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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  • Rev. Holly Morrison says on

    A handful of folks in our 120-member church formed a “Social Justice Team,” empowered to respond to community needs as they see fit. After working on some projects with hunger in the local schools and developing a CFA (community-supported fishery) to help struggling fishermen, three years ago they started helping African refugees and asylum-seekers resettle in our community. Three of the families started coming to our church, even though we told them they were free to chose and there’s a church with a more “African-style” energetic worship style within walking distance of their apartments. Their kids revitalized our Sunday School, and now other families with small kids are regularly attending. Our whole congregation shares the joy of helping our immigrant neighbors flourish, and they have breathed so much new life into our midst. The pews are filling, it seems, more every Sunday. The Holy Spirit is moving here, and as I look around the congregation, with all our different ages and accents and skin colors, I think, “surely, this IS the Kingdom of God!”

  • I believe any church can grow if, as a team, they live into the Gospel, that is, love your neighbor and be a force for positive change. Everyone, regardless of where they live, wants the same things; to be loved, to be accepted, to be supported, and to have peace and joy in life now. We grow churches by developing relationships based on mutuality and trust. We do this by being a working, contributing part of the community we serve. Develop relationships by working side-by-side with organizations and groups in the greater community. Those relationships will open the door to constructive spiritual dialog. This works especially well in smaller communities where it is often easier to make friends if you get down in the dirt and work side-by-side with them for the betterment of the community. We are seeing it work in a town of 7,000 people. Our Sunday attendance has doubled, volunteerism is stronger than ever, and we have a prayer team that is really on fire with the Spirit.

  • I’ve served small rural churches for 24 years, and I hope you’re right. If I may offer a word of advice for urban pastors moving to rural areas, few things turn off a rural congregation like a preacher with a “city slicker” attitude. In other words, don’t go in and announce, “I’m going to show you poor hicks how it’s done.” True, most pastors would never actually say those words (I would certainly hope not, anyway!), but that is how some of them come across. I can practically guarantee you it’s a recipe for failure. On the other hand, a little humility and respect can go a long way.

  • Andrew Anderson says on

    22 years in vocational ministry (18 in metropolitan areas), I have just entered into year-4 as the Senior Pastor in a town of 8,000 in Northeastern Nebraska.

    When my family of 7 first moved here from Minneapolis, we did our best to understand life in a small town and more specifically, OUR new community. The sentiment of what we heard time and time and time again?

    “If you’re not from here…we don’t care!”

    In these past 3-years I have begun praying Jeremiah 29:4-8 over our community and have intentionally invested myself and my family in our community. It hasn’t been easy! Not everyone loves that we’re here…especially considering that we came in to pastor on the heels of a church-split and following the ministry of the former pastor who was here for more than 25-years. PS: a church-split is horrible, but in a small town…it’s amplified and it’s devastating!

    But by the grace of God…

    Having sought to understand and identify why our church exists in our community has changed everything. With 18 churches in this small town, we desire to really understand the unique way in which God wants to move in and through us as a church and throughout our community.

    Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the absolute favor of God…

    We have seen 341 first-time commitments to Christ in just 3-years!

    We have given out more than 1,000 Bibles to people that have walked through our doors!

    We have baptized more than 100 people!

    And…we draw from 19 area communities and more than 4 other counties every week. This small-rural church is active and alive – God is doing immeasurably more than anyone could have ever imagined!

    By the grace of God our church has grown by more than 300% in nearly every area of ministry. Last Sunday we had 731 people at church with 3 more people committing their lives to Christ! And with our mid-week ministries (Awanas, youth ministry, LifeGroups), we are able to do life and ministry with more than 1,300 people every week all across our community and beyond.

    While we absolutely LOVE our church and community, to say that transitioning as a family has been easy would be a gross misrepresentation. It’s been hard and exhausting and trying in many ways.


    1. Gossip? Unless you’ve grown up in a small town and are used to everyone seemingly knowing everything about everyone else (accurate or not), gossip is HARD!. This has easily been the hardest transition for many, many families that we know who have moved into a small town. It’s also forced many others out of the town. It’s harder than one might imagine it to be.

    2. Comfort? Not everyone gets excited at the new pastor from the BIG city coming to town and looking to change things. It can be done and there are a lot of great ideas and resources available to help ministry leaders think through these challenges. However, it takes time, intention, and consistency.

    3. Excited? Unfortunately it seems that other churches in smaller communities don’t always appreciate how God is moving through other growing churches in the same community. Rather than looking to celebrate where the Lord is at work and looking to partner in advancing the ‘K’ingdom collectively, it seems like competition kicks in and nay-saying takes over. While this isn’t always the case, I have heard seemingly countless stories of these discouraging relationships between small town community churches all across the country.

