How can rural churches break free from the false narratives and unrealistic metrics that obscure their potential vitality? Allen Stanton lays out a new vision for healthy rural congregations as valued stakeholders and potent agents of change within their communities.
Ann Michel: You maintain that the rural church is captive to several false narratives. Can you comment on some of the misimpressions that characterize attitudes about rural communities and churches?
Allen Stanton: There are two dominant narratives regarding rural places. One romanticizes rural communities, portraying them as idyllic places. I call this narrative “The Agrarian Paradise.” Picture the image of a lovely farm town where everyone is at one with nature and the earth and people are highly moral and virtuous. This is a really old narrative that goes back to our nation’s founding when rural farmers were opposed to the British aristocracy. When people think about rural communities, they say, “I love being in a rural place. I love the idea of a rural place. They are lovely places to visit. But I don’t actually live there.”
The other problematic narrative is one of rural decline and decay which has really taken off in the last couple of years. Rural communities are seen as places full of death and dying and something inherent in the culture is seen as causing that decay. I can point to one culprit epitomizing this narrative. It’s J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Although this book was written about a particular community in Ohio, it has been extrapolated onto all of Appalachia and all of rural America as a way to explain some recent political trends. The thesis of this book is that something in the culture of rural communities is driving decline. But when you look at data and statistics, that’s not necessarily true. For instance, rural America does not have a really high rate of poverty. There are a couple of different ways to measure poverty. But when you look at more nuanced factors, rural poverty is actually lower than urban poverty, students growing up in a rural community actually have more opportunities for economic mobility, and they are less likely to be incarcerated.
Both of these narratives bleed into the way we think about rural ministry. The first narrative reinforces the notion of a rural parish as a place where a pastor just needs to love the people. Rural church ministry is seen as nothing more than a pastoral care situation. The narrative of rural decay implies that rural churches are dying and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. So, we should close churches. To get beyond these narratives you need to consider the nuances of each rural community and the gifts they have to address their unique challenges.
Ann Michel: So there really is no one stereotypical rural community or rural church, even though we tend to project a certain set of assumptions onto all of them.
Allen Stanton: We can’t even agree on what “rural” means. The federal government has 15 different definitions of a rural community. I live in a rural community and attend a county seat church full of lawyers and doctors and bankers. You also have rural churches on back roads with 15 or 30 people. There’s no way to say, “This is what a rural church is.” You have to look at the nuances of each congregation to figure out what vitality means in that context.
Ann Michel: You say some of the standard measures of vitality don’t really apply very well in rural churches. Why might the measures of vitality be different for a rural church?
Allen Stanton: Part of this is the way we define vitality. There have been efforts to come up with one standard definition of church vitality. The problem is that these are often weighted towards suburban and urban churches. So, for example, in the United Methodist Church, the Towers Watson Report says that across the board, whether a large or small church, a highly vital church needs to have a number of small groups particularly aimed at young people. It’s not really an accurate way to measure what community looks like in a rural congregation. In a lot of rural communities, the fastest growing population is actually recent retirees moving into rural communities for more affordable housing and a slower pace of life. If we tell churches that to be vital you need to increase children’s programing and the size of the youth group, we’re ignoring the single largest demographic in some of these communities. So, we have to figure out the actual demographics of a particular rural community and not just default to what worked in a suburban place or an urban place. Rural places are not just like little urban communities. They’re different. They behave differently.
Ann Michel: You make the point that rural congregations are uniquely positioned to be agents of change within their communities. Can you say a bit about why you believe that to be so?
Allen Stanton: Absolutely. All communities have what are called “anchor institutions.” These are organizations like colleges, hospitals, schools, businesses, or faith communities that really contribute to the livelihood and the life of the community. In urban places, these are pretty readily apparent. If you drive through Nashville, you’ll see about 20 colleges, a number of hospitals, corporate headquarters, philanthropies, and public infrastructure like libraries. And these are all contributing to the success of the community.
In rural places, you don’t have as many permanent anchor institutions. Hospitals in rural America are declining at an alarming rate. Schools, colleges, and businesses come and go. But churches are at the center and all throughout every rural community. And churches are uniquely positioned in rural places because they are permanent. They’ve been there forever. They know the whole history of the community. They are permanent in a way that no other organization really is.
Also, the membership of a rural church represents a large cross section of the community. In any given rural church, you have teachers and nurses and small business owners and elected officials and you’re meeting in a very relational atmosphere. When you start talking about what kind of impact the church can have on the community, you have all this expertise sitting in the church. If you want to run a health care ministry, your doctors and nurses and health care administrators are there. You also have the teachers and school principals who can connect you to students. What if we leverage this strength to really effect community change?
Also, rural churches are still trusted institutions, which isn’t always the case in larger communities. You’re seeing this right now with vaccine literacy and vaccine hesitation among COVID-19 patients. In rural places, the church is the place where you can go to get accurate information because people trust the other people in their congregation and they trust their pastor.
Ann Michel: A good portion of your book is devoted to exploring a different approach to evangelism and a different approach to mission built less around membership recruitment and more around community engagement that takes seriously this idea that the church is an anchor institution in the community. Could you describe this approach and give an example of what it looks like in practice?
