Many small-town churches become even smaller

BIG ISAAC, W.Va. — It’s an idyllic setting for Sunday worship: a small, white church on the slope of a gentle hill. Outside the sanctuary, two dogs lie in the shade.

The only problem is that there are just 20 worshippers inside, a situation that’s become common in rural America as small churches struggle with dwindling memberships, aging congregations and less money to keep the lights on, let alone to pay full-time salary and benefits to a minister.

Across the denominational spectrum, rural churches are trying a variety of approaches to the challenge. Some are focusing on recruiting full-time ministers to rural towns. Others are adopting the style of suburban megachurches to attract those who might not normally attend services. Some are holding fast to the traditions of their forebears.

About 52 percent of American churches are in rural areas. Yet more than half of weekly churchgoers attend services in places that are among the most populous 10 percent of congregations, according to the Hartford Institute on Religion Research. That leaves some of the estimated 177,000 rural churches scattered across the country with as few as two regular worshippers.

Attendance isn’t just a problem at rural churches, but with fewer resources to begin with, a smaller drop in the congregation — and revenue — can have bigger effect, such as putting a full-time pastor out of reach.

“Sad to say, that’s not going to change any time soon, without a move from God,” said Ray Gilder, chairman of the Tennessee Southern Baptist Convention’s ministry coordinating council.

The Jarvisville United Methodist Charge, or circuit, in northern West Virginia is trying to ease the strain by pooling resources of four rural churches, including the one at Big Isaac, to keep the buildings in good repair and to support two part-time pastors. It’s a practice sometimes referred to as “yoking” churches.

Danny Fleming is one of the pastors. Like the 19th-century circuit riders who founded these churches, he travels hundreds of miles a month to preach to all the congregations.

“I learned a long time ago that you get out of it what you put into it,” he said.

Although it may seem easier for the 80 regular worshippers in the Jarvisville Charge to travel to a single church, that isn’t likely to happen. The small white buildings are not only the center of religious life for their members but also of community life.

A United Methodist church has stood in Big Isaac since the 1860s. Drawings of the original log-cabin sanctuary decorate the walls of t he church, built in 1949. A plaque out front commemorates eight church members who died in a 1913 flood. For worshippers here, leaving the church for a larger gathering place is unthinkable.

“People can get lost in a megachurch,” said Susie Richards, who plays piano during services. “Here, you walk in, and if Mona Lee’s not in her corner or Mary’s not in her seat, you miss them.

“We may not be able to do as much as the bigger churches, but a lot of times, the spirit is closer,” she said.

The United Methodist Church has been hit hard by the decline in rural church membership, said Cynthia Woolever of the Hartford Institute. The denomination once pledged to locate at least one church in every U.S. county, a goal that stretched its resources.

Besides encouraging smaller churches to pool their resources, the Methodists are focusing on recruiting full-time ministers to rural towns. A program begun in 2006 at the Methodist-affiliated Duke Divinity School in North Carolina aims to make seminary-trained ministers as excited about posts in rural America as they would be about larger churches or overseas missions.

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