Lucille Street delicately moves her aged hands across a large black and white picture in the homemade photo album displaying her church’s history. About 30 men and women, fully dressed, stand shoulder to shoulder in a small lake in northern Boone County ready to submerge themselves in the sacrament of spiritual regeneration. As they emerge from the water, they believe they are passing through doors to a more religious, meaningful life. Around the lake stand nearly 100 townspeople, doing what people did in 1931 at Dripping Spring: watch the revival. Model T Fords line up behind the crowd.
During that era, rural churches were the focus of small towns, with services such as the summer revivals attracting major crowds. But they were also largely the only gig in town.
“You didn’t have anything else to do; you had to go to church,” said Street, a Dripping Spring Christian Church member whose brother stood in the lake on that revival day in 1931. “When I went to church back in the day, there were no ‘ifs’ or ‘thens;’ if your parents went, you went.”
A busy 89-year-old whose history with Dripping Spring predates the Depression, Street keeps the photo album in the new church kitchen that she helped pay for by selling quilts. Her eyes scan a list of financial expenses her quilting group paid for: $1,925 on the building loan for the new kitchen; $1,384 for a refrigerator and two stoves; $4,185 for the basement and sanctuary carpet; and $1,185 for a new roof.
“That’s a lot of sticking needles in fingers,” she said.
Street, who started the quilting group in 1988 when the church was barely able to cover its operating costs, is part of the economics of religion in rural Boone County. The handiwork by her quilting group has paid off by generating additional revenue as well as attracting new members, helping the church make it through to the next decade.
Dripping Spring, like so many other old rural churches, has evolved into something quite different from when it was first established about the time of the Civil War. Its original building, which once had separate entrances for men and women, is gone. But other rural traditions, such as outdoor baptisms, remain in place — at least in summer months.
Dripping Spring is not alone in its ability to adapt and survive.
When the Missouri Rural Church Study conducted its first survey in 1952, there were 547 congregations in a random sampling of 99 townships across Missouri. A half-century later, about 60 percent remain from the original survey conducted by the MU sociology department and the Missouri School of Religion.
It is not the loss of more than 100 rural churches that surprises some of the researchers involved in the study, which has taken place every 15 years since it began. It is the number of churches that have survived.
“To a certain extent, we expected the same things to happen to the churches that happened to the rural schools,” said John Holik, a retired MU sociology professor who is the only person left who worked on the first rural church study. “That never emerged.”
Urbanism, so the thinking went, would pull audiences away as it did to the rural schools and mom-and-pop stores. A more contemporary society would become less dependent on religion. Scientific methods would explain what the church once did. Movie theaters and malls would weaken the church as a community social focal point.
MU researchers, however, have found that a significant number of rural churches that remain across the state have experienced growth in recent decades. More than 40 percent of the 415 churches studied have increased membership since 1982 — and that even includes some churches in areas with declining populations.
Such growth has led observers to ponder why some rural churches have flourished over decades of cultural and societal change while others have passed away.
In what could almost be taken out of the pages of Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” Gary Farley, consultant to the Missouri Rural Church Study, describes a rural church’s natural selection: “The bulk of the congregations which have ceased to exist in the past half century are those which did not make the creative adjustments.”
Renovations, new services and facilities, more frequent Sunday services and female ministers all demonstrate the depth of rural church changes during the past century.
“It’s amazing how much change rural churches are willing to make,” said Harold Reisch, a pastor and former state legislator who has served at Dripping Spring and other small churches for the past 65 years.
Reisch, a businessman, said that small churches are similar to small businesses. Decisions are spread out in a way that is more democratic and less formal than larger churches. As such, rural churches can be more entrepreneurial and better able to respond to changing market conditions. Larger churches, he said, are set up more like a corporation with a CEO, top-down style of management that involves more bureaucratic structure.
In and around Boone County, many rural churches are thriving, spending millions in renovation and new construction and even drawing worshippers from Jefferson City and Columbia. The most recent survey from the Missouri Rural Church Study conducted in 1999 found that 9 percent of rural church members in Missouri commute 20 miles or more.
Although no rural churches from Boone County were included in the Missouri Rural Church Study, expenditures and congregation growth in some area churches show how some are far from simply surviving. Between 1993 and 2003, 13 churches in Boone County outside of Columbia’s city limits spent $3.2 million to remake themselves, according to figures from Boone County Planning and Building Department.
