St. LOUIS, July 13 (RNS)--Sociologist Lynne Isaacson studies churches. She notesthat at most scientific conferences about organized religion, there isnot much said about rural churches. She guesses most feel there's notmuch to talk about.

For years, many have predicted small country churches woulddisappear. Much of rural America has. In the past 50 years, countryschools have consolidated, corporate agriculture has taken the place offamily farms, and Wal-Marts have replaced most mom-and-pop shops. Butaccording to a new sociological study coordinated by Isaacson, the ruralchurch not only remains stable but also, in some cases, is growing.

"The church is often the only institution that hasn't been takenover by outside forces," Isaacson said.

Isaacson and researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbiateamed up with the Missouri School of Religion-Center for Rural Ministryto survey 420 rural churches in Missouri. MU first conducted a similarsurvey of about 500 churches in 99 Missouri townships in 1952. It's beenconducted nearly every 15 years since.

In the 1950s, researchers wanted to identify ways to modernize ruralchurches. Today, the survey seeks to help rural churches survive.

"We wanted to look at how rural congregations have responded tochange in rural areas, to identify marks of church viability and toidentify special concerns or challenges that face rural churches andrural ministers," Isaacson explained. The goal is to share theconclusions with denominational leaders through workshops.

The study was funded by a $347,000 grant from the Lilly EndowmentInc., a private philanthropic foundation that encourages the study ofreligion. The grant includes the cost of four workshops. Isaacson saidultimately the study hopes to bridge the gap some rural congregationsand ministers feel exists between their small churches and the largedenominations to which they may belong.

The Rev. Parker Rossman retired from campus ministry and was calledto Dixie Christian Church in Calloway County, Mo. He shares the postwith another retired pastor. Rossman believes that as the onlyinstitution left in the area, the church's role is much different thanit used to be.

For example, Dixie Christian hosts more communityfunctions, like elections, than it used to.

"More people go in and out of our church than ever actually attendservices," Rossman said. Dixie members now believe one of their chiefmissions is to foster "that old kind of neighborliness," Rossman said.

Isaacson said even in rural areas with declining populations, themajority of congregations either have a stable membership or have grownsince they were last measured in 1982. The study concludes that theaverage congregation size is 145 members on the rolls with about 73active members, nearly the same numbers as 1982.

There is no one model of success, but in general most ruralchurches, even the smallest, have increased their social services intheir communities. "In some poorer townships, the church is called uponto provide a number of services because there are no other communityinstitutions," Isaacson said.

"They may be small in numbers, but they find ways to contribute tothe community," she added.

Isaacson fondly recalled one group she interviewed. The congregationhas dwindled to only half-a-dozen devoted senior women. They toldIsaacson that their denomination suggested they close their church, butthe women refused. They continue to meet weekly. When a visitingminister can't preach, the women gather at church to watch inspirationalvideos and pray. They regularly collect money and contribute it to localfamilies in need.

"How do you measure spiritual viability?" Isaacson wondered. "Thatchurch is viable for them, and for the families they help."

Nearly every church in the sample has some sort of food pantry andis known throughout its community as a place to go for help. Many of thepantries are run by alliances set up by several rural churches. A smallchurch may not be able to afford a pantry on its own, but with a partnerit can provide community help.

Many of the churches have a transportation ministry or a van theyuse to shuttle people to and from church. Some minister to a growingHispanic community of farm workers.

Changing stereotypes is another goal Isaacson hopes to accomplishwith the release of the study's findings. Many think rural America andrural churches are homogenous. "Not only is there a lot of diversity,but rural churches are not dying," Isaacson said.

"In rural areas, it's OK to be small," said Jere Gilles, theproject's coordinator and an associate professor of rural sociology atMU

. "Being small is not an indicator of being in trouble. Small churchesmay be more fragile, but they are not any less successful."

Rossman believes the study will demonstrate the vitality of smallcongregations in American culture.