The rural-to-urban migration has been one of the most dramatic demographic trends of the past century. USDA’s Economic Research Service reports that since 2010 more than 1,300 nonmetro U.S. counties have lost population. Today about 14% of the nation’s population live in nonmetro counties. This is also where one-quarter of the COVID-19 deaths have occurred (New York Times, Oct. 22).
We are concerned about the disproportionate impacts the COVID-19 pandemic is having on rural communities where there is often a higher percentage of elderly, higher incidences of obesity and poverty, and other preexisting conditions. The impacts of the global pandemic are likely to carry well into 2021 and beyond.
Not only are we concerned about the community impacts of the pandemic but what it means for churches. In many cases, the pandemic is sapping the vitality out of communities where smaller churches are located and often the sole remaining social institution. The continuing loss of population has posed significant threats to the viability of churches, and now the pandemic adds to their uncertain futures. The focus of this essay is what churches might do to creatively address ever-expanding challenges.
Church attendance declining
The Harford Institute for Religion Research reports that there are more than 300,000 churches and religious congregations in the U.S. The median regular attendance is 75, meaning that one-half of all churches have less than 75 attendees and one-half have more than 75. The number of worship facilities is just one part of the equation, and the other is trends in church attendance. Estimates are that in normal times between 20% and 40% of Americans are regular church attenders. Now attendance is declining because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since March, some churches have suspended worship services, adding an additional burden to their long-term solvency. The pandemic adds to the existing struggles of many small churches that are questioning how to remain open. Many churches, particularly in small towns and in the countryside, tend to have a disproportionate number of elderly parishioners who are most at risk of the COVID-19 virus. It appears the pandemic may significantly accelerate trends in small-church decline.
For years, we’ve lamented that modern lifestyles that generally involve dual incomes and multiple jobs have contributed to a decline in what we call “neighboring,” or informal interaction among people who live nearby. In surveys among farmers and rural residents, we find that often people hardly know their neighbors and spend little time in close interaction. When asked about why visiting neighbors has declined, the No. 1 factor reported is lack of time.
However, there are examples when neighbors care for community members, such as when they come together to combat a community crisis such as floods or tornadoes, or arrive to assist a grieving family with food or machinery. The irony is that with the proliferation of social media, direct face-to-face interaction with neighbors was in decline before the pandemic.
In what we call the lost art of neighboring, many people have either never developed or lost the skills of effective neighboring. A 140-character text message, regardless of the intent, will never replace one’s presence or words of comfort. We tend to remember persons who reach out to us during personal crisis. Small acts of kindness, one’s presence or simply a supportive pat on the back have long-lasting impacts. All of us who have faced crises know the importance of others’ presence.
We believe the churches that successfully weather the pandemic will be those that modify or adopt new methods of neighboring. Churches must retain their foundation of being the voice and spiritual home of their parishioners, but they must demonstrate responsible citizenship and be leaders in the community on how to function within the constraints of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, guidelines.
9 actions for churches
Nine actions churches can take to strengthen the sense of community follow:
1. Masks. Indeed, masks. Given what is known about the transmission of the COVID-19 coronavirus, all churches should advocate mask wearing and social distancing as a moral position. Advocating for the health and well-being of their members lies at the heart of the church community. Church leaders should stop second-guessing CDC recommendations and questioning medical science, and instead demonstrate leadership by protecting one another. One cannot help but wonder how many deaths and infections in rural America could have been prevented if churches took responsible leadership and actions by following CDC recommendations.
Second-guessing the science of public health or risking the health of parishioners by making claims that true believers are immune from the coronavirus is nonsense. The coronavirus doesn’t recognize or respect faith traditions or political viewpoints. Masks are not a “constitutional rights issue.” They are a visible sign of our care for one another and a fundamental commitment to respect and protect the health and well-being of our neighbors. In short, “I don’t wear a mask to protect myself, but to protect you.”
2. Keeping in touch is central to building and maintaining community. Activities such as telephone calling trees, and making yard, porch, deck, driveway or farmyard visits while wearing masks and practicing social distancing communicate to the recipient that their well-being is important. These outreach activities are the responsibility of all members, not just the pastor. Extending this level of concern can be expressed through tracking systems of home-bound members, as well as care facility residents and hospital patients. When faced with crisis, one remembers who stood by them. Churches should be modeling social support during this pandemic.
3. Who is your neighbor? Churches should guard against being provincial and tending only to members. The economic toll has already been heavy on so many in our churches and communities including those who have lost jobs or been furloughed. That toll hasn’t precluded churches from raising new funds from members and community leaders to help those in great need with rent and even mortgage payments, food and staple items, medications, winter clothing, or assistance with virtual learning needs for students. The only way to know if such support is available is to ask; generosity is one of the most amazing outcomes of the pandemic.