    Whether it’s a big city or a small town, people need the Lord! The gospel message stays the same, but how we present the Good News MUST be taken into consideration. And I, too, believe that God is active and alive and moving in unthinkable ways in our small community and communities like ours all over our country. Our job? We get to love and live and lead alongside these folks while collectively celebrating the community that God has blessed us to be a part of.


    If I could encourage any one looking at life and ministry in a small community, I would encourage everyone to think about these 3 things:

    1. Identify other pastors in like-communities that have successfully made the transition in life and ministry that you are hoping to make. Ask questions including what they did that worked and what they would do differently. Don’t just make this an exercise in intellect. Really listen and ask God for clarity and conviction for you in your life and ministry.

    2. Build in a team of Godly individuals that will pray over you and that will pour into you. No one is called to life and ministry alone – a small town can often feel lonely. Having people to walk with you as well as lead alongside you through the intricacies of life and ministry in a small town is critical – it is crucial for your sanity and success!

    3. Family first! While living in a small town does have its benefits where pace is concerned, anonymity also goes by the wayside. If you’re not careful and intentional, a night out with the family can quickly become a conversation with everyone from the community. While this is a beautiful blessing to life in a small town, it’s not so beautiful at the expense of your family.

    I sincerely pray that you will know the favor of God and the blessings that come from GETTING to do life and ministry in a small town. Press into Jesus and keep pursuing the call for which you and I are here, in our communities. Be faithful and enjoy the ride!

  • Perhaps Hallmark gets the credit for the trend reversal, since their movies predictably point out the pace differences. 🙂 6 years ago, my wife and I planted a video campus for a multisite church in her home county in rural WV. Our county has 16k, the town has 400. We began with a launch team of 40, and now have 160 “regular” attenders coming from a 30-minute radius. More than 75 have been saved and baptized! It’s very exciting to see God ministering here, and to be a part of His plan to reach everyone who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. — Jeff Burnett, Campus Pastor, Horizons Church

  • William Wade says on

    We moved from an international, postmodern church in The Hague (Crossroads The Hague) in the Netherlands to a smaller, denominational church in Hertfordshire, England. The difference in style and outlook is palpable: the larger international church had its eyes on branding, being extremely seeker-sensitive and culturally accommodating. It ran off a business model of leadership and tried to be executive and corporate in function. The smaller, less-assuming church in England is aware of its need for the power and presence of God, desirous of reaching the community with a strong gospel and is shaped by an outlook of being a ‘word and Spirit’ church. I think I know which one I much prefer leading.

  • Corey Beatty says on

    So glad to see this article. I pastor a church with average attendance of 45, located truly in the middle of nowhere. We love it there, have served this church 10.5 years (since I was ordained), and hope to be here much longer. I’m a bivocational teacher with 2.5 years left till retirement from the school system, which we know will help our church. We feel an urgent need to pray for the small country churches in our area, and hope that they grow and thrive. To God be the glory!

  • Town population 200. Got here 3 years ago with 40 people. Had 70 yesterday. God is good!!! Baptized 9 last year and have 8 pending baptisms. It ain’t easy, but PTL!

  • If you can be successful in a small church then you can be successful anywhere. If your successful in a big church, can’t say the same thing.

  • In my twenty sixth year as a Pastor in a small town in S.W. Ohio, only God gets the glory for what has taken place. Be true to the Word, preach and share the gospel, love the people, serve the community, and make it your home. We need to quit looking at the next step on the ministry ladder and dig in where we are. Thank you Dr. Rainer for encouraging small town and rural church Pastors.

  • I left Los Angeles in 2012 to pastor a church in Batesville, AR–a town of 10,000. At first we were afraid we would find small town living extremely difficult, but were pleasantly surprised by the benefits of living here.

    Here is what we like: 1. Slower pace of life–I used to commute in traffic for 45 minutes every day. Now I drive 5 minutes to work. I spend way more time with my family. 2. Simplified living–we do have less options in restaurants and shopping, but this actually results in less stress. We eat at home more often and appreciate the few options we do have. 3. We can get our minds around the community we are trying to reach. Our church in L.A. sought to be a “church for the city,” but often this was nebulous because our city was so huge. But here, we know who our community is. We have one main st. We can wrap our minds around our mission field. 4. Nature: Less concrete, lots of trees, lakes, rivers, mountains. We drive 10 minutes and we are out of the city and in beauty. We eat organic, locally grown food and are close friends with the people that we buy it from. 5. Lower cost of living.

    Also, because we are so connected now via the internet, and with there being lots of transplants, the culture in small towns does not seem to be as isolated as it used to be.

  • I serve on the Leadership Team for Small Town Summits. Our purpose is to encourage and equip small-town pastors and lay leaders. We have summits for those in the New England area, and articles for anyone: