CHAPTER 14.-- RURAL/MOUNTAIN MINISTRIES                    united-states-urban-areas-and-clusters-map.jpg


A.                RURAL/MOUNTAIN AREAS

Although eighty-four percent of Americans live in Urban settings, that still leaves 16% of Americans who live in rural areas which contain 90% of land.. That is twice as many as live in CA, the most populous state, or more than live in England or France. Rural is defined by the government as an area with only 2,500 population per square mile.

To suggest that rural America is a mission field is clearly to be at odds with popular opinion and seems to contradict pollsters' findings. The polls suggest that 65 percent of small-town Americans are churched. This is five percentage points above the national average. However, averages totally ignore the hard fact that some areas must have a higher percentage of unchurched. The greatest ratio of unchurched Americans is found in rural areas of the Western states, the Ozark mountains, and the Appalachian mountain regions. This observation led pollster Russell Hale to postulate that "the unchurched phenomenon in the United States may be primarily rural rather than urban." Keep in mind that 80 percent of America's 3144 counties are rural.

 The largest ethnic minority in rural America is African American. Racial minority children represent 24% of children in rural America. Twenty percent of children live in families living below the poverty line of $25,000 per year for a family of four. The poverty rate for children of married couples is one-fourth that for those living in single-parent families. Early premarital childbearing increases the likelihood of maternal and child poverty. The poverty rate for a child born to a teenage, unmarried, non high school graduate mother, is 78%.

Americans living in nonurban areas are a mission field for four reasons. First, many rural communities have no local church witness. That is true in 10 percent of the counties in the United States. It is also true for 15,000 villages scattered across the country. Some places have never had a church, and in other areas churches have closed. Maynard Mathewson, former director of the Rural Home Missionary Association [1942] [RHMA], estimates that between 70,000 and 90,000 rural churches are closed. That amounts to 20 percent of America's 300,000 churches. He further speculates that 1,000 churches are closing each year. Bob Clark, of the Rural Bible Crusade [1937] of Wisconsin, suggests that in the last fifty years, 90 percent of America's rural churches have closed. This is a colossal waste, but more important, it limits the spiritual help available to 65,000,000 people who live in rural areas. The vision of Lloyd Hunter, founder of Rurual Bible Crusade, for young people to learn 500 Bible Verses, grew across the nation until the ministry in numerous states became Rural Bible Crusade National [1994], then Bible Impact Ministries [1990] which developed the program known as 'Bible In Me'. As of 1995 they developed the Whispering Winds Bible Camp in Cook Station, Missouri.

The tragedy of closed rural churches is not the abandoned church buildings. It is the fact that more people now live in many rural areas than ever before, yet often there are no rural churches. In many rural communities it is "only as the rural missionary comes into the area with the gospel that the people encounter an active witness for Christ."

Second, rural America is a mission field because many rural churches are small, struggling, or dying institutions. One-half of all American churches have an attendance of fewer than seventy-five members. Clyde White of Operation Out-Reach says that many rural churches have an attendance of fewer than fifty. In many situations the churches cannot afford to give the pastor a living wage; therefore, they find it difficult to attract highly-skilled men unless those men are willing to be bivocational. As a result, at least 26,000 churches are without a pastor and other thousands of churches have itinerant clergy who minister to several congregations periodically. In such circumstances missions such as the American Mission for Opening Churches supply missionary-pastors. The missionary-pastor, having raised at least part of his support from concerned churches, is able to carry on an effective full-time ministry because his salary is subsidized. Church Planters to America's [1996] director, Tom Buckley indicates that their goal is to help communities in small-town America to either open closed churches, help struggling churches or plant a new church by supplying missionary pastors who can be by-vocational.

Third, rural America is a mission field because 84 percent of rural church members do not attend church on a regular basis. In some instances there is no church to attend in the immediate area or within commuting distance. In other situations some people do not feel welcome in the rural church that may have a high percentage of interrelated members. For whatever reason, 32 percent of rural church members rarely attend church and another 43 percent never attend.

Kenneth Meyer, former president of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, senses a need to strengthen the small churches of America. He cites two polls that indicate that more evangelicals live in small towns than in the suburbs where the masses of Americans live. If the masses are to be evangelized it will be through the mobilization of America's evangelicals who live in small towns.

