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From the earliest times and among all peoples the common religious life has formed one of the strongest bonds of the rural community. Several of the original thirteen colonies which formed the United States were settled by those seeking freedom to worship as they chose, and as their descendants migrated westward many of the new settlements were largely composed of the membership of some one church or those of a similar faith.

Dr. Warren H. Wilson has called attention to the fact that the Mormons, the Pennsylvania Germans, and the Scotch Presbyterians are the most successful farmers and remain on the land because they have given a religious sanction to country life and have made the church the center of the life of the community, as it was in the medieval village community of Europe. Whatever attitude one may take toward their religious beliefs, all impartial observers are agreed that the Mormons have established the strongest agricultural communities and that they have discovered and applied to a high degree some of the most fundamental principles of social organization. Concerning them Dr. Wilson says:

"These exceptional farmers are organized in the interest of agriculture. The Mormons represent this organization in the highest degree. Perhaps no other so large or so powerful a body of united farmers is found in the whole country. They have approached the economic questions of farming with determination to till the soil. They distrust city life and condemn it. They teach their children and they discipline themselves to love the country, to appreciate its advantages and to recognize that their own welfare is bound up in their success as farmers, and in the continuance of their farming communities. This agricultural organization centers in their country churches. They have turned the force of religion into a community making power, and from the highest to the lowest of their church officers the Mormon people are devoted to agriculture as a mode of living."[51]

Community Congregational Church, Garden City, KS IMG 5878

But although large numbers of communities throughout the United States were settled by people of one religious faith, and thus had the strongest bond of community, yet large areas were settled by scattered homesteaders belonging to different sects, and as time went on, newcomers came into the older communities and established churches of various denominations, so that throughout most of the country the churches have come to have more of a divisive than a unifying influence on community life.

In our discussion of the religious life of the rural community we shall confine our attention to the protestant churches, because most of our rural people are protestants. It is true that in some sections, such as Louisiana and southern Maryland, and in many sections recently settled by Europeans, the people are mostly Roman Catholics; but in general the catholic church is strongest in the cities and towns and does not have strong rural parishes throughout the country. Throughout most of the United States the Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist denominations have by far the largest number of churches and membership, and their traditions and methods have largely shaped the religious life of our rural communities.

During the century in which the United States west of the Alleghanies has been settled conditions have changed with such rapidity that the religious life is still largely dominated by its development during the days of early settlement and the present generation is faced with the problem of readjustment of its religious institutions to meet the present situation. In the days of the pioneer the circuit rider made his rounds over a large district, preaching at school houses and private homes and in the few country churches at intervals of one to three months. As the country became more thickly populated, country churches sprang up and several of them were joined together in the employment of a resident pastor with preaching at the larger churches every week and at the outlying stations once in two or three weeks. Doctrinal beliefs were strong and theological differences were frequently bitter. The preaching was practically the only service of the church, except for an annual "protracted meeting" or revival. The main emphasis was upon the personal salvation of the sinner. Sunday schools had not become a recognized feature of the church and but little thought was given to religious education and training by the church. The minister christened the babies, married the young people and buried the dead, but otherwise, with numerous preaching services, he was unable to do much pastoral work. A large proportion of the rural churches were located in the open country and like the district school were largely neighborhood churches, for bad roads and horse-drawn vehicles made it difficult for people to go over two or three miles. In many cases several churches were established in a single village or in nearby neighborhoods by different denominations and were largely supported by home-missionary aid contributed by the older churches in the East and the wealthier city parishes. Prior to the Civil War when most of our population was engaged in farming and before the exodus of the last half century to the towns and cities, most of the rural churches were fairly well attended, but with the recent decline in rural population, many of them, and particularly those in the open country, have faced the same situation as the district school in that there are now too few people to make possible the economic support of a pastor and church building.

