “ Megachurches” being the only real place Young people about 45 and under , New Christians or Who “ didn’t graduate from the local High School” can find a true home. Otherwise I have found that it is very sad. Christ’s Church is being used in these small towns by natives as another place to garner political power and keep outsiders at bay. I tried attending a few in my new hometown. People are “ nice”. But you are not called when you volunteer to help and you will find that there are a few advertised activities but the REAL activities are on a need to know basis and only natives get to know. It’s an inside club. You are allowed to come Sunday for sermon and Sunday School. But no one cares anything about you or your family. You may as well be invisible.

    • DeWayne Wyatt says on

      I was born and raised in a small town and what you say is true. Since then I have lived in large cities and it is much easier to find a church that includes everyone. After retiring, I moved back to a small town and I experience precisely what I dished out in my home town. However, I have just moved from the largest and most prominent church in my current small town to a sister church in the same town and the atmosphere is totally different. The difference: A pastor who preaches the gospel every time he preaches or teaches. This is the most inclusive church in our community, I believe. So, if churches will be gospel-centered, it can make an impact on the community and involve all of its members. The gospel changes peoples’ hearts.

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