Small, Rural Congregations: Redefining Vitality, Building on Trust, Imagining the Right-There-Already Kingdom

Dear Ones:

Maybe you’ve heard the term “church vitality.” And maybe the term makes you a little queasy. Because it comes with measurements that don’t seem to fit. And because the term sometimes gets used as a weapon. 

You’re not alone. And if you’re in a rural congregation, you have a friend in Allen T. Stanton. He has great credentials—executive director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College, an ordained minister. But perhaps more importantly, he’s served small, rural churches. He knows them. And loves them.

Click here to listen to his podcast interview with the Lewis Center’s Ann Michel. Leading Ideas, Episode 87: “Building Thriving Rural Congregations.”

Or checkout his book: Reclaiming Rural: Building Thriving Rural Congregations.

It’s helpful, affirming stuff. For small congregations—especially those in rural areas. He looks for—and finds—distinctive strengths. Surprising ones. 

And he pushes back on the ways that rural churches have been falsely characterized. And limited. The relationships between rural congregations and rural communities are rich, intertwined, diverse and cannot be reduced to the word “declining.”

So three quick, important takeaways. From his work. For yours.

First, it’s true. The definitions and measurements of “church vitality” skew in favor of larger settings—urban and suburban churches. They tend to measure things that make sense among those demographics. Like groups of young people. And numbers of small groups. 

Your community, your demographic, your ministry likely need different markers. “Church vitality” requires intimately knowing your context. There is no one-size-fits-most definition. Teaser: Stanton offers three great, general markers for thriving rural congregations (check out the book or show notes). 

Second, rural congregations have a rare gift: Trust. Yep, that’s right. In this time of fractured, failed or fleeing institutions (like rural hospitals) you are an anchor. An anchor institution! Your congregation has been around. It knows the history of these people in this place. It’s intertwined with the community. And typically your church includes a cross section of folks. Another rarity. So this trust is an enormous asset. One that you can build upon.

And this leads to the final takeaway. Stanton is confident: You are uniquely positioned to be important agents of change. Right where you are.

Rural congregations thrive when they are distinctively committed to their communities. That means creatively diagnosing the needs and the gifts already around you. Don’t look to programs that have worked in cities. Or the next town over. Look at how the people in your community are volunteering, helping, longing for something more. Then join in. 

Stanton gives the example of a congregation with a few cranky contractors, unable to get skilled workers. And some youth with no skills and few opportunities. So the church set up a mentoring program. Young people learning. And being changed. Contractors mentoring. And being changed, too. New hope. New relationships. New possibilities.

The kingdom of God among us. Small. Rural. Vital.

Where can you imagine the kingdom flourishing in your community? Share your idea with two trusted lay leaders this week. Start imagining.

Send your example or questions. I cherish the conversations.

Thanks for your ministry,


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