Furthermore, it must be recognized that the standards of rural people have changed as regards the church in the same way that they have concerning the school. When all of the people have had a common school education, many of them have had high school training, a few have been to college, and many of them now and then visit the larger churches of towns and cities, they are no longer satisfied with the occasional preaching of an uneducated man, however religious and earnest he may be. The Sunday school has become an established part of the work of the church and as people have appreciated the value of education in secular affairs, they have come to place more hope in the religious training of their children than in merely saving them by sudden conversion. The church is becoming more and more an institution for the training and expression of religious life rather than only a place for preaching. Moreover, the church now has to meet the competition of other institutions and interests which did not exist in the earlier days. The grange, the lodge, organizations of all sorts, moving pictures, athletics and automobiles, furnish means of association and command the interest and support of the people, where formerly there was only the church for the righteous and the tavern or the saloon for the convivial.

All of these and other factors have conspired to weaken the relative influence of the church in our rural communities and the situation has become so serious in many sections that it has challenged the attention of denominational leaders. During the past fifteen years there have been a series of careful studies of the condition of the rural churches in various parts of the country. These studies have given indisputable evidence of the conditions responsible for the decline of the rural church and of the measures which must be taken if the religious life of the rural community is to be adequately fostered; and they have clearly shown that the problems of the rural church must be solved from the standpoint of meeting the religious needs of the rural community rather than that of the interests of the individual church. In the older parts of the country, and--alas--far too frequently in the newer sections, the most serious obstacle to the religious life of the community is an unnecessary number of churches, which divide its limited resources both of funds and leadership. Overchurching is more largely responsible for the decadence of the rural church than any one factor. Small congregations are unable to support a full time pastor, and where several of them are competing in a small community, it is deprived of the services of a resident minister. Preaching once in two weeks and practically no pastoral visitation are not conducive to the life of a church. The small church maintains its Sunday school with difficulty for there are too few of any one age for a satisfactory division of classes. Equally serious is the fact that the ablest men will not enter the ministry to devote themselves to what they regard as an unnecessary and unchristian competition.

Tompkins County, where I live, is a fair average of rural New York. A recent survey shows that but eight of its twenty-eight rural communities have full time resident pastors, though there are ministers residing in twenty-five parishes who also serve other parishes nearby. Throughout the county there was one church for every 332 people, but the average village church had but 92 active members, and the average country church had but 32. The church membership has remained practically stationary for thirty years, while the attendance has decreased from 21 percent of the rural population in 1890 to 14 percent in 1920. One community of 900 population had five churches, no one of which had a resident pastor or over 45 members, while two of them had but 11 members each and were closed. Six strictly rural communities in the southern part of the county have 16 churches, though none of these places can properly support more than one church with a resident pastor. After a careful study of the whole county, I am of the opinion that if at least one-third of the rural churches were abandoned or combined, the work of the church would be greatly strengthened. This county is cited because it is fairly typical; many worse have been reported in other surveys.

Another handicap of the rural church is the frequent shift of ministers. In Tompkins County only 4 of the 57 churches have had the same pastor for ten years, 17 changed pastors three times in ten years and 17 of the pastors had been in their parishes one year or less. When a minister stays but a year or two, his parishioners tend to be only acquaintances and rarely does he really know them. A minister cannot become well enough acquainted with a new parish to do effective pastoral work in less than a year, and many ministers who have seemingly good programs of work fail to realize them because they attempt to force progress and to secure results more rapidly than is possible. One of the chief duties of the rural pastor is to train leadership. A church is no stronger than its permanent resident leadership. No matter how brilliant the work of the minister, if he has failed to develop local leadership, his work is soon dissipated when he leaves. Now leadership cannot be produced in a year or so and where it is most needed it requires several years to discover and develop it. Unfortunately much of this frequent shifting of rural pastors is directly due to ecclesiastical rule rather than to the needs of the local churches, though much of it results from meager salaries and sectarian rivalries which soon discourage a man who sees larger opportunities for service elsewhere.