Former one-room rural churches such as Olivet Christian Church at Harg and the Hallsville United Methodist Church have built new and larger buildings, each worth half a million dollars or more. Others have modernized, adding kitchens or dining halls and offering day-care services.
Their congregations are also getting larger.
Olivet’s congregation doubled in size over the past decade from 100 to 200. Hallsville United Methodist has gone from 32 members to 131. Carrington Baptist Church, near Fulton in Callaway County, has grown seven-fold from 10 to 70.
Much of the growth, no doubt, can be attributed to sprawl and city dwellers moving to the country. Some rural locales are becoming suburbs or bedroom communities of Columbia and other cities, providing a new pool of potential members. Though these churches are outside Columbia’s city limits, some are close to becoming part of an urban setting as growth moves closer and closer.
“It’s tricky distinguishing a rural church from a suburban one. What may be rural this year could be suburban next year,” said Jere Gilles, a MU rural sociologist who worked on the latest round of rural church surveys in 1999. He believes that most of Boone County’s rural churches have grown, but suspects that, as in other parts of Missouri, some congregations are stable while others are declining.
Free markets and religious economics
Nationwide, pundits have been pondering the strength of religion in one of the world’s freest market economies.
Sociologist Peter Berger of Boston University, along with several other sociologists, once believed an increasing modern society would lead to a decreasing religiosity in the United States. But Berger has changed his mind. Now, he agrees with colleagues such as sociologist Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University who say that it is this country’s free markets that give strength to religion.
Finke thinks that the freer religious institutions are to compete for “consumers,” the more efficient such institutions will be at attracting demand.
U.S. churches are freer to respond to market conditions than churches in other countries. In the more secularized and regulated European countries, for example, churches have less freedom to evolve than those in the United States. Some European countries such as Germany and France, Finke said, deny “the ability to openly promote or try to recruit people into your religion.”
He also noted how some European countries subsidize certain religions and not others.
“So that means if you join a church that’s not a state church, not only do you lack sort of the legitimacy of that state church, but also the funding. So it’s a very costly act to join a nonstate church,” Finke said. In the United States, he said, it’s easier for churches to evolve with changing demands to attract new members.
Less traditional churches, Finke said, lack restrictions from within their church bureaucracy, unlike more traditional and mainstream denominations. One of the strongest growth areas in Missouri’s rural congregations over the past half-century has been denominations that are relatively young and less established compared to denominations such as Catholics and Methodists. This shows that the free-markets religious theory is working in Missouri’s religious economy, Finke said, as spiritual supply regenerates into something new to attract additional followers.
In addition, he said, rural churches have an edge over urban ones in terms of their ability to react to the market. “Rural churches are even more flexible than urban churches as regulations are less,” he said. For example, he said, rural churches often lack the land regulations that often govern urban churches.
Change or die
Building to accommodate modern expectations has become a rite of passage for many rural churches in keeping with the business maxim of “grow or die.”
“For the most part, the one-room rural church of 1952 has died, changed, or is in the process of dying,” Farley said.
Indeed, the rural churches in the Columbia area that are experiencing growth often have many of the amenities that modern families have come to expect such as day cares and kitchens.
Churches that are booming, such as Olivet, have replaced modest, one-room wood structures with much larger buildings that have central heat and paved parking lots.
“If churches don’t build, they may lose membership,” said Gilles. “In growing areas, people want a lot of amenities in their church, and that raises several issues.”
Change is inherent in growth, and that doesn’t always set well with long-standing members.
“If members are really fond of the church as it is, and they have to put on a big addition and a parking lot to attract people – there ends up being a lot of dissention about the amenities and financial burden that entails,” Gilles said.
As a result, churches can be forced to decide: expand in order to attract new members and risk alienating older ones, or stay the same.
Olivet Christian Church had plenty of internal debate before it decided to build. Members held numerous meetings at a variety of places before the congregation held a secret vote. In the end, 75 percent of the vote favored expansion.
“There are folks that are sad it’s not as small as it was,” said Lori Valleroy, 39-year-old preschool teacher who commutes to Olivet from Columbia. “You can get stagnant or you can say, here’s a wonderful opportunity to let other people hear about God, and that is what the majority decided they wanted.”
Growth, however, can come with a price. As congregations get larger, rural churches can run the risk of losing one of their most appealing characteristics: a sense of family.
Rural church members such as Valleroy often cite “togetherness” or “it feels like family” when describing its appeal. “Why I enjoy going to Olivet,” she said, “is that even though it is growing by leaps and bounds, you’re not just another face.”
