For years, many have predicted small country churches would disappear. Much of rural America has. In the past 50 years, country schools have consolidated, corporate agriculture has taken the place of family farms, and Wal-Marts have replaced most mom-and-pop shops. But according to a new sociological study coordinated by Isaacson, the rural church not only remains stable but also, in some cases, is growing.
"The church is often the only institution that hasn't been taken over by outside forces," Isaacson said.
Isaacson and researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia teamed up with the Missouri School of Religion-Center for Rural Ministry to survey 420 rural churches in Missouri. MU first conducted a similar survey of about 500 churches in 99 Missouri townships in 1952. It's been conducted nearly every 15 years since.
In the 1950s, researchers wanted to identify ways to modernize rural churches. Today, the survey seeks to help rural churches survive.
"We wanted to look at how rural congregations have responded to change in rural areas, to identify marks of church viability and to identify special concerns or challenges that face rural churches and rural ministers," Isaacson explained. The goal is to share the conclusions with denominational leaders through workshops.
The study was funded by a $347,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., a private philanthropic foundation that encourages the study of religion. The grant includes the cost of four workshops. Isaacson said ultimately the study hopes to bridge the gap some rural congregations and ministers feel exists between their small churches and the large denominations to which they may belong.
The Rev. Parker Rossman retired from campus ministry and was called to Dixie Christian Church in Calloway County, Mo. He shares the post with another retired pastor. Rossman believes that as the only institution left in the area, the church's role is much different than it used to be.
For example, Dixie Christian hosts more community functions, like elections, than it used to.
"More people go in and out of our church than ever actually attend services," Rossman said. Dixie members now believe one of their chief missions is to foster "that old kind of neighborliness," Rossman said.
Isaacson said even in rural areas with declining populations, the majority of congregations either have a stable membership or have grown since they were last measured in 1982. The study concludes that the average congregation size is 145 members on the rolls with about 73 active members, nearly the same numbers as 1982.
There is no one model of success, but in general most rural churches, even the smallest, have increased their social services in their communities. "In some poorer townships, the church is called upon to provide a number of services because there are no other community institutions," Isaacson said.
"They may be small in numbers, but they find ways to contribute to the community," she added.
Isaacson fondly recalled one group she interviewed. The congregation has dwindled to only half-a-dozen devoted senior women. They told Isaacson that their denomination suggested they close their church, but the women refused. They continue to meet weekly. When a visiting minister can't preach, the women gather at church to watch inspirational videos and pray. They regularly collect money and contribute it to local families in need.
Nearly every church in the sample has some sort of food pantry and is known throughout its community as a place to go for help. Many of the pantries are run by alliances set up by several rural churches. A small church may not be able to afford a pantry on its own, but with a partner it can provide community help.
Many of the churches have a transportation ministry or a van they use to shuttle people to and from church. Some minister to a growing Hispanic community of farm workers.
Changing stereotypes is another goal Isaacson hopes to accomplish with the release of the study's findings. Many think rural America and rural 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, the project's coordinator and an associate professor of rural sociology at MU. "Being small is not an indicator of being in trouble. Small churches may be more fragile, but they are not any less successful."
Rossman believes the study will demonstrate the vitality of small congregations in American culture.
"The value of small, family-style churches has been overlooked," he said.
This doesn't mean rural churches don't struggle with myriad problems. Rural congregations are aging, and they worry about keeping their young people in the area. It's often difficult for them to afford a full-time minister, and the turnover rate for ministers is high. Not only do nearly half of the ministers in the survey hold another job, but so do their spouses. That leads to a huge time crunch.
"Some ministers are working 80-hour weeks," Isaacson said. "That makes it difficult to attend any seminar or workshop on, say, 'how to improve your rural church,"' she added.
The study will be finished by September, and final results will be available by the end of the year. Two books are planned: one for ministers and their faith communities and one for an academic audience.