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How I generate Rural Ministry Barriers

Some of the most daunting barriers to effective rural ministry are facilitated by rural ministry practitioners themselves. Yes, you and I contribute to truncated rural ministry fruit because we are participants in three rural ministry past times: 1) the Arm Wrestling Effect, 2) the Green Acres Effect, and 3) the Pyramids Effect.

  1. The Arm Wrestling Effect. 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:

  1. 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” (RUCC) 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 RUCC. Here is the link:

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.

Adapted with permission from “Rural as a Continuum” by Dr. Jeffrey Clark 2020.

  1. 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:

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.

  1. 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 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Green Acres Effect.[3] Green Acres was a television situational comedy in the 1960s that featured an upscale family from New York City moving to a rural farm in “Hooterville.” The humor of the show in large part is driven by the obvious cultural divide between the non-native, formally dressed lawyer family from the city and the native, simpleton rural residents.

The Green Acres effect in our rural churches is the perpetuation of a cultural divide between “natives” and “non-natives.” “New people” in the church can refer to lots of people: people who were not born in the town, retirees who recently moved to the area, families who have maintained a vacation home in town for 35 years and now live there full-time, an extended family of a different ethnicity than what is considered “normal.”

While the television show highlights the conflict between natives and non-natives in Hooterville, it is much more nuanced in the rural church—but with similar effects. Without intentionality, clear out-groups are developed in the rural church. Leadership of the church, from the members of the diaconate and elders to the matriarch and patriarch powerbrokers of the church, are overwhelmingly natives. The non-natives are observed as important to be part of the community, but are always on the outside looking in when it comes to the inner workings of the church.

The Green Acres effect is a two-way affair. The natives cast a jaded eye toward the newcomers as lacking “rural common sense.” When a non-native slides off the road in the winter, gets their lawnmower stuck, or needs repairs for something they broke, it is because they are not really rural. At the same time, the non-natives can have an idyllic view of what rural life should be, but are consistently disappointed by their rural neighbors who, in their eyes, lack the sophistication and education to make well-reasoned decisions. The result is a “Hooterville” undertone of a divide between natives and non-natives.

When it comes to small groups within the church, the Green Acres effect is very pronounced. Small groups are an appealing option for non-natives looking for a place to belong. Since they do not have deep relational connections locally, the small groups offer many benefits not provided elsewhere, especially in a community that casts a jaded eye on newcomers. On the flip side though, natives are less likely to use small groups of the church because they already have their own extended family or friends as small groups.

The Green Acres effect can be best overcome when small groups are designed with intentionality to bring together natives and non-natives. The natives need to be aware that the small groups are not simply for their own benefit, and non-natives need to be equipped with rural sub-cultural sensitivity to be able to engage well on a relational level. A great way to bring people together is through service projects—opportunities where people can serve a greater purpose and begin to bridge the relational gap between natives and non-natives. This can also provide an effective pathway for leadership development and identification among people who did not “grow up in the church.”

One of the most effective ways to erode the divide between natives and non-natives in large groups is through community rituals that are open for all to participate in—particularly funerals. Funerals are a place where community is expected to be supportive, and the division lines between native and non-native are less visible. Likewise, there are plenty of opportunities to be involved—especially preparing for and cleaning up after the meal.

  1. The Pyramids Effect. The Pyramids of Egypt are old. Granted, they are really cool, but they are not exactly useful for practical purposes today. The same is true for the population pyramid that rural churches continue to assume are a continuing reality. There is no longer the traditional age pyramid; we are moving quickly to an age pillar—and that is especially true in rural America. The issue is, our rural churches are staying focused on pyramid demographics.

Based on United States Census Bureau projections, older people will outnumber children under the age of 18 in the United States by the year 2034. No longer will there be the traditional pyramid of ages, in which there is a large foundation of children under the age of 18 and a rapidly dwindling pinnacle of seniors over the age of 65. By 2060, it is projected that there will be a pillar in which no single age demographic is exceptionally dominant.[4]

Geographic concentration of aging is especially evident in rural America. A full 85 percent of counties in the United States defined as “older-age counties” are rural. “Older-age counties” are where the 65 or older age bracket makes up at least 20 percent of the population–1,104 counties of the 3,141 counties in the United States meet this definition.  Coupled with this concentration of older-age counties, rural areas tend to be older on average. Statistics show 15 percent of the urban population in the United States is 65 or older while 19 percent of the rural population falls within that age bracket.[5]

The missed rural ministry opportunity is Silver Mission: adults transitioning into early old age are sensitive to the gospel message like no other time since the 4 to 14 age-window.

I am similar to many church leaders: I have listened to hours of podcasts and panel discussions, and consumed countless books about how our churches need to be more relevant in the community today. Usually that discussion focuses on how the congregation has “grayed” and is drawing few young families, so we should be ashamed. There is truth in the need to reach kids between the ages of 4 and 14 with the gospel —but it should not come at the expense of intentionally drawing adults who are nearing or recently entered retirement. There may actually be equivalent shame in not reaching older adults.

There are 75 million baby boomers in this country, and half are now over the age of 60. Most are vibrant, healthy, they have more time in retirement to explore opportunities that give meaning to their lives. Many of these boomers had grown up in a church but had dropped out. So, what are churches today doing to attract these older adults, to meet their needs for spiritual growth and community? For the most part, nothing.[6]


Next Steps in Rural Ministry

We need to be self-aware of the three barriers that we participate in as rural ministry practitioners. First, rather than the Arm Wrestling Effect, we need to engage in rural context assessments that honor the diversity and specificity of rurality. Second, rather than living the Green Acres Effect, we need to be intentional about identifying and addressing out-groups that are within our communities and even our churches. Third, rather than assuming the pyramid effect, we need to go beyond an ageist approach to outreach where youth ministry is always assumed to be the answer. The early old age demographic is a tremendous silver mission opportunity that we are simply missing. There is great hope ahead in fruitful rural ministry, especially if we self-create fewer barriers.



[1] USDA Economic Research Service. 2019. “Rural-Urban Continuum Codes.”

[2] See for more details.

[3] Thank you to Dr. David M. Gustafson of Trinity International University for revealing the potential connection between modern rural outgroups and the fictional “Hooterville” of the 1960s.

[4] United States Census Bureau. 2018. “From Pyramid to Pillar: A Century of Change.” March 13. Revised October 8, 2019.

[5] United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. 2018. “Rural America at a Glance, 2018 Edition.” Economic Information Bulletin 200. November.

[6] Bengtson, Vern L., Endacott, Camille, and Samantha Kang. 2018. “Older Adults in Churches:

Differences in Perceptions of Clergy and Older Members.” Journal of Religion, Spirituality, and Aging 30 (2): 154-178. 154.