Fresh Hope for Rural Churches


Rural churches are anchors in their communities and can use their property assets to bring new hope to their neighbors. Jennie Birkholz describes how creative partnerships between churches, nonprofits, health systems, and others can respond to critical needs and draw together people who don’t normally interact. 

Churches can no longer be insular institutions and instead must open hearts and buildings to others in the community. A key role that churches can play is that of a convener. They can bring people together across the community that normally don’t interact. Partnerships between faith communities, nonprofits, health systems, and the community are key to understanding how the church fits into the community today. It also allows for those partners to understand the value that churches can offer, including physical and spiritual assets. 

Revisioning spaces 

Churches in rural communities hold spatial capital — buildings and land situated in accessible, central locations in the community. Re-envisioning those spaces is beneficial to both the church and the greater community. When land is reimagined by churches as a resource instead of as a burden, new community can be formed. Developed and accessible public, or quasi-public, land and spaces are a valuable resource in rural communities. 

Many rural churches remain located in the center of towns or on main traffic routes, so they are already in areas that people access for shopping, schools, or business needs. Allowing the church property to be used as a modern public space that serves the greater needs of the community will not only support the vitality and growth of the community but provide exposure and potential income to the church. There are many potential uses for church land and buildings. When repurposed thoughtfully and integrated with the spiritual assets of the church, property can positively impact the health and well-being of the community. 

Here are a few examples of ways churches can reuse their property for church and community good. 

Community gardens and farmers’ markets 

Even though many rural communities are surrounded by agriculture, often crops do not stay in the local community for personal consumption. Paradoxically, these communities are very often food deserts and lack access to fresh food such as fruits and vegetables. What is available is often expensive and distant, requiring transportation, which many do not have access to. By efficient utilization of the land that churches own, they can address this nutritional community need and provide opportunities for socialization and economic stability. 

Church property can be transformed into mini-farming communities with vegetable gardens, orchards, and small farm animals such as chickens. Fresh food can fill the pantry of those in need and meet critical nutritional needs in the community. The church can then take advantage of its central location by hosting regular farmers’ markets where the remaining food can be sold to raise funds for the church. Creating a community garden or orchards and holding farmers’ markets also provide community social opportunities through volunteerism. 

Recreational space 

The availability of recreational infrastructure, such as sidewalks and bicycle paths, is particularly limited in rural areas, which contributes to a higher prevalence of poor health outcomes among rural residents. Research has suggested that in rural areas, access to indoor recreational facilities is most impactful on physical activity for adults. Parks and low-cost recreational sites require public land and infrastructure that are often not available in rural areas. Using church property to provide opportunities for community recreational activities would meet a need for physical and social connection in the community also by bringing people in proximity to the church. Going beyond the traditional playground with an all-abilities park, or a skate park on church property, would reach out to a wide spectrum of people and create intergenerational bonds across the community. 

Community center space 

Urban areas have libraries, community centers, health clinics, and dedicated spaces that exclusively house charities or social services. Rural and small-town communities lack the physical spaces to house these essential services, and investing in new buildings for those services is often not viable. Facilities that do exist in these communities, such as schools, are not open to all persons during school hours and are closed for long holidays and summer. Church buildings are an existing asset that can be repurposed or updated to provide space for those needs. 

Church buildings are often accessible, located in the center of towns or on main traffic routes; have large gathering spaces; and may be the only public buildings open to all residents. Furthermore, church buildings are often empty most days of the week, so there is available space. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many churches to adopt new technology to offer remote services or classes. This investment makes the facility even more appealing to organizations looking for spaces to use. Rather than rural communities building new facilities, underutilized church buildings could be adapted for community-center space. It is more affordable and efficient to update an existing, underutilized building than to construct a new facility from scratch. 

Health-care space 

Rural health disparities have been linked to a lack of access to health care and geographic isolation. Even though there is a shortage of healthcare and specialty-care providers in rural areas, it is difficult to recruit persons to practice there. Often there are not hospitals or clinics with modern technology; there is limited opportunity for professional growth; and the workload is high, and the pay is low. Healthcare and social-support services all require specific physical spaces in the community, which are limited in rural areas. All of this contributes to a lack of access to quality health care in rural areas. Churches can address this need by offering space and resources for health-care providers. A rural church’s location, available space, and infrastructure can make it a good candidate to serve as a satellite site for health care.  

Recently, rural health and well-being have become a significant funding focus for foundations, the government, and health-care systems. These entities have allocated funding, coaching support, and other resources to implement programs in rural communities; however, a general lack of trusted institutions and nonprofits in those areas has created a challenge for them to get the resources to the communities. Many of these organizations have turned to faith communities, sometimes the only institutional pillars in the community, to partner with to house or even run new programs. Churches wanting to provide or support programs that will improve the lives in the community can reach out to these entities to see what is available to them. 

Rural America is the historic soul of our nation. The once-thriving heartbeat of American culture is dealing with sickness and despair. The anchoring churches in these communities can play a vital role in transforming despair into hope and help create flourishing communities once again. This will happen as churches and leaders hold fresh hope, draw upon their historic strengths, redefine ministry in the future, and become a partner in creating new pathways to a thriving community.  

Excerpted from Gone for Good?: Negotiating the Coming Wave of Church Property Transition, Mark Elsdon, editor (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2024), available at Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.Cokesbury, and Amazon.

Related Resources


About Author

Jennie Birkholz, MHA, is the principal of Breakwater Light, a consulting firm that partners with diverse organizations to improve the health and well-being of others and where they pray, play, learn, work, and live. She is also a candidate for the Texas House of Representatives.

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Discovering God’s Future for Your Church

Discovering God’s Future for Your Church is a turn-key tool kit to help your congregation discern and implement God’s vision for its future. The resource guides your church in discovering clues to your vision in your history and culture, your current congregational strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of your surrounding community. The tool kit features videos, leader’s guides, discussion exercises, planning tools, handouts, diagrams, worksheets, and more. Learn more and watch an introductory video now.