4. The future of the church is children and youth. The lives of many children and youth have been tumultuous during the pandemic. Youngsters yearn to see their friends and for life to return to pre-pandemic conditions. The school calendar, sporting events, graduation and other symbolic events have been disrupted.
This is an opportunity for the church to step up and be counted as a support system in midst of the darkness for young people. Weekly outreach via text, internet or mailed materials coinciding with Sunday texts or worship themes is one way to assure that clergy and lay leaders are maintaining regular connection with children and youth. Just like adults, youngsters need to know that others in the community (besides their parents) are concerned about them.
5. Teachers, medical providers and caregivers work on behalf of the entire community. Part of the role in community leadership positions is offering praise and support. Regardless of political party affiliation, religious values or other personal characteristics, community service providers need to be recognized for their selfless giving. Churches can support and lead in the recognition of essential workers.
Teachers, caregivers, police, firefighters, doctors and nurses, social workers and postal workers should be recognized for the efforts, especially during this pandemic. Lift them up during worship, in newsletters or reach out to them directly by phone or in person. Billboards, drive-by events and car parades show support for workers and helps lift their spirits. Simply knowing that others recognize their personal sacrifices and appreciate their dedication are important messages.
6. How can technology be used to reach out to members and to the community? Some churches have been conducting worship virtually, but the viewing can be difficult or internet services unreliable. While the creative use of technology can supplement or enhance face-to-face worship, one should guard against overreliance on technology for the personal touch. Phone calls, cards or letters, and home visits while maintaining social distancing are far more meaningful than watching a TV or computer screen. Even when excellent internet connections are available, do not assume that everyone has access or knows how to operate or participate in today’s technology.
7. Church is about community building. Regardless of one’s theological roots or beliefs, the church is called to take care of all creation and that includes all people. Some churches continue with mission outreach to those in great need. Donations to food banks or food pantries have helped feed many in need, as have clothing drives and rent assistance programs.
8. Call out uncivil and hurtful actions and words. In some communities, there is growing unease about the threat of turmoil and violence, a threat exacerbated by racism and the polarization of civil society that pervades much of the nation. Church leaders should be tamping out the embers of social injustice, racism and other forms of discrimination rather than ignoring or even stoking the flames of division.
Sadly, some churches have been unable or unwilling to call out those expressing uncivil ideas or dogmas. This includes scapegoating immigrants, saying they don’t belong here or that they’ve taken jobs away from local people; advancing conspiracy theories that China is to blame for the virus; being complicit to those who choose to display the confederate flag to intimidate Black Americans; and denying equal rights and protection to people different from the majority. Churches should champion community building through inclusion, which means speaking out against uncivil words and actions.
9. Feed the folk. Sharing food is at the cultural heart of most faith communities, especially in rural areas. Weekly meals prepared (with appropriate safety) in church kitchens for pickup by or delivery to members and friends can be a great way of maintaining a sense of community. Even a holiday dinner, complete with favorite desserts, will provide everyone with a sense of joy and hope in these uncertain times. Or work with a local restaurant to put together a holiday take-out celebration, providing not only good food but also supporting the local economy.
Challenging times for churches
These are very challenging times for the many small towns and rural churches that are integral to the culture of rural America. In many cases their precarious situations have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in fewer people attending church and in other cases by failing to maintain a sense of belonging among members.
How churches respond during the COVID-19 pandemic may be an indicator of whether they survive. Churches engaged in denial or rejection of CDC recommendations may be fortunate to avoid a “super spreader” event or not have any outbreaks. In recent weeks, places with previously low or no infection have emerged as hot spots, suggesting that no place is immune. Responsible leadership should protect the well-being of the community, not put members at risk.
It is often heard that in dying towns the last vestiges remaining are the post office and the church. Churches provide opportunities for social engagement and are often the hub of the community. The pandemic has greatly reduced or hindered the church’s ability to provide safe environments for congregants. As the pandemic drags on, churches need to explore creative ways to maintain a sense of community until an effective vaccine is available.
The COVID-19 crisis is dramatically altering life around the globe. Likely there is no “going back” to what we might have known prior to its spread.
If anything, the crisis presents a unique opportunity to think and act anew, creatively and with profound imagination, in every home setting, family, community and church. If ever there was a time to create a new world wherever we live, including in rural settings, it lies before us.
Lasley is professor of sociology at Iowa State University where he has served for 40 years. Ostendorf is former director of Prairiefire and currently serves part-time as outreach minister for First Congregational Church in River Falls, Wis.