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Recognizing Rural Ministry: A Review

Charlie Cotherman

Recognizing Rural Ministry: Moving from Anecdotal Assumptions to Data Derived Opportunities, by Carl P. Greene, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2022, 196 pp., $28.00 (paperback).

"You see, but you do not observe."

                                                    - Sherlock Holmes[1]

In the last decade there has been a remarkable surge in the number of books on rural ministry coming to print.[2] Many of these books are helpful, and some are truly compelling, as they remind readers of the challenges rural areas face and the opportunities smaller places provide. With the wider landscape of Christian publishing oriented toward a small group of celebrity authors and pastors who can harness large platforms to command a disproportionate influence on the American church, it is refreshing to read a book by a pastor in central Kansas, eastern Washington, or small-town West Virginia.

As encouraging as these trends are, a perceptive reader might note that most books addressing rural ministry share a significant lacuna—an over reliance on anecdotal evidence and a subtle dismissal of how many versions of "rural" exist. We might read accounts of amazing church growth and small-town churches revitalized, but we are often left asking how the author's experience in one distinctive rural context applies to the small towns or rural places in which we minister.

Making (Empirical) Sense of Rural Ministry

Recognizing Rural Ministry, a new book by one-time dairy farmer and longtime rural pastor, Carl P. Greene, attempts to fill this quantitative gap in the literature of rural ministry by moving the rural ministry conversation from "anecdotal assumptions to data derived opportunities. "Greene's own experience in several rural communities prompted this emphasis on harnessing data to supplement more anecdotal accounts of rural ministry. As Greene notes in his Preface, he spent more than three decades in a rural community in upstate New York where he helped on his family's dairy farm and served as a lobbyist for rural and farm interests in Albany and Washington D. C. These experiences led him to believe that he knew "what rural is" and "had a firm grasp of how rural ministry works" (xiii).

Then he and his family moved to a different rural community in a neighboring state.

This change in context forced Greene to confront his own misperceptions of rurality. As he began to catch a glimpse of the diversity of rural communities, Greene abandoned his monolithic understanding of rurality and listened more carefully to the way rural residents talked about their communities. Eventually, this listening posture led him to "develop assessment tools that respect the diversity of rural experiences" (xiv). As part of this process, he researched and defended a dissertation based on fifty qualitative interviews. Nineteen of these interviews focused on pastors and ministry leaders in rural congregations, while thirty-one interviews focused on baby boomers who attend conservative rural congregations and had experienced an increase in religiosity in the past ten years (xiv, 25-26). Greene supplemented these qualitative interviews with quantitative data from the US Census Bureau and the Department of Agriculture's Rural Urban Contingency Codes (RUCC).

Rethinking Rural Ministry Strategy

Greene devotes the first two sections of his book to "examining specificities of how aging shapes believing, belonging, and behaving in a variety of rural settings" (xv). Specifically, Greene is interested in helping churches understand the implications of a demographic shifts in the US. His central argument is that as the country shifts from a population pyramid to a population pillar (see below), churches will need to rethink their tendency to orient most programming to the needs of young families (12-13).[3] Greene notes, "our desired identity drives ministry more than what our rural demographics tell us" (11). If churches in aging rural communities continue to prioritize outreach to children and youth while neglecting ministry to baby boomers and those in early old age (ages 65-80), they may miss opportunities to minister to a segment of the population that often experiences a notable increase in religiosity (17). As Greene asserts, "The missed rural ministry opportunity for the rural church is Silver Mission: adults transitioning to early old age are sensitive to the gospel message like no other time since the four to fourteen age-window" (48).

But how might a local church apply demographic data and information on baby boomer religiosity gained from studies like the Longitudinal Study of Generations? For Greene, engaging this segment of the population requires attending to ways in which the aging process shapes an individual's spiritual and social desires. Based on his interviews, Greene finds that many baby boomers who experienced a late-in-life increase in religiosity were looking for a place to belong, believe, and behave (63-69).

As individuals age they leave often leave work relationships behind and seek out new opportunities to belong. Greene suggests that churches can help individuals in this process by cultivating three different types of spaces: corporate worship, small groups, and service groups. Corporate worship serves as an activity that links early old age individuals to the larger church, while small groups provide space for individuals to bond, and build new relationships to replace the working relationships. Service groups provide a bridging opportunity that connected boomers with a wider network of relationships and through which nearly two-thirds of Greene's experiences spiritual growth.

While some of these ways of belonging may seem intuitive to pastors, Greene's emphasis on the significance of a multifaceted approach to building community attuned to the spiritual formation of early old age individuals is refreshing in its specificity and the way in which he roots these approaches in data gained through interviews. Furthermore, Greene's work offers a compelling rationale for making sure that churches cultivate all three types of spaces for belonging.