Numerous studies of the actual condition of the rural church in many parts of the country all show the futility of denominational competition in maintaining two or three churches where only one is needed or can be supported. Furthermore, the present generation of young married people who desire the best religious influences for their children are no longer much interested in the theological or ecclesiastical differences of the various denominations, and they refuse to support them or do so under protest and with an apathy which makes effective church work impossible. As a result, there has been a strong movement in recent years toward the consolidation of rural churches and for the establishment of what are called "community churches." Although much effort has been given toward getting denominational boards and leaders to form state federations for promoting inter-denominational comity, and although notable progress in this direction has been made in a few states, particularly in Maine and Vermont, yet the chief impetus to the community church movement has come from the people themselves, who have insisted upon a combination of the local churches often in spite of ecclesiastical indifference or opposition. The lack of coal in 1918 induced many churches to hold their services together and in many cases gave an impetus to the idea of their permanent federation.

The term community church has come to be applied to various forms of churches, but whatever its form, its fundamental purpose is the service of the community rather than the advancement of a particular denomination and it admits all Christian people to its fellowship, in contrast to the exclusiveness of the purely denominational church which insists upon the importance of particular theological beliefs or systems of church government.

As the term is now used a "community church" may be a church definitely affiliated with some denomination, it may be a "federated" church, or a "union" church. The union church is unaffiliated with any religious denomination. If it be the only church in a community, it is then a community church, but if one or two others decline to unite, it is a _community church_ only in aspiration. It is this type of independent union church, to which the term community church is most commonly applied by the laity, and such community churches have increased rapidly in the past five years as a protest of the people against denominational competition and inefficiency. These independent community churches have now become so numerous in one or two states that they are holding state conventions. The question at once arises whether if they become affiliated in even the most nominal manner they will not soon constitute what will practically be another denomination and will fail to effect the growth of Christian unity which they desire. On the other hand, denominational leaders who are in entire sympathy with the abolishment of competition and the establishment of but one church in a rural community where only one is needed, point out that the union church loses the advantages of affiliation with a body of churches which have regional and national boards and agencies for giving them assistance and support in their work. The history not only of church but of all sorts of secular organizations, indicates that sooner or later local organizations with common aims and purposes tend to get together in conventions and to establish federations through which they may unite their resources in maintaining agencies to promote the common cause. Most organizations, whether religious or secular, need the stimulus of association with kindred organizations devoted to the same purposes and the help of expert supervision which can be secured only from state or national bodies.

The "federated church" obviates this difficulty to a certain extent. Each of the federating churches maintains its own corporate identity and its affiliation with its own denomination, to which it sends its contributions for benevolences and denominational work. The federating churches form a joint organization for the employment of a minister and use the same building, or use two buildings in common--sometimes one for church and one for Sunday school services or social purposes,--and the church is a community church for all practical purposes. In the long run this usually results in a federated church finally affiliating with the denomination which is preferred by the large majority of its membership and which is least objectionable to the minority.

Denominational leaders, on the other hand, hold that neither "union" or "federated" churches will be permanently satisfactory, but that the community church, though organized on the "federated" principle, should be definitely affiliated with some one denomination, and that a single denominational church which effectively serves the whole community may be truly a "community church."

Whatever the outcome of this movement may be it has forced the recognition of the fact that the religious welfare of the rural community should be the first consideration and that denominational relations must be conceived as a means rather than an end, as has commonly been the case heretofore. When country people have learned the advantages of consolidated schools and of coöperation in marketing, and have developed the ability to work together in these and other phases of community life, they are no longer content to waste their energies in maintaining feeble churches, whose differences no longer command their loyalties, and they very naturally desire to bury their religious differences and to coöperate in the maintenance of a single church which will give that inspiration and dynamic to all the life of the community which can be furnished only through the religious motive. So in religion as in other phases of life, the community idea is replacing the older individualism.

