What is a “rural church”? What does “small town U.S.A.” look like? I’m honestly perplexed by some of the definitions that are floating around out there on this subject and I think a great deal of people who use the term “rural America” or “small town” need to reevaluate their usage because those of us who are actually living in this context do not recognize what you are calling “small town.” I mean, seriously, do small towns always have movie theaters, malls, and Starbucks?!?! If so, I want to move! Ha ha!
Let’s define some terms here. There’s a lot of confusion about what is “rural” or “small town.” When I say “rural,” I mean a location that is popularly called “country.” Others refer to it as “living in the sticks” or “being out in the middle of nowhere.” I can safely say that I pastor a church that is all of the above – ha ha!
Anyway, according to the Bureau of the Census (Department of Commerce) the United States is broken into three “classifications.” We have the following:
- Urbanized Areas (UAs) of 50,000 or more people;
- Urban Clusters (UCs) of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.
- Rural Communities. “Rural” encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.
So the basic criteria for a location in the U.S. to be considered “rural” is to have a population of less than 2,500 people. “Small town” is not a classification, but I’ll grant that it’s a useful term and basically can mean the same thing as “rural.”
But for those of us in cities that are less than 2,000 people, it’s hard to understand how someone living in a city of 10,000 people would call where they live a “small town.” Okay, maybe they are from Los Angelos or New York, in which case 10,000 people feels like a “small town.” But for those of us in “small towns” of less than 2,000 people, cities of 10,000 people are huge. We call it “going to the city” when we drive to your mall, okay?
So yes, in many ways, living in small towns and being rural can be the same thing. But there is a remarkable difference in how communities feel when we jump from 1,500 people to a population of 5,000. It’s pretty noticeable, and I think our methods of contextualizing the gospel and being missional will require modifications in some areas. Plus, if a city has a population of 2,200 but is literally along a string of other larger cities, the “small town feel” is drastically reduced (this happens a lot in the Bible belt).
I’ve been pastoring in a rural context located between two small towns for just over six years now and I can safely say that it’s radically different than when I was serving in ministry in larger communities. Radically different.
Of the thousands of books in my office, there are only a handful that are really geared towards the rural church or small town pastor. In fact, two books that I have that I used to think were written for my context are actually written for small churches, not necessarily small town churches. A small church located in a city-center is going to be differently than a small church is a small town. Small churches does not categorically equate to small towns. There’s plenty of small churches in big cities, right?
There’s a lot that can be said about this subject… but I think it’s helpful to acknowledge the different classifications that are given by the Department of Commerce and then realize that in the same way church planters and missiologists would note the significant differences that can be found in between cities of 50,000 to cities of 1.2 million, significant differences exist between small towns of 1,200 and cities of 5,000.
Make sense? I hope so…
I’ll be providing some examples of how to be missional in the rural / small town context soon…
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.