Do rural churches know themselves?
Rural churches are typically described as dying churches- churches that do not adapt to the changing demographics around them. Rural churches are places where Christian ministry is stagnant. Because of this reputation, the rural churches are often overlooked. Renewal for the rural churches seems nearly impossible. A crude old adage captures the situation of the rural church: you can’t teach old dog new tricks.
But, Christians in the United States just cannot simply ignore rural churches. In fact, over the years rural churches have made a clear statement to the world: they are here to stay for better or worse. Despite declining membership, rural churches have stood the test of time by adapting in ways that are not always fruitful. Because of the struggles they face, rural churches are vulnerable to resorting to survival techniques that are unhealthy or theologically skewed. As a result, many blogs, magazines, books, and initiatives have tried to address these issues in rural churches. Most of the writings recommend for rural churches to “be” the church, a body of Christ and these suggestions are valuable and needed. While these suggestions are practical, it seems to overlook the first important step: knowing themselves.
Can rural churches be introspective?
Rural churches, by nature, are small. And that’s okay. Being a small congregation does not mean that something is wrong with the church. Jesus did attract a large crowd, but he only kept a deeper and richer relationship with the 12 disciples. However, at the same time, the good news of Christ’s salvation was not meant to be held within a small group of people. The true gospel of Christ redeeming the World needs to be shared.
Rural churches are known to be family-based churches, and often find themselves filled with elderly family members. A recent trend for churches is to appeal to young families. Here, targeting young families becomes an attractive solution to the problem. However, rural churches find it difficult to attract young families because of situations that are beyond the churches’ control (i.e. job availability).
Even though rural churches may have a more difficult time appealing to young families, rural churches still have many ministerial opportunities they can pursue. For instance, rural churches are able to remind the rest of the Church that elderly members are still part of the body of Christ. Rural churches may be able to lead the Church to look for ways to minister responsibly to the elderly members of the church.
Shifting the focus away from targeting young traditional family members is important today because the family demographics of the United States is shifting away from traditional family model. In addition, the population in the United States is getting older with fewer children.
I am not suggesting that the church should cease our ministry to young families. Surprisingly, churches do a better job reaching out to young families who are married and have children than what the Church actually believes. Instead, I am suggesting that the church to reach out to groups outside the typical 2-parent family model. Those groups include single-parents, divorced, older single individuals, and foster kids. Those groups that Church finds it hard to reach out to. For Rural churches, young families may not be around, but these churches have to realize that other ministerial opportunities still exist.
These opportunities can be realized first by knowing ourselves and by knowing where we are in our context. After knowing our context, we, the rural churches, are then able to “be” the church that we are called to be. By knowing who we are, we are also able to recognize our strengths and our shortcomings. The church is then able to follow the calling, a calling to be the church that is fitting to our context.
Every rural church has its own unique characteristics. Some churches may have similar challenges to what I have described earlier, and other churches may have different challenges. But, the church’s fitting and faithful response centers on the church knowing itself.
Jesus challenged the crowd and his disciples by saying, “whoever wants to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”(Mark 8:34)
For a long time, the rural churches have been accused of not following Jesus. So, in order to follow Jesus, the churches have to take up their cross. The rural churches are also told of their sin, sins of exclusivity that became a stumbling block to so many people in their community. Responding to the honest critiques, the rural churches are now denying themselves.
But, I think we are working backwards. Jesus said to his disciples that we, as followers of Christ, must deny ourselves. And in order to deny ourselves, we must know ourselves first. Therefore, by knowing ourselves, we are then able to deny ourselves,take up the cross, and then follow Jesus.
In other words, by knowing who we are as the rural church, we are then able to follow Jesus faithfully, then, we, the rural churches, may be able to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.
M.Div. 2015, Rural Fellow
 Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 52-53.There is a strong connection between family structure and religious involvement. This is important to point because the proportion of Americans living in traditional families, meaning two-parent-plus-children, has dramatically declined in recent decades. Compared to several decades ago, people now marry and have children later, more people do not marry at all, and married or not, more people remain childless. Looking at people between the ages of 21 and 45, the proportion who had never married more than doubled from 16 percent in the early 1970s to 35 percent in the early 2000s. Childlessness also has doubled from about 10 percent of women in 1960s, to about 20 percent now (2011).
 Take rural areas in North Carolina for example. Data gathered in 2010 shows that 46.5% of rural residents are 30 to 64, and 14.8% were 65 and over (North Carolina Rural Profile). Furthermore, a study done by James Johnson and Allan Parnell shows that elderly population (65+ years) in the Carolinas (North Carolina and South Carolina) increased by 28% between 2000 and 2010. The growth rate exceeds the National rate, which is 9.5%.
 Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, 52. Combining all the General Social Surveys from 1972 to 2008, married people with children at home are twice as likely to say that they attend services at least weekly as are divorced, separated, or never married with no children: 32 percent compared to 16 percent.
 SWOT Analysis is one of the models advocated by Rev. Joe Mann to re-think about the ministerial opportunities for all churches. Briefly, the SWOT analysis is a method of evaluating strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats involved in a project.