One Town, One Church.
People Ask me what the future of the Church in the Rural Setting looks like. This is my response.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
When I first arrived in New England from the Midwest, I was expecting to find what we had in the Midwest in every town there. Five or six Gospel believing, bible preaching churches each serving their own niche congregations and coming together for things like Ecumenical VBS’s and Ministerial Associations where the pastors met but the congregants never really did much together outside of the occasional holiday community service. Of course, as an intern and then a pastor in the American Baptist Church we did not attend or participate in these gatherings, keeping our own company and counsel as the Cross Winds Region monthly meetings. It was at one of those meetings when I announced I was leaving for Seminary that one pastor commented: “You’ll love it in New England, they all think like you there.” I now know what he means, but it was still a shock to my system not to find five or six churches in the town of Hamilton. There were two, First Congregational Church of Hamilton, a member of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC) and the local UCC Church. There was another church building in Hamilton, but it had long been converted to a private residence. What I quickly learned about New England was that most towns could not support more than 2 churches, one conservative, one liberal and some could not even sustain that. Except for the greater Boston area and cities like Danvers and Beverly, it was nearly impossible for a locality to support more than one church and the longer I was there the more I realized that the towns where there were two or more protestant churches and a Catholic Church, neither Protestant Church was doing particularly well.
Growing up I always heard about how liberal and godless the coasts were, and to some degree that is true. What is not true though is that the church in that environment is suffering and dying. Except for towns with 2 or more protestant churches, the opposite is true and while church attendance is still around 3% average in New England, New England is second to Appalachia (where I grew up) for the lowest percentage of Church Attendance (1% in 2015, possibly lower now). Instead, Pew and Lifeway came and did research to analyze the churches in New England and what they found they summed up in one word: “Thriving.” That is, Churches that had weathered the storm of the De-Christianizing of the Northeast in the 90’s and early 2000’s were doing well, those who had been planted specifically in a Post-Christian Context were doing well, those who had been replanted as the only church in town were doing well. Once again, there were gains that could be made in towns with more than one Protestant Church. The Study blew the doors off the narrative that the Protestant Church was dying in New England, by almost every metric, it was growing, not through transplant growth, but conversion growth. Another trend that I recognized was a move beyond the easy ecumenicism that keeps us in our happy enclaves while we occasionally rub shoulders with those Lutherans or Reformed folks, but an actual deep, Holy Spirit Unity which saw Churches with almost nothing in common but the Creeds and Gospel working together in ministry, cross-training together, partnering with each other. A CCCC Church and an Anglican Cathedral, Southern Baptists and yes, even Catholics doing ministry together and bearing fruit for the Gospel in a place where people can drive by a Church Building and have no idea what happens inside.
What I know now, and what I experienced in Kansas and now here in Iowa, was that the same De-Christianizing was happening in the Midwest too, about 20 years later than New England and 10 years behind the West Coast. As businesses like Boeing were pulling out of the Midwest and the sense of despair was on the rise and as the population became more diverse and disconnected from one another, a Post-Christianity world was developing before my eyes, one where people know where the churches are and what they do, they even know the language of Christianity, but they either bear the scars of church hurt and will not go back, or they were never associated with the church in the first place and do not know anyone else who is. The Churches here now face the same pressures as the New England Churches did in the 90’s and the West Coast Churches are going through now. I saw it first in Stafford where Boeing once built their engines, now the empty shell of the plant is one of the first things you see when you enter town n U.S 50. Right before I started there the church had been invited to join with the other churches in town, they had turned them town because while they agreed on the essentials of the Gospel, they disagreed on what they thought were essential, but which are actually peripheral.
The same is true in pretty much every small town you visit, 90% of the churches agree on the essentials, they may even all profess the same two Creeds and at their core they would all affirm both the Apostles and Nicene Orthodoxy. But there are little, subtle differences, one church baptizes infants, another does not, one Church has a sung liturgy, and another prefers a contemporary. The result is the same type of consumerism that David Wells says is responsible for the bleeding dry of American Evangelicalism. Everyone has their own flavor of “church” that meets their preferences and so they go where they are comfortable and if something disrupts that comfort, they protest. In doing this they show that their god is not YHWH but the god of comfort and ease, a Jesus who never challenges us is not the Jesus we find in the Gospels. God’s promises of comfort come in the middle of our deepest struggles and trails in life, it is to our shame and our detriment that we claim these promises of comforts as absolutes and the promises of suffering and pain to be worthy of dismissal. What forms in Consumerist Churches is Moral Therapeutic Deism, it is not Christianity.