Fourth, Ron Klassen, of RHMA, points out that there is a crisis in rural America. That crisis goes against classic thinking about rural America that it is a quiet, wonderful place to live, however, statistics make it abundantly clear, that this is not necessarily always the case. Consider this, for instance. Many types of crime are now more likely to happen in rural America than in an urban setting. Some rural counties have higher murder rates than NYC. The rate of serious crime in NB, KS, OK and UT is 50% higher than in the state of NY. Towns of ten to twenty thousand are more likely to have a bank robbery. Homicides fell in the cities, but tripled in the countryside. Alcohol use has tripled versus in the city. Rural young people are more likely to experience depression, suicide and illicit sex. Methamphetamine [speed] manufacturing abounds in the country, where it is easily hidden from the law. This sounds like a spiritual crisis needing needing a fix. RHMA's suscint purpose is, "Planting and Strengthening Churches in Small-Town Ameria".

Forty mission societies recognize as a mission field rural Americans who are often isolated, overlooked, bypassed, or forgotten. Walter Duff,former diretor of Village Missions, [1948] which ministers in 230 rural communities, says North America also remains a great mission field. This is especially true in the rural areas where missionary activity is limited. Their goal is to "Keep Rural Churches Alive".

Jim Montgomery founder of Discipling a Whole Nation [DAWN] movement, suggests that there are 10 million neighborhoods in the US, which are in need of a church within walking distance. Their goal is that "Christ become incarnate in every group of 500 to 1000 citizens in every village and neighborhood and for every class, kind and condition of man. This means having at least one evangelical congregation sharing Christ within easy access of every person in each country".

Some of this need is created by the fact that during the years 1990 to 1995, according to Barna Research organization, churches were closing at the rate of 10,000 per year. Montgomery suggests that we need to plant one million churches nationwide. These would be ‘house churches’, creating a new paradigm for churches in America. A new magazine called, ‘House 2 House’, edited by Tony and Felicity Dale, suggests that well over a thousand house-style or ‘simple churches’ were started in year 2002. They have a strong evangelistic edge and are reactionary to the ‘institutional church’. Kenny Moore of Southern Baptists states, “In my mind the vision of a million simple, organic churches for America is very doable.”  In this concept, every believer is a church planter, every home is a church and every church a training center. That is really what a ‘traditional church’  was designed by God to be, is it not?


American society for many years was predominantly a rural culture. In 1790, 95 percent of Americans lived on their own land and were basically self-sufficient. A hundred years later, three-fourths of all citizens still lived off the land. But during the next century, the industrial revolution stimulated 75 percent of all Americans to move off the farm and into the cities. From 1940 to 1960, 9 million people were involved in the rural exodus. Two hundred counties lost 50 percent of their population. Today 95 percent of the populace lives within commuting distance of a metropolitan area of 25,000 or more. Prior to the 1980 census, the federal government considered any area with less than 2,500 people to be rural. With the advent of urbanization, the government began to use a new base for measuring urban centers that they now call Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA). An SMSA includes at least 50,000 people who are dependent on a central city industrial complex for their livelihood. It includes those who live in surrounding counties and commute to the city for jobs. Therefore, rural now refers to areas that are not included in an SMSA of 50,000. In 1980 there were 57,000,000 people who lived outside of 350 SMSAs.

In 1970, two-thirds of all counties were at least 50 percent rural. In fact, more than one-half of all counties had fewer than 25,000 population. Ten percent of all counties had fewer than 5,000 citizens.

There are 18,500 municipalities in the United States. Fully 75 percent of all municipalities have a population of fewer than 5,000, and 50 percent have fewer than 1,000 residents. Many areas are barely large enough to incorporate. It is interesting to note that every state has at least 200 towns with fewer than 300 citizens.

Rural may still refer to an area that is relatively unpopulated, isolated, agricultural, and where limited higher educational and cultural opportunities exist; however, sociological differences are more important. There is a rural mind-set, for "the culture and work habits of the rural person are vastly different from those of the city."

The rural person has several positive cultural characteristics. He lives at a slower pace and is much more concerned about other people. He is friendly and gets involved in the lives of his neighbors. He tends to be conservative in most areas of his thinking and takes an active part in town life. He tends to be more secure because there is less crime. Nine out of ten persons are satisfied with living in the country. In contrast, six out of ten urbanites would like to move away from crime, pollution, and anonymity.

Numerous negative characteristics are also inherent in rural life. The greatest problem is limited job opportunities and a 25 percent lower wage scale. With the advent of industrialization and the rising standard of living, small acreage farming became less and less feasible. Therefore, the farmer sought a job in the nearby town and tried to work the farm at night. He was called a city-farmer. His children went off to college and took jobs in the industrial centers. Ultimately the farmer sold his farm land for small building sites in the growing suburbs or sold out to wealthy farmers who were able to add to their acreage and to purchase expensive agricultural equipment to be more efficient. Others retired on the old homestead and grimaced as double-digit inflation eroded their economic base and slowly condemned them to rural poverty.

