Is there a rural-urban divide in the church?
Twenty-five years ago, about 250 people worshiped each Sunday at the La Junta Church of Christ in Colorado. But that was before three major factories shut down.
Now, weekly attendance runs about 125 in the rural community, where most folks work for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad or in agriculture, minister Clayton King said.
Even while bringing in new members, the Sixth and Washington Streets Church of Christ in Marietta, Ohio, has seen attendance drop from about 450 in 1980 to 320 today. Young people leave their hometown of 15,000 for college or jobs in larger cities and never return, preacher Roger Rush said.
At the Prescott Church of Christ in Arkansas, membership has fallen from 325 a quarter-century ago to roughly 175, largely because of deaths and scarce job opportunities in the logging and farming town, minister Tony Hamilton said.
Historically, a cappella Churches of Christ and instrumental Christian Churches split more than a century ago. The non-instrumental churches tended to be rural and Southern, while the Christian Churches were more likely urban and Northern, said Doug Foster, a church historian at Abilene Christian University in Texas. But that generalization, Foster said, was “by no means universal.”
In the wake of urbanization, many small, rural Churches of Christ struggle to survive.
For a variety of reasons, rural church members who move to the bigger cities don’t necessarily stay in the Churches of Christ, said Flavil Yeakley, director of the Harding Center for Church Growth in Searcy, Ark.
“We have a pretty good loss at that point,” Yeakley said, noting that some leave for community or denominational churches, while others abandon their faith altogether.
That could help explain why the United States as a whole grew at a rate about 20 times faster than Church of Christ membership from 1980 to 2006.
Overall membership jumped about 1.6 percent in that time, hitting 1,265,844, according to the 2006 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, a directory published by 21st Century Christian and compiled by statistician Carl Royster in consultation with Mac Lynn.
In the same period, the total U.S. population leaped more than 32 percent, approaching 300 million last year, census figures show.
“Much of the population growth in America has been anything but rural and Southern,” said David Young, teaching minister at the 1,400-member North Boulevard church in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
At the same time, the population shift has served to accentuate differences and outright suspicions between often smaller rural churches and their frequently larger suburban and urban counterparts.
“Rural townsfolk tend to have an almost natural resistance to what they consider bigger and more fancy churches,” said Hamilton, who moved to rural Arkansas two years ago from a fast-growing suburban church in Texas. “Urban churchgoers don’t want to revert back to what they may once have been a part of as a child or what they experience when they go visit the grandparents.”
‘MORE IMPORTANT … THAN FILLING PEWS’
Rush, the Ohio minister, said his congregation has managed to maintain somewhat steady attendance and increase contributions despite a lack of good jobs to bring new people to the community.
“We are not simply numbers-oriented, but emphasize growth in knowledge, service and spiritual development,” he said. “In fact, faithfulness to the Lord and his word is more important than simply filling pews.”
In Colorado, King said it’s discouraging to see the La Junta church’s attendance figures fall as people move away and older members die. At the same time, he worries about the overall direction of Churches of Christ.
“We wonder what we are doing and if we are truly keeping the purity of the church and its doctrine,” he said, mentioning issues such as
instrumental music and women’s leadership roles.
Since 1977, Rick Eldred has consulted with a half-dozen Nebraska churches forced to close because of a lack of population, he said.
Eldred, involvement and outreach minister at the 540-member York Church of Christ, said most membership growth in that state has occurred in urban areas.
“Some of the larger urban congregations have more variety with worship styles, while smaller congregations, perhaps because of a lack of resouces or giftedness, are not able to offer such variety and flexibility,” Eldred said.
About 800 or so congregations nationally have 300 or more members. But the vast majority of the nation’s 13,000 Churches of Christ have 200 or fewer members.
“Most of the larger congregations have discovered the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith,” Yeakley said. “In a lot of the small churches, if you mention the word grace two Sundays in a row, you’re branded as a liberal.”
Dan Kessinger is minister of the Dewey Avenue Church of Christ in St. Marys, W.Va., where weekly attendance has dropped from 180 in 1980 to 140.
In Kessinger’s view, “the hermeneutics of urban churches tend to be more ‘liberal’ than in rural areas.” But he said no one should conclude that more progressive theology translates into reaching more souls. Rather, he said, “It also may be that urban churches are growing for the same reason that our small-town churches grew a generation ago: Christians moved.”
A SUNDAY DRIVE
Even some who have not moved have started driving longer distances to attend congregations that they believe better suit their personal beliefs and preferences.
Chris Williams, 37, lives in the small West Tennessee town of Medina. But he, his wife, Michelle, and their sons, Christian, 9, and Clay, 7, drive 15 miles each way to worship at the 700-member Campbell Street Church of Christ in Jackson. That congregation has two youth ministers and draws members from 10 counties, minister Kenneth Grizzell said.
“We felt like we weren’t growing (spiritually) where we were before,” said Williams, who passes smaller congregations on his way to the Jackson church.
But some rural ministers stressed that their congregations are growing numerically, despite challenging circumstances.
In Mount Airy, N.C., the population is shrinking. Nevertheless, the North Main Church of Christ has added nearly 20 new members in the last nine months. That represents an increase of about 30 percent, evangelist Robert Giesbers said.
“I think the biggest thing to help in our growth has been the call for each Christian to really live the life and be fully committed to Christ,” Giesbers said.
In Happy, Texas, attendance has climbed to about 75, up from 50 when preacher Rick Bloodworth arrived 11 years ago. That’s despite many members and young people moving away, he said.
“We have done it,” he said, “by reading our Bibles every day, inviting our neighbors to worship and to Bible studies … and by supporting children’s homes and mission work and even our local Bible chair.”