As I’ve said before, in places in the North East where this still happens it has caused the church to continue to lose membership and continue in decline. Where churches have held onto the consumer model of Christianity, they are not doing well in New England. The same is going to be true in the next decade in the Midwest and in the next 15 years in the South, it is already becoming true in Northern Iowa where I just moved from. As the communities become older, they have become disconnected from younger families living there and since it tends to be Baby Boomers who fill the pews who are disconnected from the younger families, they tend to not be reaching the very people they need to reach through conversion growth. Many of these churches are also extremely inwardly focused on themselves and their comfort. How many times did I hear people say that: “The Church is for the old’s” when talking to younger families here in town? Only about as many times as I heard older members of the community say that did not know any of the younger families. There are always exceptions to this, always people who are really doing a good job getting to know younger families as they move in. Still, I still cringe when I hear: “It’s such a shame young people don’t come to church anymore” because Paul’s words in Romans 10 come to mind: “How will they know if no one tells them?”
Underlying all of this is a deep and now cynical consumerism: Don’t like the pastor? You can go to this church over here and hear exactly what you want to hear. The music too loud for you? Here is a nice Church over here where they muffle the Organ. Okay, I am being tongue and cheek, but you get the point, the churches are seen as something that caters to the comforts of the older generation while the younger generation is left out in the cold, looked down upon and treated with contempt when they do come to church wearing the “wrong attire.” By the way, the Pandemic has only sped up this process and amplified issues within the Church, the effect is that some churches have become “meaner” in the way they treat each other, their pastors, and their communities. We have seen this treatment almost everywhere we go, and it is happening in small churches and big churches alike, such as McClean Bible Church in DC. What was once a “polite” cruelty has been replaced with actual cruelty. Including families with Newborns being asked to resign. One pastor told me he has 18 churches in his region which are in some active state of transition and some of those transitions are because of devastating splits that hurt families and pastors alike. In short, this trajectory is unsustainable and will lead to some towns who previously had 4 or 5 churches losing them all. If the Midwest does not look to its brothers and sisters in New England who went through this transition to post-Christendom the hard way, they to will be subject to the same fate.
So, what is the solution?
One town, one Church.
One town: Dunstable MA. Is an example of a town with only one Church, they are close enough to a metropolitan area (Leominster) that they also draw a fairly diverse congregation and have a very diverse and integrated worship style, I can still remember the pianist the day I was there to pulpit supply, it was about 104 in the pulpit. The Church itself is thriving and the congregation growing through conversion growth. The town is about 2500 in size and yet it supports 1 church well. Contrast that with a midwestern town of 900 with 6 churches where the justification for having multiple churches is: “Well this is how its always been” or “when such and such a group moved into town they started such and such a church.” This is the perfect example of consumeristic Christianity, and it can be case study into what is happening with the church in the Midwest. If you were to get an honest assessment of most of the churches in town the response would not be: “We are thriving,” the response would be: “We are dying, and we don’t know why.” Most of the Churches I have pulpit supplied in or served in, in the Midwest, have been on the decline side of the Church Growth Bell Curve, only one has been growing through conversion growth.
One Church: If we want to restore biblical unity as laid out in Ephesians 4, we should want to see these towns do what has happened all over New England, merge into one Church. Not a large regional church (which I think is a possibility, but not one I would endorse) where the messages are piped in and you never see the Pastor, but one Church devoted to teaching and preaching and living the Word of God. It would mean that a lot of people would have to give up and lot of their preferences, but since God is the one who builds His Church, we should be willing to lay those down and allow His preferences to become ours. One Church in One town would be able to meet the needs of the residents of the town and township around it, it would also be a representation of the diversity of the community, no more segregation, but a vision of heaven where every nation, tribe and tongue who lives in that community and it would be ideal for hosting town events and working alongside civic organizations like the school or regional societies. That could mean we end up with larger, regional Ministerial Associations that work together to help one another. For instance, a ministerial here in Winnebago Country might include the church from each town in Winnebago country. The Churches do not even need trendy names, they could just be: “The Church at Forest City” or “The Church of Albany Ohio. Larger cities would have to have multiple churches, but they would all work under the same banner of “The Church of” that city name.
Finally, one town, one church does not mean, nor can it mean, one town, one church, one pastor. Each town should have at least two pastors if not more than that so that the workload can be broken up among two or three instead of one pastor bearing most of the load. One of the reasons we are in the mess we are with Clergy because they we have been denied the ability to adopt a healthy work-life balance. Having healthy pastors who are doing pastoral work in community will help maintain and ensure that these town churches stay healthy.
One Town, One Church has the potential to help curb a lot of the consumerism that is destroying the church. It is essential though that all of these churches adhere to Nicene Orthodoxy rooted in Biblical Authority. That means heresies like Eternal Subordination of the Son need to be dealt with and rejected as it was at the council of Nicea 1600 years ago. We may also find that this helps renew and restore the joy we once had before we made church about ourselves and helps us grow as disciples of Jesus, not of celebrity pastors who do not know, nor care too.