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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  • Having pastored only three…. fast-growing churches over 40+ years….now being the bi-vocational pastor of a small-town church is perhaps my biggest challenge. Their lack of understanding of ‘best practices’ and a general lack of desire to learn/apply those….means the ‘outsider’ pastor is continually limited in his impact and ability to help.
    It is the epitome of “we do it this way and do not care to hear of any other way, even if it is better and will grow the church”.
    “Perennial outsider” is correct. For a true church leader it is tough.

    • I encourage you to stand firm in your pursuit of best practices and a different way of being church. As one who is still new in my church as I approach my 9th anniversary (the church has been in existence for nearly 380 years – founded in 1642), change takes forever in rural churches. Just because it is best doesn’t mean that it’s best in their mind. If you can start small and work up.

      We transitioned our finances from automated spread sheets to Quickbooks and the Parish was reluctant but our audits are without an issue and the audit trail is easy to follow. The Parish sees the utility but still complains because “it’s not the way my daddy did the books in 1955”. But they don’t actively fight automation.

  • Mike Fritscher says on

    Thank you Thom so much for this article and for personally promoting the Blessings of Ministry of Rural Churches!
    In 1985 half way through seminary we responded to a call to be the 30th pastor Of a rural church 85 miles from Ft Worth, Waco and Abilene. We stepped into this church founded in 1908 with 25 people mostly retired or pretty close to retirement. What was to be an 18 month stint and then a return to the city has turned into a 35 year stay. In early 87 we felt a call to stay and pastor Cottonwood Baptist outside of Dublin, TX the rest of our ministry, with really no vision of seeing growth! But What a pleasant surprising journey! Although population in the closest town has declined we have seen God work in the “middle of No where”. One example: In 1999 Cottonwood Baptist adopted an upg in SE Asia and has sent over 400 of our people to this region on short term and long term trips. Ministries at home have grown as well! We also have several staff that have been serving 15-30 years here.
    We often ask the question, “What can God Do in the Middle Of No Where?” And it seems that God always says, “Just Watch!”
    And Cottonwood is not an anomaly! In our area there are a a number of other rural churches making great impact for the kingdom!
    I appreciate so much this article and the work that is being done for Rural Church Life in America and recognizing how God is truly at work in Rural America!

    Mike Fritscher
    Cottonwood Baptist
    Dublin, TX

  • Cindy Mauldin says on

    As a long time member of a small church outside of Philly, we do not feel God is done with us yet. I too feel that it feels like NAMB is abandoning small churches and just being concerned with planting new churches. We are STILL here, still seeking God’s guidance,giving sacrifically to our mission offerings and CP, seeking new ways to witness and glorify God. Maybe there will come a time when smaller,older churches who are not ready to give up the ghost will be as important as church plants and receive some help with their ministries and mission.I know I am not alone in sometimes feeling we have been abandoned, but PRAISE GOD we are still here and kicking(albeit a little slower) .Would not be in any other denomination because I love our missions out reach and our approach but smaller churches need help sometimes.WE ARE STILL HERE AND SERVING our Lord the best way we can. That’s all we know to do. He is able and He alone!

  • As a Millennial pastor, my wife and I just accepted a call to Pastor in a 4,000 person town in Illinois. We currently live in Colorado Springs.

    Our three primary reasons were:
    1. Pace. It’s exhausting being in the Springs even though we love it here.
    2. Cost of living. We have close to six figures in student loan debt between the two of us, all from Bible Colleges.
    3. Opportunity. In my personal experience, Rural churches have been more open to hiring a 32 year old Pastor than city churches. Of course, that may just be because city churches are flooded with applicants.

  • I was with you until getting to #5 speaking of the simpler life. I have served on large church staffs in two different metropolitan areas. But for the past many years I have pastored a church in a small town and thus have no understanding of the simpler life. A night at home is a rarity. Between high school sporting and academic events along with anniversary celebrations, birthday parties and reunions our life is anything but simple on top of a fully scheduled church ministry. We love it. But please don’t include us with Mayberry!

  • There are downsides to serving in such places, just as there are in cities and suburbia. My wife and I have heard some real “horror stories” of late about pastors and their families serving in such places.