Allen Stanton: I define evangelism a little differently. I’m not necessarily looking at how we attract people into the congregation. Instead, we want to enact the kingdom of God or announce the kingdom of God, as Mortimer Arias says. We want to form the community in a way that the kingdom of God is visible; and people are able to live into that. Evangelism is the ability and the practice of recognizing the kingdom of God, cultivating the kingdom of God, announcing the kingdom of God, and inviting the wider community to participate in that kingdom of God. This lines up with an asset-based community development approach that takes stock of the resources that are already in the community and recognizes how God is already at work and then seeks to cultivate those assets and form partnerships.
An example is my friend Tim, who is a pastor here in Tennessee. Tim’s assets were a bunch of angry contractors in his community who didn’t have the workforce they needed and a bunch of high school kids who weren’t going to go to college but didn’t know how to swing a hammer. So, he had two components that needed each other but were also in conflict with each other. Tim said, “This is a resource from the kingdom of God. God is up to something in this particular moment.” Tim also had the shell of a building.
So, Tim recognized that God had given these assets and he began cultivating them. He said to the contractors, “Look, you guys need employees. These youth need mentorship, not just for job skills but for their whole selves. So why don’t we create a youth ministry where you mentor them?” Every Thursday night, they would have a devotion to talk about how God was at work in their world, to talk about how God does that work in these students’ lives to help the students and the mentors grow in discipleship. And then they learn the job skills. They started doing the wiring, laying pavers outside, putting up walls. Tim is very adamant that this is workforce development, but it’s also about forming disciples and forming the whole person. He moved through all the critical steps — recognizing, cultivating, announcing, and inviting. Now, the county recognizes what Tim is doing as the primary means of workforce development in his town and they are providing a recurring annual grant. Tim is creating a job pipeline. But he’s changing the lives of the students and mentors, too. It’s not just developing a workforce, it’s also pouring into the whole lives of these people and saying, “You matter. Your work matters. Our community matters in the kingdom of God. And this is part of it.” It’s about the mission and the work and the outreach and how that’s forming us for discipleship.
There are countless stories like that. For example, churches that have brought rural families out of homelessness in six months through the same sort of process, recognizing the assets of their congregation and inviting people to participate in what God is doing. But I always want to emphasize that it’s not just charity work. It’s not just getting people to see their church as a community leader. It’s also recognizing that this is an important and pivotal component of the kingdom of God.
Ann Michel: In our post-attractional era, when so many churches are struggling, it seems this same vision and approach could be very relevant to churches in urban and suburban contexts, as well.
Allen Stanton: Absolutely. And there are actually a lot of parallels between a small rural church and a small membership urban church. Some of the places where I’ve seen this done best are in urban places. But one of the reasons I always tie this back to the rural church is because many are in communities that are not experiencing rapid growth. So, they’re not going to increase their average worship attendance by a significant amount. If you’re in a town of 7,000 and you have 47 churches, the odds are that you’re not going to have a 3,000-person church. It doesn’t work out like that. Rather than spinning their wheels trying to attract people, I say, “Look, you have something that no one else in this community has. You have the ability to help bring about the kingdom of God for the entire community on a very real level. If you can teach every third grader in your community to read at grade level, you can fundamentally alter your community. And the church can be a leader of that.” And it’s a cool way to see churches live out their vocation.
Ann Michel: So, what are some first steps a small church can take toward this vision of vitality grounded in a community engagement?
Allen Stanton: The very first thing is to sit down and figure out who they are. What are you trying to do and where are the strengths of your own congregation? You might discover that you have a lot of teachers or nurses. What are the natural strengths? I also encourage churches to think about other indicators and other metrics they want to measure. I don’t believe we can just jettison metrics and measurement because the typical standards haven’t worked for us. We have to find something to measure what we’re doing and our progress. One that I always recommend is to take stock every year of where people in your congregation are volunteering. If you have a lot of people volunteering in the hospital or on the board of the United Way, you should know that. Find out where people are already at work and just start to join in that work, build that trust, and then let whatever happens, let the Holy Spirit work in that moment. These are not hard things to do but they take time and the ability to really listen to what people in your congregation and community are saying.
Ann Michel: In closing, I wanted to give you an opportunity to speak to why you think the future of the rural church is important.
Allen Stanton: I think the main reason I am so passionate about it is because whatever your denomination, the majority of our churches are rural. These rural churches are often overlooked, but they really make up the fabric of who we are. In terms of the pure numbers, the majority of pastors are going to serve a small membership church. So, at some point, we have to figure out a way to train pastors to do that work. But then on the flipside, rural congregations and rural communities have unique challenges right now. There are a lot of struggles in rural places. Health care on the whole is not really that great. Rural hospitals are closing. Rural education is not always as good as an education in an urban area. And I think churches are a place that can really help address these challenges. To me, just the ability to effect change in a rural place is one of the most important things. As someone who grew up in a rural community, who lives in a rural community, I trust the rural church to do meaningful work to transform their communities.
Ann Michel: I know from our work at the Lewis Center that smaller and rural churches are so hungry for advice. And yet so many of the ideas and strategies and resources come out of a large church environment and they don’t necessarily fit their context. So, you’ve done a tremendous service in really identifying some of the strengths of the rural church and suggesting a way forward.