Small churches and the loss of social bonds in rural communities

The social bonds of rural communities in Iowa…including churches…are crumbling. Here is how some communities in Iowa are responding.

Lyz Lenz describes the Plymouth County Historical Museum, housed in a former high school, “has a whole floor dedicated to the remnants of rural churches. Drab old organs are huddled on the yellowing linoleum. One room holds stained glass windows, rectories, and murals retrieved from the small white churches now atrophying in cornfields alongside abandoned schools.”

The Pacific Standard:

This loss is due, in part, to the continuing move from rural to urban life. Lasley, who has spent many years studying the dynamics of rural communities, notes that, with the increased mechanization and corporatization of farms, neighbors become more far-flung. And as the miles between neighbors grow, so too does the social space that separates them.

According to a 2010 survey of rural life conducted by Lasley and his colleagues at Iowa State, eight out of 10 farmers and their families reported that family visits to the neighbors had “greatly” or “somewhat declined.” Similarly, six out of 10 said that instances of neighbors helping each other have “greatly” or “somewhat declined.” Nine out of 10 said they don’t rely on their neighbors the way they used to.

Lasley attributes this decrease in neighborliness to the shuttering of schools and the decline in church attendance. “There is no glue holding these communities together,” Lasley says, “and it’s making us forget how to neighbor.”

Sports, social clubs, and the Internet are replacing the social void left by churches. But the danger there is that sports and clubs all require spare time—and money. “If someone is working all the time and has less disposable income, where can they go for help? It used to be church. Now?” Lasley leaves the question unanswered.

Some communities are responding by returning a model from the past: circuit-riding, union-churches (representing multiple denominations in one congregation), and house churches.

In their bids for survival, many rural churches are also returning to older models, including reinstating the system of traveling pastors, whereby one pastor will serve as many as two to five congregations. Iowa has also seen an uptick in what is termed Theological Education for Emerging Ministries, where lay-people (those who do not have a seminary degree) are trained to serve in various ministry roles. The TEEM model invokes the upstart revivalists of the Great Revival of the 1800s, albeit—as Yackel-Jullen notes—“a lot more organized and focused.”

This is why Yackel-Jullen has hope for Iowa. He sees these efforts as creating neighborliness, rather than losing identity. “When I talk to congregations who don’t want to change, I explain to them about farmer co-ops, which is another rural model for survival and very progressive,” he says. “I also tell them that it’s cooperate or die for many of them, and that makes them change.” He laughs a little.

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