Here are some census numbers from census.gov that begin to paint a picture of rural life in America.
Rural areas in this country cover about 97 percent of the land. A little over 19 percent of the population (60 Million) live on this land. A significantly higher percentage of families own their home in rural communities compared to urban settings (81 to 59 percent). People born in rural communities are more likely to remain in their home state (65 to 48 percent). And there is a higher percentage of veterans in rural communities than in urban communities (10 to 7 pecent).
The median age in the rural community is 51. This compares to 45 in the urban setting. And while the rate of poverty is lower in the rural setting (12 to 14 percent) the level of education is lower in rural communities as well. Additionally, people are less likely to be foreign born in rural communities than in the urban setting.
In Texas the rural population is a little more than 15 percent of the total population. However, land usage is 96.7 percent rural vs 3.3 percent urban; close to the national ratio.
The graphic of the Texas District and its congregations as listed on MissionInsite includes an overlay map from the Texas State Legislature (2016) of counties whose population is equal to or less than 50,000 people (one of the many measures for rural communities). A little more than 25 percent of our congregations are set in a rural county.
Another report, by usnews.com, compares urban and rural America. This report observes that “rural areas are surprisingly entrepreneurial” and that there is a higher percentage of “self-employed” business proprietors in rural communities. This includes the non-farm industry.
There are significant challenges for the church in rural mission and ministry. While the rural community could easily be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the urban setting, it cannot be ignored. There are between 3 and 4 million people living in rural (remote and isolated) communities in our district. When compared to urban communities, the importance of a strong faith life is not as highly valued according to MissionInsite. This is counter-intuitive to our institutional memory when church attendance was not only high but assumed. The church was the social center of the community and to be part of the community meant you were part of the church.
Today the population, while not declining, is changing. People are moving from urban areas to rural communities. These people are not looking for a conventional lifestyle. That means among other things, they are not looking for churches. People will not come to your church because you are there. The statistics of people who do not attend church or who do not desire to participate in faith-life is about 80 percent. The social needs of community have shifted away from the church community.
Such rejection of faith and community does not preclude the call in our lives or the life of the church to search for creative and energetic ways to bring the gospel to our families, neighbors, contacts and fellow-workers who do not know Jesus. There is one thing the church can do that no other institution or human organization can ever do, namely, proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what we are called and sent to do no matter our context.
By Rev. Steve Misch
Mission and Ministry Facilitator, Area A