“Rural America has become the new inner city,”
recently reports one popular news source.
From the earliest days of my own ministry training and down through the years the message has been: the church needs to focus on the cities. “The Apostle Paul did cities.” “Rural areas are already adequately churched. The future of culture, power, and decision-making is determined by the metropolitan areas.” “The city is where it’s at. The rural areas will do fine on their own.” Indeed, it’s considered hip to live and minister in the inner city. A church planter who goes to the city is considered a missionary so fundraising makes sense. However, a church planter who “settles” for a small town risks being considered as settling for less meaningful ministry, and fundraising will be a more difficult sell.
The myth and mystique of Mayberry still lives on in the American psyche as the idealized version of “real America”. All is well in Small Town, USA. The data, however, paint a different picture.
What do we mean by “rural”? There’s no one definition. “Areas with a population center under 50,000” is sometimes used. “Micropolitan” is used to describe rural statistical areas, and some suggest that if the town has a Starbucks it’s not rural, but if there’s a Subway in the gas station it’s rural.
Fundamentally, rural is something of an ethos, not just a statistical construct, so hard boundaries and rigid categories don’t really apply. Rural also implies a state of remoteness–a feeling of being isolated from mainstream culture, and is at least somewhat removed from a practical availability of goods and services.
Simply put, rural is what is not urban, and it’s what needs intentional resourcing.
This is not to say that cities are no longer important. They are. Nor is it to say that urban ministry isn’t still needed. It is. Yet, it is to say that there are critical needs in non-urban areas that are being overlooked, and that these needs can best be met by multiplying healthy rural churches.