Reviving the Dying Small-Town Church

The percent of rural congregations shrunk from 43 percent in 1998 to 32 percent in 2012, according to the National Congregations Study.

“Village Missions is almost entirely a revitalization ministry,” said Wechsler, who grew up in Long Island, New York, before attending a Village Missions church in Idaho. They don’t need to plant new churches, because there’s almost always an existing building with the remnants of a congregation.

 

Jeremy Sarver was a mama’s boy, so when he was 14 and his mother left his father—and didn’t take him with her—he was devastated.

“My dad was concerned about me and began to take me to counselors,” he said. “I did not in any way enjoy that.”

He was hard on the counselors, and his dad “became desperate.”

“We didn’t go to church, but he remembered when I played baseball a few years ago, there was an assistant coach who was also a pastor,” Sarver said. “He got a hold of this pastor, who began to meet with me, and unfolded the gospel. That was the Lord’s timing, and things clicked.”

Sarver received Christ and “immediately attached” himself to the church and the pastor, Allen Sparks, who became a surrogate father to him.

Their church—Liberty Chapel—was 15 minutes outside of Crawfordsville, Indiana, an hour northwest of Indianapolis. Founded in a log cabin in 1835, the little congregation worked for decades to keep the doors open—merging with a nearby struggling Methodist church in 1947, becoming a nondenominational community church in 1967, and finally asking Village Missions for help in 1983.

Village Missions said yes, because Liberty Church is exactly the type of place it was created to support. The organization was founded in 1948 to help small rural churches that don’t have enough people—and therefore not enough money in the offering plate—to keep a pastor. And without a pastor, people like Sarver remain unreached.

As rural areas empty out, that need is growing. “Annual population losses [in nonmetro areas] averaged 43,000 per year between 2011 and 2015,” according to the Department of Agriculture. Just 46 million Americans—out of more than 320 million—still live in those counties, “14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area.”

The percent of rural congregations shrunk from 43 percent in 1998 to 32 percent in 2012, according to the National Congregations Study. At the same time, rural attendees dropped from 23 percent to 15 percent.

As seats empty, those left are looking for help to keep the doors open. Some denominations are turning back to circuit riders, while others are experimenting with multisite options.

Still others are turning to Village Missions, which provides the pastor, pays his salary, and supports his work.

“Each year we put out $1.2 million in salary support alone” for 200 missionary couples in the United States and another 35 in Canada, executive director Brian Wechsler said. And he’s looking for more: “There is a big need for more missionaries. We have 20 open places—our challenge has been recruiting.”

Village Missions

Village Missions was founded in 1948 by an Irish Presbyterian pastor from Portland, Oregon. Walter Duff Jr. had watched America’s industrialization pull people into the cities—by the turn of the century, 30 percent of the population lived in cities; by 1920, it was more than 50 percent. (In 2010, it topped 80 percent.)

Dismayed by the lack of pastors for the shrinking rural church, and encouraged by his father and his older sisters, he took on leadership of the brand-new Village Missions, soon fielding “scores of letters asking for help securing a pastor.” Five years in, Duff Jr. had to quit pastoring to head Village Missions full-time. By the time he retired, he’d sent out more than 600 missionary pastors.

Village Missions prefers the terms “missionary” to “pastor” for several reasons—the language includes the wives, who are also sent; emphasizes the focus of outreach and evangelism; and helps the couple remember the culture they’re in is increasingly ignorant about or antagonistic to Christianity, Wechsler writes.

One of Duff’s missionaries was Sparks, who eventually built a thriving church. But it didn’t come easy. Breaking into a small rural community takes a tremendous amount of courage and perseverance.

Breaking In

It’s not that there isn’t community; it’s that there is already so much community.

“For the first seven to eight years at Liberty Chapel, Allen and I would go home on Sundays and take turns crying,” Sparks’s wife, Diane, told a local reporter. “Nothing we tried seemed to be working, at least from our perspective.”

Until it did. Attendance rose from 18 to nearly 100. Youth-focused Bible studies and mission trips began to pick up. The church became self-supporting, and bought a parsonage. In the late 1990s, Liberty Chapel added an extension to the sanctuary, a fellowship hall, a kitchen, and classrooms.

The success was welcome, but not all Village Missions churches do, or are expected to, pay their own way. The largest, which started as a “small, struggling work,” now has about 900 attendees, but it’s an anomaly. Median Sunday morning attendance is 45.

“Our two main criteria are whether the church is the only gospel witness in the area, and whether they are willing to develop a community-wide outreach,” Wechsler said.

Recognizing that economics may change in a rural area, “we’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “We aren’t the typical church plant, where you have to be a certain size or be self-funded by a certain time.”

That doesn’t mean a Village Missionary is free. The congregation has to supply housing and pay utilities. They also agree to pay 10 percent of their general fund offering to Village Missions, which in turn covers a base salary of $1,800 a month and health insurance.

As the church grows, it is expected to take on more of the financial responsibility, first picking up health insurance, then salary. And most do. In 2016, 62 percent of Village Missions churches were self-sufficient.

For those that can’t, Village Missions raises money from churches and individuals with a heart for rural missions. Their retired missionaries (who can live in Village Missions-purchased retirement homes) also give.

But even with housing, insurance, utilities, and a base salary, the lack of money makes recruitment difficult.

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