We have already noted the change of emphasis in the work of the church from that of merely holding a preaching service for the personal salvation of adults, to a greater reliance upon the power of religious education through the Sunday school and other organizations of young people. When Sunday schools were first started, a century or more ago, they were bitterly opposed by many of the more conservative church people. To-day they are a recognized part of all protestant churches, but oddly enough their advancement has been due more largely to the work of the laity than to that of the clergy, although there can be no question that church membership is most largely recruited from the Sunday schools. Thus in our survey of Tompkins County, New York, we found that out of 175 persons admitted to the rural churches on confession of faith, 61 of whom were adults and 114 children, 134 were previous members of the Sunday school.

The rural Sunday school in the small church has the same difficulty as does the district school, in that it has too few scholars of approximately the same age to form classes of sufficient size to command their interest and enthusiasm. Likewise it is forced to depend upon untrained and frequently-changing teachers. Although there has been a marked advance in the grading and organization of Sunday schools and of the literature for their study, yet there is a growing conviction that a period of twenty minutes a week is inadequate to secure effective religious education. On the other hand, although the separation of church and state in this country prevents the giving of religious instruction in our public schools, educators have come to recognize its importance in the education of the child. As a result there is now a definite movement for the organization of week-day schools of religion. When these schools are conducted by trained teachers and their work is of an educational standard satisfactory to the public schools, the pupils are given credit for their work toward promotion in the public schools. The State of New York has enacted definite legislation permitting the schools to dismiss those pupils whose parents so desire, for a definite period each week when they may attend whatever school of religious instruction their parents may designate, and for which the public schools shall give credit when satisfactory as to educational methods. Such week-day schools of religious instruction have been carried on in some of our cities for several years, and at the present time are being introduced into rural communities in various sections of the country. Sometimes each church maintains its own school, but inasmuch as this movement is usually promoted by the inter-denominational Sunday school associations the tendency is to secure the coöperation of all the protestant churches in establishing one school for the community. This movement is still young, but if it makes the progress which now seems probable, it should be a powerful agency toward the elimination of weak churches. It makes possible the organization of graded classes of sufficient size so that a real group spirit and interest are created and the instruction can be given with the same pedagogical efficiency as in the public schools. Obviously the success of the movement will depend upon the degree to which it can command the support of the whole community and it will thus tend to strengthen community life.

A new attitude toward the social life of its people is also having a large influence upon the program of many rural churches. Formerly religion was one thing and sociability was another, and the church felt no responsibility for the recreation of its people. Gradually church suppers and sociables became customary, but they were held either to raise money or as a means for attracting outsiders into the fold. In the days when money was scarce in the rural community it was often difficult to raise the pastor's salary. Much of his salary was paid in kind, and annual "donation parties" contributed a considerable share of his living. But as markets developed and farmers came to sell most of their products for cash, money became more plentiful and it became evident that no church can be maintained upon a sound business basis which does not make up an annual budget and raise it by the direct contributions of its people. Putting the finances of the church on a business basis has removed the need of church suppers for raising funds, but their social value has become so apparent that they are now held merely for the better acquaintance and enjoyment of the church people. In so far as the social life of the church has been consciously planned as a "bait" for outsiders to attract them into the church, it has, in the long run usually been ineffectual. Too often the motive has been so thinly veiled and the program of the social hour has been given such a religious atmosphere that outsiders very naturally take a defensive attitude, and although they may enjoy the occasion they are perfectly aware of its ulterior objective.

Recently, however, the church has come to appreciate that play and recreation are a normal and necessary part of the life of its people and that it cannot abolish the saloon and condemn certain amusements without incurring a responsibility to provide, or to see that there is provided, satisfying facilities for recreation and sociability. In short, it is coming to recognize that a social program should be undertaken because it is a worthy service and a real need of the people and not as a mere means to other ends. Furthermore, where the church generously sponsors a social program which is enjoyed by all the people of the community, without thought of its being aimed at any proselyting, many of them come to take an increased interest in the strictly religious services and work of the church.

