It was once quipped that trying to turn a rural church around is harder than reaching a group of practicing Muslims. Gloomy as it may sound, rural churches are facing some unique challenges, especially as it concerns membership. The allurement of the city and the agricultural mechanization of the last fifty years has left rural America in a steady decline. The church has felt the effects. I don’t think too highly of statistical research, but both Barna and Pew have suggested that the overwhelming majority of rural churches have, at best, no increased growth and, at worst, decline.
Despite such gloomy sentiments it seems the rural church can grow. A couple of years ago W. Scott Moore assessed growth patterns in rural churches that had experienced a significant increase in membership by those who were previously unchurched. And guess what? He lived to write a book about it!
So how does one “grow” a rural church? Of course, growth is ultimately dependent on the Spirit alone. Paul reminds us: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). So perhaps it should be asked: what are unchurched people looking for in a rural church? Surprising as it may seem, things like Sunday school, youth ministry, location, and evangelistic programs did not have as great of an impact as many previously thought. Most shocking of all, at least to me in our day of worship wars, is that worship style “is apparently immaterial to the growth of a rural church.” Could this signal a hope for us a capella psalmody churches? I digress. So what are the significant factors that seem to have attracted the unchurched to these growing rural congregations? Moore noted four:
Growth Factor One—God’s Presence: People want to sense and experience the presence of God in worship and the life of the congregation. It was noted: “The presence of God is contingent upon several elements.” Namely, people wanted to sense God’s presence in prayer, singing, and preaching.
Growth Factor Two—Friendliness: Simply put, people want friendly churches and not an atmosphere of loneliness. They want a place where people know, care, and talk to them. This, Moore found, is especially important for rural churches as they often “serve as a fellowship center and the base of many community initiatives.”
Growth Factor Three—Doctrinal Commitment: According to Thom Rainer, “[The] unchurched indicated a greater interest in doctrine than longer-term Christians.” It sometimes seems that many who are in established churches often see little value and almost no use for doctrine. In fact, if mere observation means anything, it seems many would think strong doctrinal commitments are a hinderance to growth. But, at least statistically, it seems many are looking for a community that knows what they believe and why they believe it. They may not always agree, but Moore’s research indicated they admire sincerity and conviction.
Growth Factor Four—Pastor and Preaching: The preaching, as noted above, played an important role in the way people experience the presence of God. But Moore also found that the pastor himself is seen as a vital part of reaching the community and, in some cases, was the one to provide the necessary vision to the congregation. Other research indicated that is “the primary catalytic factor for growth in the local church.”
Now, I’m not a statistician or the son of one so I’m afraid any commentary I had would be rather superficial. But as a rural church pastor—let me rephrase that, as a pastor I find these growth factors fascinating. If this research is an accurate picture of reality, then why is the rural church growing? It seems to me it’s growing precisely because it’s being faithful to what God in the Bible has called them to be. They are committed to the preaching of the Word and prayer (1 Timothy 4:13, Romans 10:14). They are committed to the truth (Jude 1:3, Titus 1:9, 2 Timothy 1:13). They are committed to one another (2 John 12, Ephesians 4:15-16). And they are committed to a sense of God’s presence among his people (Ephesians 2:20-22, 1 Corinthians 14:25). That’s what the church is supposed to be. I know it’s not the things that trendy, innovative, best-selling, page turning books are written about, but it does seem to be the way God grows his church.