By 1979, 16 percent of rural Americans lived in poverty, as compared to 11 percent for urban centers. America's most persistent poverty exists in the country, and two-thirds of the nation's substandard living is to be found in rural areas. Seventy percent of the rural poor are white. Not only are many rural Americans unable to afford proper medical care, but often there are no medical facilities, or the facility does not include the latest advances in medical technology. Fifty percent fewer doctors per 100,000 citizenry service rural areas. A higher percentage of infant mortality and chronic diseases exists in the countryside.

Other persistent problems in the country include poor and often unpaved roads and the distance between neighbors or to the nearest shopping center. In small towns prices may be higher and selectivity limited. It is difficult for rural areas to provide cultural centers or events.

Geography sometimes makes rural conditions inevitable. In the plains states of the West, rural conditions exist because thousands of acres are included in only a few ranches; therefore, population density is low, and industrial centers are few. Mountainous areas of the country also give rise to rural conditions. Rugged terrain has made the building of efficient roads difficult and expensive. Lack of waterways has prevented easy movement of raw materials and finished products; therefore, the creation of industrial centers was minimal. It was easy for people to be isolated in mining towns and to live with only the barest of life's essentials.

Life was often difficult, but mountain people were of a hardy stock. They were clannish for purposes of self-preservation and often fearful of outsiders, who all to often proved to be of an unsavory character or who came to exploit the people and the mountain resources. The people were also religious. Their religion was often as hard and demanding as the mountains in which they lived. Sometimes the religious fervor was carried to extremes and included proving one's religion by drinking poisonous substances and handling deadly snakes. Although those excesses may still exist, they are the exception and not the rule. Exodus from the mountain rural areas was inevitable, especially for the youth who could not find jobs. But times and circumstances have changed and continue to change in all of rural America.

Not only has the rural exodus slowed, but beginning in 1970 many of the younger and more educated began leaving the metropolitan areas and moving back to the countryside in a movement dubbed by sociologists as the "hayseed revolution." Within the next five years 400,000 had bypassed the suburbs and moved to small towns. It is significant that rural areas are now growing at 5.5 percent, which is twice the growth rate of the suburbs. Job opportunities are improving as interstate roads are built and industry moves out of the city. A fascinating "new frontier" is being discovered in non-metropolitan America by retired persons who are moving back to their natural homes and by suburbanites who are looking for a new place in which to escape the problems faced in the central city. It appears that the rural church has a new opportunity for service for, "the rural church can stand as a buttress of the kingdom and act as a spiritual vanguard to the migration of people back to the country. God is creating a new mission field in the shadow of many rural steeples. However, Ron Klassen, General Director of Rural Home Missionary Association points out that “these new ‘rurban’ persons may be rural geographically, but they have an urban mindset. Thus, rural church leaders will need to handle conflict management between rural and rurbanite thinking [Pulse March 1996]”.

C.                THE RURAL CHURCH

The rural church is an essential ingredient in the evangelization of the United States. In communities where a local body can be sustained, a functioning church should be strengthened or a closed church opened. If there is no church, then one should be planted. All denominations and fellowships of churches have church extension agencies. Most church planters are commissioned as missionaries,

The rural church should be encouraged because it has a good track record. Most evangelicals today have their roots in the small town church. Edwin Hunter claims that 48 percent of all Christians come from communities of fewer than 1,000, and another 14 percent have emerged from communities of between 1,000 and 2,500. Lloyd M. Perry of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says that most evangelical pastors and missionaries come from small churches. Village Missions [1948] personnel indicate that historically 85 percent of pastors and missionaries hail from rural America. The ministry mantra is "we seek to keep country or rural churches alive".

Historically, the colonial church was concerned for America's remote or rural areas. The church sent itinerant clergy as missionaries into the interior as the population moved west. Unfortunately, the weakness of this era was the lack of church planting to preserve the message and train new personnel in service. The American Sunday School Union [1824, became American Missionary Fellowship [1974, now In Faith 2011] was concerned  to establish Sunday schools in rural America. Many of those ultimately became local churches. But, until the twentieth century, "the hinterlands of America were largely left in the shadows."

