An Inside Look at Urban, Suburban, and Rural Communities and Churches
An Inside Look at Urban, Suburban, and Rural Communities and Churches

By Kent Fillinger

To reflect the themes this month and next—urban ministry and rural ministry, respectively—I’ve written a two-part article that captures the present realities for both and adds some insights on suburban areas as well. I’ve examined our recent church survey data and other relevant research to identify notable differences and national trends for each type of ministry location.

I don’t intend to proclaim one location type as better than another, but rather to share some commonalities and differences based on research findings and facts from the larger story taking place in our country. My goal is to help churches and leaders in every location to be more intentional and strategic in their ministries.

More than 20 years ago, I read a book called The Issachar Factor. Its premise was based on
1 Chronicles 12:32: “All these men [from the tribe of Issachar] understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take” (New Living Translation).

It’s important for church ministers and members to be aware of the shifts taking place in our country today in order to respond and adjust ministry approaches needed to best serve their communities.

National Population Trends
For the 12 months that ended July 1, 2016, the U.S. population grew at its lowest rate (0.7 percent) since the Great Depression. One of the factors slowing the overall population growth is that the number of births hasn’t picked up as much as demographers expected following a sharp decline during the recession in 2007–09.

The population shift from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West continues. In the last two years, 1.15 million people have left the Northeast and Midwest. Utah was the fastest-growing state last year, gaining 2 percent, or 61,000 people. Last month, I noted that Vernal (Utah) Christian Church was the fastest-growing medium-size church with a growth rate of 25 percent. Texas added 433,000 people last year, which accounted for 19 percent of the country’s total population growth.

Fewer Americans moved in 2016 than in any year since the 1940s, when the U.S. Census Bureau started tracking such things. Last year, only 11.2 percent of Americans moved. By comparison, 21.1 percent of Americans moved in 1956. Moving is the most likely reason Americans look for a new church, according to Pew Research. Fewer movers may result in fewer first-time guests in your church.

The following states declined in population last year: New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois (which has seen an outflow three years in a row), West Virginia, Connecticut, Vermont, Wyoming, Mississippi, and Nebraska (which lost more people than any other state).

Another trend could impact your church. Chris Kirkham reported in the Wall Street Journal (December 22, 2016, A3),

Almost 40% of young Americans were living with their parents, siblings or other relatives in 2015, the largest percentage since 1940 [one year after the official end of the Great Depression]. The share of those between 18 and 34 doubling up with parents or other family members has been rising since 2005. Back then, before the start of the last recession, roughly one out of three [was] living with family. . . . The number of adults under age 30 has increased by 5 million over the last decade, but the number of households for that age group grew by just 200,000 over the same period.

Urban vs. Suburban
The percentage of the world’s 7.3 billion population living in urban areas continues to climb. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal (“Where the Mouths Are,” May 15, 2017, R2), the urban share of the population has risen from less than one-third in 1950 to 55 percent today; it is projected to top 66 percent in 2050.

The religious landscape in U.S. cities changes dramatically depending on where you live, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. For example, in New York City, Catholics are the largest religious group by far with 34 percent of the population. In that city, members of non-Christian faiths, such as Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, outnumber white evangelicals by a 6-to-1 margin.

Contrast those numbers with Portland, Oregon, where one in three people (34 percent) has no religious affiliation at all. Or with Nashville, Tennessee, where white evangelicals comprise the largest faith group with 31 percent.

In spite of growing global urbanization, the U.S. population remains largely located in suburban areas. Laura Kusisto wrote in the Wall Street Journal (“Suburbs Outstrip Cities in Population Growth,” December 3, 2016, A6),

Research shows that suburbs are continuing to outstrip downtowns in overall population growth, diversity and even younger residents. The suburban areas surrounding the 50 largest metropolitan areas make up 79% of the population of those areas but accounted for 91% of population growth over the past 15 years, according to the study. What’s more, three-quarters of people age 25 to 34 in these metro areas live in suburbs.

Our Research Findings
Our annual church survey asked churches to identify their site locations. The following five options were available to choose from (and multisite churches could identify more than one type of location): an older residential area in the city, a downtown or central area of the city, a newer suburb around the city, an older suburb around the city, or a small town/rural community.

Eighty-one percent of the churches surveyed identified only one type of location. This indicates that multisite churches with multiple locations are more similar than different. Only 2 percent of the churches had sites in three or more of the different location types.

Almost half (47 percent) of the megachurches were located in newer suburbs around the city. An additional one-fifth were in older suburbs around the city. For emerging megachurches, almost two-thirds (63 percent) reside in either a newer or older suburb around the city.

Overall, the churches were least likely to be located in an older residential area in the city (12 percent) followed closely by a downtown or central area of the city (13 percent). By comparison, 29 percent of the churches surveyed were located in a small town or rural community.

The three-year average growth rate for downtown churches was the best of any location type (4.9 percent). The churches in older residential areas had the second-best growth rate (4.6 percent). By comparison, churches in older suburbs had the lowest average growth rate over the last three years (2.3 percent).

Churches in older residential areas had the best baptism ratio (the number of baptisms per 100 people in attendance) with 7.3. Small-town or rural churches had the lowest baptism ratio at 6.5.

In next month’s issue, I’ll continue this two-part series with insights about rural churches.

Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.

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1 Comment

  1. Todd
    September 7, 2017 at 9:32 am

    “members of non-Christian faiths, such as Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, outnumber white evangelicals by a 6-to-1 margin”…”white evangelicals comprise the largest faith group with 31 percent”. Why only count whites in these comparisons? Why not include evangelicals of all races?

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