A proposal by Billy Sapp to develop nearly 1,000 acres near Olivet would create hundreds of new homes, and there’s already talk among church members of further expansion.
Olivet, however, is finding ways to evolve – in a “small” way. The church, for example, has set up “mission families,” or groups of 20 to 25 families, who work together on things like Sunday morning greetings and setting up phone trees for births and health problems.
Keeping the community feel
Farther from Columbia, with a Sunday morning congregation of approximately 35, Dripping Springs has no problem keeping things small. New development is not as apparent there as it is near Olivet, and the commute from Columbia is twice as long.
Dripping Spring’s change has been less of a revolution than a gradual evolution.
That’s exactly what church member Sharon Fritts likes.
“You get to know everybody in a smaller church,” she said. “There seems to be more of a fellowship at a smaller church and everybody gets involved.”
Fritts and her husband Greg moved out to Dripping Springs from Columbia two years ago. They used to attend Fairview United Methodist Church on Chapel Hill Road that itself was once in a rural setting. The old one-room church, which still stands next to its modern counterpart, now serves as a preschool.
“Sometimes, in the bigger church, you don’t know the person sitting beside you,” Sharon Fritts said. “Here, you know everyone.”
Other members at Dripping Springs proudly mention Fritts and her family for injecting new life into graying pews.Their children and grandchildren followed the Frittses to Dripping Springs. Sharon Fritts revived the choir and Sunday school classes; her daughter-in-law, Nicole Fritts, revived the Christmas program.
The families live on interconnected parcels of land, not unlike the Dripping Springs residents did at the turn of the century. “We’re in hollering distance if you holler really loud,” Sharon Fritts said.
She believes rural churches such as Dripping Springs continue to draw members because they serve an important community niche in an increasingly individualistic society.
“People are coming along for that togetherness,” she said. “For a while, everybody was too busy, everything so individual, they didn’t get the involvement in the church – they’ve realized that it is more fun to be a part of a group.”
Shirley Fisher is a fourth generation member of Dripping Springs who recalls her one-room rural school where classmates pledged allegiance to the Christian flag. Fisher’s dad stood in the lake with Street’s brother for the baptism in 1931.
Fisher agrees with Fritts in terms of rural churches’ togetherness and family appeal.
“In some cases, I see people kind of coming full circle, and wanting to come back for the close relationships,” she said.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see if the rural churches do survive,” she said. Like the free market sociologists, Fisher, who runs an insurance business in Columbia, credits part of Dripping Springs and other rural churches survivability to financial flexibility.
When times are tough, she said, rural churches, unlike schools, have the ability to cut significantly back on expenses such as pastor salaries, services or administration to make it through to better times.
Holik, who made rural churches his area of expertise as an MU professor, also recognizes the role of financial flexibility in their survival. During the Depression, for example, Holik said that some churches could not pay their pastors — so they shared them. One pastor he interviewed in the Hannibal area ministered at 67 churches. Another one in the Kirksville area had 30 churches. Back then, Holik said, churches had even more flexibility than now with only one or two services a month.
Dripping Springs has depended upon part-time ministers throughout its history. Many rural churches of the same denomination share pastors or use interim pastors to keep costs at a minimum, Holik said.
Forward-looking business model
Reisch said a successful business model for rural churches going forward might look at what young people need, especially junior high and high school groups.
In Cairo, a small town of 700 about 40 miles north of Columbia, the Jacksonville Cairo Unity Christian Church built a gym for the community, he said. The church also offers a “sweetheart night out,” or babysitting services, that appeal to single parents, working parents and young parents without family to help.
At Olivet, where the congregation is noticeably younger than other rural churches, there are initial talks of building an extension such as a gym that would allow youth sports.
Several churches have recently created medical services. For example, Dripping Springs and Olivet have each begun popular “parish nurse” programs. Registered nurses in the congregation volunteer their time to check blood pressure and talk to members about their aches and pains.
Not every new church service or investment succeeds in attracting the next generation.
“Churches can have a life cycle,” Gilles said. Some churches, even in growing areas, may shrink if older members aren’t comfortable with change and are fine with letting their congregation fade away. Others may decide to invest in change only to find that they still can’t make it.
“The ones in growing areas that grow are the ones that really go out on a limb to expand their facilities,” Gilles said. “They may not make it, but somebody else may,” he said. “If they go under because they are overcommitted, then some other church will come along and buy the space. It will be used as a church.”