So to-day many a rural church is holding community sings, its young people are staging amateur dramatic entertainments, its boys have a troop of boy scouts and the girls join the girl scouts or the camp-fire girls, baseball and basketball teams are formed from the Sunday school classes, the men have a club which meets once a month for the discussion of current topics and a supper, the women come together for sewing parties, and the whole people assemble for suppers and for the celebration of national holidays and festival occasions. In a small village in western New York the four Sunday schools have recently formed an athletic association which has erected a one-story gymnasium in which the boys can play basketball and all can find enjoyment.

One of the handicaps of the average country church is that its building is not adapted to social purposes, although the newer buildings are being constructed with better facilities. Sometimes this need is being met by erecting a separate church house which is used for Sunday school and social purposes. Where there is more than one church it is frequently felt that one building may serve the needs of all and so in many communities the churches have united in the promotion of community buildings to serve as social centers for all the people. Thus in its social as well as in its educational program the church finds that a satisfactory social life cannot be secured through sectarian competition, but that by united effort the churches may meet the community needs.

Although in the past the chief duty of the country minister was to preach on Sunday, yet those most beloved and most successful in building up strong churches have won the hearts of their people more largely through their pastoral work, through their personal acquaintance and influence on the lives of families and individuals. Although a broader educational and social program is needed in the rural church, there is an equal opportunity for a larger service through a new sort of pastoral work by the minister who can serve the community as a social worker. There is an impression that there is no need for so-called social work, for the expert assistance of the poor, the neglected, the delinquent, and the mentally defective, in most rural communities; that this may be necessary for the city slums, but that there are but few such people in the open country. But the recent work started during the war by the Home Service of the local chapters of the American Red Cross and the work of various child welfare and health organizations have shown that country people are not always aware of the needs of some of their not distant neighbors, and that there is a deal of service which might be given the more unfortunate members of the average rural community which they are not now receiving. The average rural community cannot support a paid social worker and needs but part of her time, while the county is usually too large an area for her to cover. Why should not the rural minister be qualified to do much of the family welfare work of his community, calling in outside expert assistance when needed? What better pastoral work could he do, and yet how many rural pastors are doing this sort of work in any intelligent sort of fashion, and how many families in need, outside of his own membership, would turn to the average rural minister for help? Dr. C. J. Galpin has well said of the rural minister that "he is the recognized community psychologist and sociologist." The trouble is that although he is often so recognized, he is usually an amateur rather than a professional. Obviously, as a doctor of souls, the village pastor should be the local "social worker" of every rural community, but if he is to so serve he must first be trained so that he can bring to bear a knowledge of social science upon the problems of the families with which he deals. An average rural community can hardly afford more than one pastor with such qualifications, and it is evident that he would need to give his whole time to one parish. Such a modern representative of the old "curé" of the medieval parish could give real spiritual service to many a rural family which the average rural church never reaches, and he would be a real father to his people.

Finally, and most important, we must recognize that no other institution can take the place of the Christian church as a source of those ideals of life which give religious sanction to loyalty to the common good--to the community--rather than to self or particular interests. The ideals of its Founder who conceived the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man as the norm of human relationships, and who thought man's relation to man should be the expression of his loyalty to their common Father, will ever furnish the strongest spiritual dynamic for the best community life, for the whole community movement is but one means toward the realization of His ideal of the Kingdom of God on earth. Indeed so keen a mind as the late Professor Josiah Royce has interpreted the spirit of the early church and the ultimate aim of Christianity as that of "the beloved community."[52] Though it may require new equipment and new methods to meet the changed conditions of modern life, the mission of religion to interpret the highest values of life will ever make it the motive force of community life, the heart of the community. As Dr. E. DeS. Brunner has well said, "The aim of the country church movement is not to substitute anything for the Gospel. It is to assist in expressing the best religion of the ages in terms of the best spirit of the age."[53]


[51] "The Evolution of the Country Community," p. 63. Boston, The Pilgrim Press, 1912.

[52] Cf. "The Problem of Christianity."

[53] "The Country Church in the New World Order," p. 39.