Rural Ministry and the Arm Wrestling Effect

Written by Carl Greene

October 20, 2021

Much has been written about the opportunities of ministry in metropolitan areas–and rightfully so. When it comes to discussion about rural ministry, the focus is generally on arm wrestling rather than advancing God’s Kingdom. Arm wrestling is a winner-takes-all affair similar to rural ministry conferences. You know the arm wrestling deal: two seated competitors face one another with bent elbows and firmly clasp their hands together. Their gripped hands are fully upright at the start and then the goal is to pin the opponent’s hand down to the table while keeping the hands clasped. There is a victor and a loser.

When it comes to rural ministry, we often compare churches and pastors like an arm-wrestling match. Who has the most people in a worship service, the most effective strategies for outreach, the largest virtual outreach—who is the alpha arm wrestler that outdoes all other competitors? What this inevitably leads to is the attempt to disqualify competitors because they are “not really rural.” That ministry is actually in the suburbs, this ministry is too close to the urban fringe to count, this ministry is unique because it is an oasis in a rural desert of services.

We sadly end up trying to discount Kingdom advancing rural ministry as “not as rural as mine” because we do not take note of the diversity of rural experiences. We try to assess rural based on a monolithic measuring stick rather than a continuum. We need better rural context assessments.

In order to move beyond rural ministry arm-wrestling and comparing ourselves against rural ministry contexts very different from our own, here are some simple steps that we can take to assess our own rural context:

a) Assess your county on a rural continuum. The United States Department of Agriculture provides an assessment of the level of rurality of your county. The “Rural-Urban Continuum Code is a nine-point continuum where the higher the number, the higher level of rurality.[1] The continuum provides an idea of how disconnected a location is from urban influences. This is helpful to not only better understand your own context, but to also know rural ministries that are in similar contexts based on their Rural-Urban Continuum Code. Here is the link:

https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/rural-urban-continuum-codes.aspx

If your county is between a 2 and 3 on the continuum, it is likely to be rural refuge. The county is within a metropolitan area, yet holds rural enclaves within it. You are likely to be in a small city or in a bedroom community where most people travel to a nearby city for work and services. Yet, there are some third spaces to pay close attention to where “rural types” tend to congregate and interact. This might be a certain diner or a rural oriented supply store.

If your county is between a 4 and 6 on the continuum, it is likely to be rural sufficient. The county is outside metropolitan areas, and is relatively self-supporting in regard to employment and services. Due to critical mass of population, there are plentiful services and community opportunities provided locally, leading churches to be more selective in their ministry outreach. Churches often opt to create their own third spaces in these settings to meet under reached populations and to provide a place where people can informally gather with consistency.

If your county is between a 7 and 9 on the continuum, you are likely to feel rural remote. Your county maintains low population density, low overall population, and is the greatest distance from urban centers. At the same time, because of the low population, there are minimal services provided by the public sector. Churches have great opportunity to meet unmet needs of local residents, but may struggle with having the resources to match the need. While there is great missional opportunity in the community, it is likely that participating numbers will be low due to population of the area.

b) Assess the space. County-based rural assessments can be deceiving. In order to have a better idea of the rurality of your specific space, it is important to look at population density. As rural ministry practitioners, we often assume that if we are not in a Census designated urban area (population of 50,000 or more) then we must be in a monolithic rural experience, or we choose a lower population threshold of what is really rural! A better approach is more nuanced in assessing the specific space. The population of your space may be lower than an urbanized area (50,000 people), but even at a population of 2,500 it counts as an urban cluster in the eyes of the US Census Bureau.[2] To see if your ministry space has the population density to be considered an urban cluster, follow this link: https://www2.census.gov/geo/docs/reference/ua/ua_st_list_uc.xls.

The importance of knowing if you are in an urban cluster is not a matter of tarnishing the rural nature of your area. The purpose is to be able to honestly assess some of the unique features of your space. While there may be a rural subculture very much felt in your space, there are certain qualities that are different because of the critical mass of people living within proximity of one another. The prevalence of third spaces, community rituals, and social interactions will be much different in these spaces compared to less densely populated areas.

Another important item to assess is land use. This is tangentially linked with population density. If the church building or congregants live in a space where there is a preponderance of agricultural land, or state forests, or state parks, or natural amenities, there will be a certain flavor of rural to that area. There will be a certain assumed sub-culture of that space even if most people are not engaged in that economic activity. For instance, if a church is located in the middle of corn fields, there will be different rural assumptions than if it is located next to a heavily visited beach at a state park.

Clearly, assessing the space gets tricky. There is analyzation of where the church building is located, but some people might be from a densely populated village while others are from surrounding farms. This blend is another dynamic to be mindful of as you assess outgroups and the type of rural that people identify with—or the diversity of rural that your congregants might identify with.

c) Assess the place. Each place is unique. There is unique history, there are unique ethnic backdrops, and there are unique amenities. Some small places will host a university, some will host the headquarters of an international business, some will host the largest farm in the state, some will be economically declining, some will be experiencing population growth. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to rural assessments. There is a certain amount of ground-truthing beyond statistical data that is essential to undertake. The key is to discover the unique attributes of your place and see how your church can creatively engage those attributes.

d) Stop competing. Rural ministry offers great missional opportunity. Rather than providing stories packed with numbers and metrics that do not translate across types of rural, we can do better at sharing stories about types of rural. When we begin to focus on type of rural, we begin to uncover the intersections of experience that we have with other rural places alongside the unique attributes of our specific rural ministry context. That is where much joy abounds.

[1] USDA Economic Research Service. 2019. “Rural-Urban Continuum Codes.” https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/rural-urban-continuum-codes/documentation.aspx (accessed June 4, 2021).

[2] See https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/geography/guidance/geo-areas/urban-rural/2010-urban-rural.html for more details.

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