Understanding a Variety of Rural Contexts and Experiences

In the third and last section of his book, Greene shifts his focus by addressing the varying experiences of rural communities based on concepts drawn from subculture theory and the testimony of individuals more and less isolated rural communities.

Though Greene's book only offers a basic overview of subculture theory, his integration of concepts like centrality (a group's commitment to a subculture) and saliency (how often members of the group referenced the subculture) provides a useful tool to those attempting define rurality and assess the level to which an individual, church, or community defines itself as rural (119-120). Greene makes a compelling argument that attention to these felt elements of subculture theory can supplement the hard data of the US Census or Rural Urban Continuum Codes by demonstrating variations in an individual's self-perception about how rural his community is and how much of an impact this rurality has on the lives and identities of those who live in a specific rural community. Greene describes this combination of census data and personal interviews as a form of ground truthing. For Greene, this multifaceted approach to rural ministry can add nuance and a greater contextual specificity to our discussions of rural ministry. "Rather than saying 'this is how rural ministry works,' the goal is to provide tools to observe and listen for how rural ministry can best be paired to your context" (128).

Greene devotes the final section of his book to applying his approach to communities within three distinct groups within the Rural Urban Continuum Code and the five thresholds for assessing rurality—population, distance, integration into a larger metro area, population density, and land use. The most rural areas of the US are designated zones 7-9, while zones 4-6 present moderately rural areas that often contain enough infrastructure to be self-sustaining communities and enjoy a fair degree of integration with larger metro areas. Communities within zones 2-3 often adopt what Greene describes as a "rural refugee" posture, being rural enclaves near towns with much higher population density (158-159).

As a rural pastor whose church primarily serves folks in two rural counties (one a zone 4 and the other a zone 6 based off the 2013 RUCC), I appreciated Greene's breakdown of these codes and their implications for rural communities. I recognized his description of the heightened levels of civil religion in rural communities as well as his assertion that rural communities often gage their critical mass by whether schools or sports teams need to consolidate. Stories about highly educated potential employees realizing on the drive to a new position in a rural community that "there is no way they are going to move to the area" (173) are also more familiar than I would like to admit.

But Greene's work also opened my eyes to needs (and ministry opportunities) in communities like mine that I had missed—seen, but not really observed. I knew rural hospitals have been closing or merging as a rapid rate, and I had heard about "medical deserts," but I had not given enough thought the dire shortage of mental health care (or the increased stigma of this care) in rural communities across all rural RUCC zones. The lack of assessable health care of all kinds grew more significant as one progressed toward the most rural zones. Greene's ground truthing also revealed that residents in the most rural areas also experience significant loneliness and shortage of long-term caregivers due to the out-migration of children and grandchildren. Notably, this was not the case for all rural residents. "While the baby boomers in the more rural zone clusters had largely experienced an outflow of their children and grandchildren for work and opportunities, the less rural baby boomers spoke of children and grandchildren who lived nearby" (160).

Moving Forward with the Local Church in Mind

It is hard to argue with Greene's extended call to more contextualized ministry. In a technological society, where the pursuit of efficiency threatens to steamroll everything in its path, taking time to value local distinctiveness and the wide variety of experiences that fall under the moniker rural is a countercultural act.

In Recognizing Rural Ministry, Greene goes beyond generalized strategies or the temptation to simply add one more anecdote to the rural ministry textbook. What he does instead is offer us tools that blend large scale data with focused interview strategies. The result is an approach that can strengthen the local mission of rural churches while also providing a book-length example of how to harness data and researched-based methodology for those of us dedicated to helping rural churches and communities thrive.

[1] Sir Author Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Peebles Classic Library, 1975), 3.

[2] I have written about this recent surge in publications previously: https://ruralministry.org/putting-rural-ministry-in-its-place-a-review-of-allen-t-stantons-reclaiming-rural; https://wheatonbillygraham.com/rural-stories-books-to-challenge-inspire-and-encourage-the-small-town-pastor/

[3] "From Pyramid to Pillar: A Century of Change, Population in the United States," US Census Bureau, March 13, 2018, https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2018/comm/century-of-change.html.

Charlie Cotherman is program director of the Project on Rural Ministry at Grove City College. He is also a pastor at Oil City Vineyard, a church he and his wife Aimee had the privilege of planting in 2016. He has written on rural ministry, church planting, and history for a variety of publications including Christianity Today, Evangelicals, and Radix. He is the author of To Think Christianly: A History of L'Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement and a contributing editor of Sent to Flourish: Guide to Planting and Multiplying Churches. He lives with his wife, four children, and a spoiled cat in Oil City, Pennsylvania.