    I served churches in three communities with under 20,000 people, and I grew up in a town of 5,000. While I can identify with the comments made, not everything was great about serving in such places. At one point, I began to use the term “perennial outsider” in regard to living in such places (and I heard experiences from others than pastors), meaning that you are a part of the community in some ways, especially those viewed as helpful to the community, but there seem to be often unseen and unspoken barriers preventing new people from really being a part of the community. One stockbroker, a relatively newcomer in one such place, asked me one time, “What do you have to do to be ‘in’ in this town?” to which I replied that if you were not a native who had graduated from the local high school, you were not “in.”

    I am not disparaging such places, as I am a product of one such town and have served in others. In all those places, I had some wonderful experiences, and pray for those now serving in them.

    • For sure. There are downsides to any location.

    • I married a “native” in my small-town area, but I still feel like an outsider too often, even after thirty-one years! I think the bias is real, and that’s hard for me. I tell my husband and kids that while THEY are all natives, I am the only one who is still considered and outsider. But there are many wonderful things about these small rural areas, and being out here has been a stretching and growing experience for me for many years.

  • Steve Reynolds says on

    I appreciate your encouraging words concerning small town and rural churches. However, it must be noted that, while the migration away from small towns was reversed in 2011, this is not equally true in all parts of the country. In some states, people are moving to small towns, particularly in the West and South while in other states, such as New York, they are leaving in large numbers. For example, in our rural county of upstate New York, the population went from 51,049 in 2010 to 48,560 in 2018 or a minus 4.9%. In fact, from 2010 to 2018, 46 of New York’s 62 counties lost population, most of them in rural upstate New York. I share this data with you to state that not all rural and small town areas are experiencing the resurgence in small town life that you are describing. With that said, this does not mean that there aren’t plenty of opportunities for ministry and God is at work, but in our part of the country, we are faced with major challenges of an aging and declining population in our rural areas.

  • mike sommerfeld says on

    is it possible to get a reference for point 1 that i can quote academically.

  • Bruce Morrison says on

    Having pastored in small town churches (and still am), I agree with this evaluation of what is happening. However, here in New Mexico and elsewhere it seems that the North American Mission Board is abandoning small town and rural churches for the big impact of cities. We are continually loosing much needed funding for small town church planting and support of pastors in these efforts. My prayer is that our denominational leaders will reverse the trend of moving everything to the big city and help our efforts to take Jesus everywhere.

    • Jerry Watts says on

      Bruce – I have one thing to say about your comment, “AMEN!” I pray for a reversal of the NAMB trends in more ways than one.

    • Bruce –

      So far the churches we are seeing reverse the trends are receiving no denominational or outside support. They actually become stronger without a funding dependency.

    • I giggled and told my husband, this article has things you’ve been saying for awhile. He is the pastor in the most isolated county seat in the lower 48. We came here 14 years ago when we were 26 and said we were going to do whatever it took to stay here because this is where God planted us. There were 8 folks our first Sunday. Yesterday, we had 44…in a town of 300! I like to say we were replanters before it was cool. 😉 it’s not always easy, but there is NOTHING like being where God called you, and the people in small towns matter just as much to God as those in the big cities.

    • Thank you for this truth In love. Help the small church survive and arise.

    • Gary Mitchell says on

      That trend started many years ago. When the SBC mission board turned their back on smaller churches. & Smaller churches began to develop their own support groups as the SBC was so concerned about the money. Well the SBC found out how important those smaller churches are and discovered just how much money those smaller churches provided to SBC.

      Smaller churches did not need the SBC, just wanted to be included.

      Larger churches are expensive to maintain and support.

      Smaller Churches are the backbone of the SBC & LBC.

  • John Davis says on

    You’ve hit the nail on the head with these 5 as far as I’m concerned. I recently left an Associate Pastor role at a large church in Lexington, KY for a Senior Pastor role at a church of about 250 in Columbia, KY (a town of about 5,000 people total). I’m 34. My wife and I have absolutely loved the change. We love the slower pace of life, the deep-rooted community of this town, and we are finding our kids are happier.

  • Jerry Schoenenberger says on

    I was saved in a small church “in the middle of nowhere”, and was pastor of a little church in a town with a population of 90 for 16 years. Rural America is indeed a huge mission field. Thank you for this article.

  • We’re experiencing growth in the middle of a cornfield in East Central Indiana after merging with a dying church. It can only be explained by God’s work in and through and for us. It’s amazing

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