In the first part of my interview with Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of America’s premier sociologists, we talked about the current face of the Heartland. Wuthnow’s book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, talks about the changing dynamics of many rural institutions, including churches. I enlisted him to help me think about churches in small towns and, of course, we ended up talking about Adam Hamilton…
You have the story in the book about the pastor who was discouraged. She said she had given up the family farm in order to pursue ministry and felt she was going to be part of some great awakening but instead felt like she was just keeping her finger in the dike. Obviously, one of the challenges churches face is population decline in these communities, but how do you interpret that kind of frustration? Did you encounter a whole lot of disillusionment as part of your research with churches in particular?
Well, among the clergy, that example would be illustrative of some of that disillusionment. I would say though that, overall, (and in every single town we tried to talk to at least one clergy person in that town), there’s a lot of pragmatic realism—a real effort, I’d have to say a gospel-based effort, to bring hope to the community and to keep hope as alive as it can be.
They would talk, not so much about the grand vision that wasn’t being realized, but just the frustrations—that people in the congregation were busy. It was hard, especially in smaller congregations, to get enough people out for a meeting or events, hard to schedule things, just because the complicated schedules that everybody, rural and urban, lives. It was difficult sometimes to cultivate lay leadership because, again, people were busy or people felt that the pastors should be doing all of that and they shouldn’t or because they felt they didn’t have the right kind of education or the right kind of leadership skills that they felt would be important to be an elder or deacon or trustee.
The flip side of that, which I think is really worth emphasizing, too, is that one of the things that small communities have going for them is that people who do have things going well for them in terms of having better jobs and maybe better education or better income, whatever it might be, are very willing, by and large, to pitch in. The statistics show that that happens much more in small towns, by and large, than it does in cities.
People feel a responsibility to help out with the church or the hospital board or the library committee or be involved in Rotary, Kiwanis, Masons, or whatever it might be. Again [this happens] because they’re visible and it’s just part of the culture to feel that, in addition to whatever work you may be doing as a teacher or doctor or nurse or whatever it might be, [you should] also be involved in the community. So if the community’s a town of any size, 5,000 and above, 10,000 and above–even better, then that’s going be a real benefit to the community. The pastors we talked to certainly recognized that as one of the resources they can draw on.
Have you been able to quantify that? That, in comparison to an urban area, there’s a larger percentage of people involved in civic and other activities?
In the longer book I wrote, Small Town America, there’s a bunch of stats. There’s a whole chapter on faith in that book and some discussion of leadership and civic engagement. Just broadly speaking, you can divide the US population who have responded to a survey into people living in small rural towns, people who live in suburbs, and people living in cities. Then you can take out the differences in education or whatever it might be and that does come through.
On some of the measures, it’s not a huge difference in suburbs. Suburbs do pretty well. It kind of depends on what volunteer activity you ask about. Suburbs have more families with small kids than the rural areas do and they’re one of the biggest drivers of voluntary participation—having kids and getting involved in school activities and sports and that kind of thing
In the section on homosexuality, where you’re talking about how that gets talked about or doesn’t get talked about in rural areas, you credit the mainline denominations with provoking the conversation. You said that, in a sense, there were folks who might appreciate the fact that they were being offered this space to have conversations about something that they might not talk about otherwise and yet at the same time they felt the same sort of resentment that they feel about Washington—that it’s requiring them to do something that they really don’t want to do. If one of the long-term trends is the retreat of mainline denominations in rural areas, is there any other institution that is going to pick up the slack? What does that portend for rural communities?
It depends on what part of the country. Being from the Midwest, I have a little bit of a better sense of changes there. I’ve written a book about Kansas. I’ve written a book about Texas so those are the ones that I can point to the best. So, what’s filled the gap, as mainline churches in a lot of areas have declined, have been fundamentalist churches or evangelical churches or Pentecostal churches.
Or cowboy churches in Texas, right?
Yeah. It’s not necessarily a real recent development. It kind of depended on population shifts. For instance, in Kansas this was a shift that started shortly after World War Two, because of the aircraft industry–Boeing being in Wichita. You suddenly had jobs there. So you had a big influx of population from Oklahoma and Arkansas and southern Missouri. You had a lot of Southern Baptists in Kansas that you never had before. You also had a lot of new churches, like Assemblies of God or Pentecostal churches.
Historically, Kansas had been overwhelmingly dominated by Methodists and Catholics. Now you had an influx of people who weren’t Methodist and Catholic. So that started changing the local composition of a lot of towns where those new churches were growing.
That’s happening in some other places. The broader trend is that people who used to go to church locally in a town of 5-10,000 are now traveling 30 or 40 miles to a larger town and maybe, if there is one, to a megachurch, or something that’s close to a megachurch.
Why are they doing that? Well, for good reason. If they have kids and their kids are the only kids in the Sunday school locally, well, sure, they want to go to a larger place where there are some other kids for their kids to hang out. Secondly, it may be that the school has closed and the kids are already going to a consolidated district school some place else and so if there’s church over there then their kids can hang out with kids from school.
If they’re young adults, especially if they’re single young adults, they’re not going to find anybody to date or to marry at the local church that doesn’t have anybody else their age. They’re going to gravitate away as well.
That is something that certainly doesn’t affect a lot of small towns because they’re just too far away. One Methodist example that I’ve looked at closely and written about some, (again it happens to be in Kansas), is Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City. It is a megachurch and every time I’ve gone there it’s gotten bigger and it’s put up an even bigger building. Even though they’re located in Johnson County, which has about 500,000 people, they draw people you know from maybe 50 miles away from some of the smaller towns.
That changes the dynamic, which is certainly something which small town pastors worry about a lot. Sometimes you kind of regret it, in the same way people sometimes regret the fact that there’s a Walmart that’s drawing away business. But I do think it’s one of the realities that you have to attract people with young families, single people, some empty-nesters.
At the same time the megachurch is never going to replace the boutique church that’s just one that people feel really committed to and like it because it is small. They know people. They’ve been there for a long time and they’re comfortable there. Those churches are likely to be around, I think, for quite a long time.
The Heartlands interview with Robert Wuthnow concludes here.