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Missouri Rural Churches Project

The Missouri Rural Churches Project is a joint venture of the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and the Missouri School of Religion-Center for Rural Ministry. The project is a longitudinal study of approximately 500 rural churches in 99 rural Missouri townships. These same congregations were surveyed four times, in 1952, 1967, 1982 and most recently during 1998-1999, by the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In addition, a second phase of the project included in-depth field studies of six rural townships.

Principal investigators are Jere Gilles, Dept. of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri; and Rev. Dr. John H. Bennett, Director, Missouri School of Religion. These researchers are presently writing a book based on the survey findings, directed toward those who are involved in congregations.

The second phase, a new component of the study, involves ethnographic research that examines the religious life of six rural townships, each representing a different rural context: a declining agrarian area, a persistent poverty area, an urban fringe area, a recreation/tourism area, a rural lifestyle area, and a corporate agriculture/immigrant ministries area. Mary Jo Neitz, Dept. of J Sociology, University of Missouri, is supervising the ethnographic phase of the Project. She and Karen Bradley, of Central Missouri State University, are writing a sociological book based on these case studies.

Preliminary Findings

The stereotype that many people hold about rural communities and churches is that they are in a state of decline. Our findings challenge the stereotype. We have found that rural communities are very diverse: there are greater differences among rural communities than there are between rural and urban areas. Because of this diversity, rural churches operate in a variety of contexts, and thus, there is no one "rural church" or one best way of "doing church." The case-study stage of the study has helped us to conceptualize a typology based on three kinds of church membership (declining, stable, and growing) and three kinds of township populations (declining, stable, and growing), making up the 9-cell table you see below.

For example, only 45 churches out of 402 churches, or about 11% of the sample, were included in the declining-church/declining township category. Even in townships with declining population (almost 40% of the sample), we found stable and growing churches. Thirteen percent of the total sample was made up of stable churches in declining areas and 15% of the sample was made up of growing churches in declining areas. Conversely, even in areas of population growth, there are churches with declining memberships. Five percent (n=20) of the sample was made up of churches with decreasing membership in areas of population growth.

Township Population

Church Membership






n=45 churches 11.2%

n=24 5.9%

n=20 4.9%

n=89 22.1%


n=53 13.2%

n--42 10.4%

n=43 10.7%

n=138 34.3%


n=60 14.9%

n=46 11.4%

n=69 17.2%

n=175 43.5%


n=158 39.3%

n=112 27.8%

n=132 32.8%


For more information about this project, go to their website at http://www.msr-crm.org.

For more information on rural church studies, visit http://ruralchurch.org.

For more information on the methods used to locate rural churches, go to the article by Zoey Heyer-Gray and Mary Jo Neitz titled Finding Rural Churches:  Methodological and Practical Consequences of Invisibililty.




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