A friend and collaborator says that rural America is experiencing a "tremendous dying." I take it that also means that she expects an ensuing resurrection. How can the rural church participate in resurrection?
Rural (and center-city) churches have been dealing with social and economic decline for a long time. This isn't all bad. Remember the story of Daniel and his three friends who were offered the rich food of the king's court and refused it in favor of a vegetarian diet? The rural community of faith hasn't gotten used to very rich food.
The rural churches of the United States know something of exile. The fact that churches in other locations may be dealing with that soon could make the learnings of town and country churches transferable.
The Center for Theology and Land has engaged in a study of 100 of the most vigorous rural congregations from Maine to California. We conducted extensive face-to-face interviews with members of 20 of those churches, mostly Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist.
Time after time a clear pattern emerged in these exemplary congregations. The most vital churches, many of whom had been battered by change, have adopted an enterprising, locally self-sufficient attitude. They realize that their future cannot be dependent on denominational offices to pull them through. They were not defiantly self-reliant or antagonistic to their denominational offices, but the denomination was peripheral to their vigor and future health.
Most of these churches have adopted a strategic plan of action that articulates concretely and theologically what they are about and how they are going to remain healthy. This is surprising, since many commentators describe the rural church as "relational, not programmatic." But rural folks do seem to want an organized pattern that expresses accountability and directions for the future, in their personal lives and as church. They sought strategies that squared with their self-understanding and theological point of view, rather than being only managerial. For them, strategy expressed relationship.
Often the pastor of the congregations we studied was a vigorous leader who fostered the growth of leadership in the congregation. In some cases that meant adopting a challenging posture for a few years, and then as people responded to that standing back and empowering vigorous lay leadership.
Many of the churches exhibited impressive stewardship and evangelism; they matched their gifts with gaps or needs in the local community. Often they were involved in mission at a distance as well.
Many people spoke of the importance and meaning they found in their church's worship service. The service helps form God's people and expresses the vision that the community generated in the church is part of the community of Jesus.
RURAL AMERICA is changing fast. The image of the rural church being a "farmers' church" is anachronistic. Many people said, "Of course we don't have but three or four families who make their living farming any more."
More and more, the food supply system is becoming concentrated into the hands of fewer companies. Hog production is the industry currently experiencing a rapid changeover-the top four companies now control 45 percent of the market, which is about average for commodity markets. Poultry, sheep, and ethanol are far more concentrated.
What this means for our rural churches is that the rate of population loss in counties that depend on extractive industries (such as farming, fishing, lumbering, mining, and ranching) is going to continue to decline. The fate of democracy and the economy in these places is not bright. (Something of a rural rebound is occurring in counties that depend on recreation or retirement.)
There is a new look to many rural areas. The task before the church is how to retain the sense of community and neighborliness while not losing a sense of God's mission or the call to be the body of Christ themselves. As one example, rural communities are becoming more racially diverse; this has created tensions between minority newcomers and long-term residents. How can the church realize the possibilities for its own enrichment, help communities deal explicitly with tensions, and work for justice for the whole community? A tall order.
The rural faith community must face into the rapid changes it is experiencing and interpret those changes theologically. What might the Spirit be saying to us through change? Change requires the best of our thinking and courage in undertaking creative action. Nowhere on the rural scene is that more true than in the church. No institution is more capable of moving into the future; after all, it knows that the future belongs to God.
L. SHANNON JUNG is director of the Center for Theology and Land at the University of Dubuque and Wartburg Seminaries in Dubuque, Iowa.