O little town, how still we see thee lie

Yesterday’s Kansas City Star saw Eric Adler reporting on what seems the almost inevitable fade-out of houses of worship in small towns. That includes places out on the plains such as WaKeeney, Kan., whose population hovers under 2,000; but of course “the story is the same from rural Missouri to rural Maine, Oklahoma to Oregon.”

“Nobody wants to let [congregations] die,” said Fran Schnarre, director of educational ministries at the Missouri School of Religion Center for Rural Ministry in Jefferson City. “They do everything they can to preserve them.”

One previously unrealized benefit accompanying this otherwise worrying shift is a new emphasis on the value of intimacy.

The Rev. Bill Rose-Heim, who oversees the northeast area of Missouri for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Mid-America, says that a key to keeping small congregations alive is fostering and building on what is already strong: deep personal relationships and an understanding of the ties and needs that bind a community.

It also requires a change in focus, jettisoning the notion that a successful congregation is one that is growing or can compete with food courts or play areas or large book groups found in suburban or urban mega-churches.

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