Perhaps the Southern Baptist Convention has been the most active in planting churches in rural America, for 30,000 of their 36,000 churches are rural. It is also significant to note that the South has the highest number of churched Americans--66 percent. They further indicate that 24,000 of their churches have fewer than 300 members. Most other mainline denominations subsidize their rural churches, but today much of that subsidy is being withdrawn and their churches are closing.

The small, rural church has a number of advantages. More of its members have opportunity to serve in the church. The church often has a higher ratio of the number saved per membership. There is a greater opportunity for personal contact with members, and they become better acquainted. That encourages prayer and interdependence.

Serious disadvantages may also emerge. There often are  not enough young people and too many senior citizens. In a small, struggling church, a poor self-image may develop so that the group loses its vision, self-identity, and purpose. By becoming bitter, decimated by conflict and disillusioned, it loses its effectiveness. It is to be hoped this will not happen, because the rural church can be more significant in its setting than the urban church. The rural church has the opportunity to become a major institution in community life, which seldom happens in an urban setting.

Rural churches may need to recognize new opportunities for service and seek to evangelize newcomers in the community, even if the new neighbors are ethnic or unaware of the local customs. For instance, studies indicate that most mobile home parks are in nonmetropolitan areas.

D.                RURAL MINISTRIES

Missionary interest in rural America grew in earnest during the twenty years following 1930, when most of the thirty-eight organizations working in rural America were founded. Six of those missions each field over 100 missionaries working in nonmetropolitan areas. The largest, representing 450 missionaries, is Village Missions. The oldest, the American Missionary Fellowship, along with all of the larger and a few of the smaller missions, maintains a national work, but most rural missions work primarily in the state in which they were incorporated or in adjacent states.

One half of all rural missions work primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. The state with the largest number of missions (eight) is Kentucky. The large number of missionaries working in Appalachia is to be expected because, according to pollster Hale, the eastern Appalachian strip contains one of the highest ratios of unchurched citizens. In fact, some mission leaders believe that the southern Appalachian Mountains constitute one of the larger single home mission areas. It was concern for the spiritual well-being of the people of Appalachia that motivated Robert Gulick to invite Lester Pipkin to found the Appalachian Bible Fellowship in 1950. This home mission organization became Appalachian Bible Institute then College. It sponsors the Alpine Camping Association, a summer Bible conference ministry, and a rafting ministry. All are ministries in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

One of the major industries of rural America is coal mining. Coal miners are a distinct people group who also need the Gospel. International Miners Mission seeks to bring the Gospel to miners world wide. Open Air Campaigners [OAC/USA 1956], historically had a ministry in the coal fields. They minister in the publlic arena using the unique ministry  of the 'Sketch Board'on the streets. OAC/INT. 1892 AUSTRALIA] ministers in 19 countries.

There is growing interest in church planting in New England, the northern end of the Appalachians. The In Faith [formerly American Missionary Fellowship] has done the most complete survey work of the area and, along with the American Mission for Opening Churches and the Rural Home Missionary Association, are fielding the largest number of missionaries working in this area. Ron clearly proclaims that as they approach their 75th anniversary, they are excited about the opportunities for ministry in Rural America and are seeking to service more rural communities in 2017. The small-town pastor's conference in PA, was attended by 200 from 16 States.

It should be of concern that the Northwest, which has the highest number of unchurched, be targeted for special prayer. The Northwest Independent Church Extension Mission sponsors 129 missionaries working in the area as church planters.

Missions in nonmetropolitan areas are seeking to reach the unchurched in small-town USA. The responsibility is formidable, for it includes more people than live in all of the north eastern states or the western states. Most missions are involved in either church planting or church nurturing. As a source of contact some missions are working, where possible, with children in the public schools. In conjunction with this ministry, several missions have established camping programs and Bible conferences as their primary summer ministry. The children are encouraged throughout the school year to earn their way to camp by memorizing Scripture verses and to grow in grace by studying Bible correspondence courses the missions offer. Those contacts are used to open doors into the homes where adults can be led to Christ.

Village work usually involves pastoring a small country church. Missionary pastors are well received, and provide the people with spiritual leadership. Maynard Matthewson observes that rural America is indeed a valid and important part of the world missionary task. In some circumstances it is pioneer work. The American Mission for Opening Churches has entitled their prayer bulletin "AMOC Pioneer Fellowship Prayer Calendar." To establish strong rural churches is a valid burden all over the mission world. James Montgomery and Donald McGavran argue that the only way the Philippines will be churched is to create standard rural churches, "The churching of the pieces is the only way in which the churching of the nations can be achieved." Perhaps that could also be said of North America.








BETHEL MINISTRIES [Bible Mission of Southwest Virginia]