Rural Depopulation and the Church

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Redefining Rural Ministry
Rural Canada is changing. While some areas – especially those adjacent to larger urban centres – have experienced significant growth in recent decades, other more isolated regions are facing serious decline. Rural depopulation has had many repercussions, especially for government and others who strive to provide the same level of service with fewer local human and financial resources. The church faces similar challenges.

Traditional agricultural areas have been hardest hit by rural depopulation, according to Dr. John Young, Director of the Rural Ministry Program at Queen’s Theological College in Kingston, Ontario. “In some parts of the prairies and southern Ontario and in the Maritimes, there is clearly rural depopulation. Where once you had four farms, now you may have only one,” says Young.

“Where you have fewer people, a congregation has a smaller population base on which to draw,” Young says. “This has in some cases led to the demise of congregations and the combining of others.”

The changing demographics of rural agricultural regions are not unique to Canada. In the U.S., rural areas are facing similar challenges. According to their paper “Changing Demographic Profile of Rural America,” authors Annabel Kirschner, E. Helen Berry and Nina Glasgow note that “throughout the 20th century, young adults in rural areas have migrated disproportionately from rural to urban areas for education and employment.” The authors also point out that, while in the past higher rural birthrates offset youth out-migration, this is no longer the case. In fact, the study notes that rural birthrates have “declined more rapidly for rural than urban women beginning in the 1960s, and both rates have converged at ‘below-replacement’ levels.”

As rural populations dwindle, pews begin to empty and churches can get discouraged. Rev. Jack Gray serves a church in an area affected by rural depopulation.  “This is the first congregation I have served that is experiencing population decline in the area,” he said. Gray says his church’s council in Sully, Iowa, had the wisdom to see that the challenges his church was facing were unique to rural churches, encouraging him to seek out peers in similar situations for support, networking and the exchange of ideas. The result was a peer learning group dubbed “Pastors of Large Rural Churches.” The peer group’s goal was to study how to help rejuvenate their rural ministries.

Gray’s peer group applied for, and received funding from, the Christian Reformed Church’s Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Program to cover travel costs for their meetings and to bring their churches together for a conference. Gray and his peers, who hail from three different states but serve similar types of rural churches, used the book Leading through Change, Shepherding the Town and Country Church in a New Era, written by Barney Wells, Martin Giese and Ron Klassen, to help them rejuvenate ministry in communities that many have written off as “dying.” The pastors also drew on rural church resources from Lutheran and other church denominations.

Through their studies, Gray says that he and his peers have learned that population decline doesn’t have to lead to the demise of rural ministry. “The rural church needs a sense of purpose and accomplishment to keep going and keep improving,” Gray says, noting that he and his peers have identified many ways in which rural churches can maintain vibrant ministries and outreach. “We can focus on reaching our near neighbours as well as supporting home and world missions. We can thank God that we are the keepers of the spring from which many young people emerge to take leadership in urban and suburban congregations. We can ‘daughter’ churches in growing population centres. While we cannot change our situation, we can make sure churches are available where population growth is great,” says Gray. In fact, two of the congregations involved in Gray’s peer group have begun church planting initiatives in nearby urban areas.

A Grieving Process
Young, who directs a program specializing in training pastors and lay leaders for rural ministry, notes that rural depopulation has put a strain on rural churches.  Combined with the increasing secularization of our society, depopulation has made it harder for some rural churches to survive, much less thrive. “There are just fewer people involved in the life of a local congregation on a regular basis,” says Young.

Young points out that these changes have caused many churches to grieve for “what used to be.” “For many rural congregations, there is a sense of loss. They’re dealing with grief issues. They say, ‘We don’t have the numbers that we used to have. We’re older. We don’t have as many young people,’” he says. “Churches wonder, ‘Are we going to be able to keep going? Will the congregation be able to sustain itself financially, and will it continue to be a force in the local community?’” 

Young would agree with Gray in saying that a redefinition of ministry is crucial for churches in areas of depopulation. “Rural churches need to stop beating themselves up because they are growing smaller,” Young says. “They need to recognize that the changes they’re facing are part of the broader society. They need to think less about the past and focus on what they can do in the present.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic that rural churches are doing that,” says Young. “Many are looking at themselves and saying, ‘What do we need to do to be more proactive about our place in the community? Just because we’re here doesn’t mean people will come.’ In our rural churches, we’re starting to learn to talk to the folks moving in and introducing our churches. There is more willingness to do one-on-one evangelism than there was 20 years ago,” Young says.

Rural Challenges, Rural Strengths
Rev. Derek Bouma is a recent seminary graduate, and his first church is located in the rural heartland of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Through his work in Wellandport, Bouma says he learned quickly that rural ministry has its own unique challenges, but also its own strengths. While Wellandport’s proximity to several major centres has protected it from rural decline, Bouma says a more sparsely populated and geographically scattered parish simply makes it more challenging for congregations to grow. On the other hand, rural congregations are deeply rooted in the community and that can be a real advantage, he notes.

“In rural settings you often have people staying for a longer period of time, and people have deeper roots within the community,” Bouma says. “I find that in some ways, it does create a different atmosphere and within the church there is a real welcoming atmosphere.”

“In the rural church, you have to form an identity around who you are now,” says Bouma. “You have to ask, ‘How do we do church now that we’re smaller? How can we use that small size to our advantage?’”

Gray and his peers are learning to harness that advantage – and to see that smaller can still be powerful. “In five years, Sully CRC may be smaller,” he says. “But we will also be leaner and more mobilized for ministry. Our focus is sharper, our vision clearer, and God’s desire and agenda for us more easily understood.”

Resources for Rural Churches

  • Leading through Change, Shepherding the Town and Country Church in a New Era, Barney Wells, Martin Giese and Ron Klassen
  • The Rural Ministry Program at Queen’s Theological College, training and courses for pastors and lay leaders. For more information, visit: www.queensu.ca/religion/theology.html.
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