The Rural Backbone of American Methodism

My sister, Laura, puts together the Sunday bulletin at Maple Grove United Methodist near Auburn, Ind., the rural church where she and her husband, Guy, belong. They also mow the lawn, shovel snow off the steps in the winter and generally keep an eye on the building, which is down the road from their house.

Theirs is the kind of hands-on dedication that’s essential for a small congregation where the worship service draws 20 – including the pastor – as it did the day after Christmas, when I attended.

These days, mega-churches with elaborate multimedia presentations, praise bands and in-house coffee shops often grab the spotlight. But the rural backbone of American Methodism, born of a pioneer spirit and nurtured by the circuit riders of old, remains intact alongside cornfields and small-town main streets, even if it’s weaker than it used to be.

Often, these rural churches are anchored by families whose membership dates back for generations. For example, in the northwest Ohio town of Gilboa, 92-year-old Thelma Gratz grew up in the Methodist Episcopal congregation started by her great-great grandfather, Samuel Hall, around 1833.

That congregation merged in 1938 with the Methodist Protestant congregation where her future husband was a member, and it eventually became Gilboa United Methodist Church. “Methodist Protestant Church” is still spelled out in the stained glass above the main entrance.

Thelma continues to worship at Gilboa, where I met her one Sunday morning last September. Her sons are members, too.

Other long-timers include Dorthea Wilkinson, 78, and her brother, Wayne Hector, 70. “I used to sit up in the balcony and count ladies’ hats,” Dorthea told me. Now she helps run the Chapel Belles, which raised money for an elevator in the church by serving meals every Friday.

Some rural churches, especially those lacking younger members, are slowly dying. But Gilboa United Methodist Church isn’t one of them.

Its members recognized that if they wanted strong pastoral leadership, fulfilling worship and better mission opportunities, a change had to be made. So when the denomination’s West Ohio Conference offered them the chance to join the Leipsic Multi-Site Parish – now a network of five congregations – they agreed.

And most have found the arrangement to their liking, especially the opportunity to enjoy the various preaching styles of the parish’s four pastors. “I think it’s great,” Dorthea said. “In fact, I don’t know if the church could survive if we weren’t in a parish. It would be tough.”

Unfortunately, as we’ve learned while gathering information for United Methodist News Service, “tough” describes the situation that a number of rural churches find themselves in. The United Methodist Church needs to offer resources and develop new models, like the multi-site parish concept, to assist them.

But the real key to survival, those involved in rural ministries tell us, lies within the congregations themselves and their ability to look outward rather than inward.

It’s a matter of maintaining vitality, rural expert Bill Kemp told me. “As soon as the rural church fails to connect with its community, that church loses its vitality.”

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