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The Rural Church As A Social Center

There have been a number of recent articles and books that seem to indicate the belief that the rural church is to be the social center of the rural community. As this view is held by many of the clergymen themselves, it indicates a point of view that is hopeful. The rural church might be the very best social center that the country could have, for it offers not merely a social opportunity, but an appreciation of spiritual values and a sense of social service. t is to the advantage of the church to become such a center, for the rural surveys seem to show that in general only those churches that are organizing the social life of their communities are growing. It is a proper work for the church, for the hired man and the farm boys are falling into dissipation from the lack of legitimate amusements. The farmers and their sons and daughters are leaving for the town and the city, there to be subject to many temptations for which they are not prepared, and to clog the wheels of city progress by their conservatism.


Jesus said, " Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." In the epistles we are told in various places that the test of Christianity is the spirit of brotherly love. If it be the pur- 1 pose of Christianity to promote human brotherhood, or, in more common terms, real friendship among men, then it is no less the duty of the church to promote sociability and friendliness than it is to hold church services. It is impossible for men to love each other unless they know each other unless they meet together in frequent social intercourse. If Christianity is applied love, the duty of the church is the development of love. This is the task of religious education of the church and of the individual Christian. But the numerous churches have often split the community in pieces rather than cemented it together.


The time for the doctrinal sermon is past. Any live minister ought to have something to say to his people as a father would to his children ; but neither Jesus himself nor any of his contemporaries ever looked upon his mission as essentially that of preaching. He was called the Great Physician, the friend of publicans and sinners. It was said of him that he went about doing good. The minister ought to be the social organizer and spiritual counselor of his flock. It should be his aim to bring to pass the kingdom of heaven upon earth, or, in other words, to promote the spirit of love and the deeds that spring from love.


It is needless to say that the country church has not conceived of its duty in this way. There is no question, also, but that the church in the country is at present in a decadent condition. The Reverend E. C. Hayward in his book on " Institutional Work for the Country Church " says :

Conditions have greatly changed in the last few years. But few country churches can be said to be in a flourishing condition; the majority are barely holding their own, some are losing ground, all are struggling heroically for life ; but the tide is against them, something must be done.

In the studies that were made under the Department of the Church and Country Life of the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States it was found that sixteen hundred rural churches in Illinois, seven hundred fifty in Missouri, six hundred in Tennessee, etc. had been abandoned in the last ten years. t is estimated that there are ten thousand abandoned rural churches in the country as a whole. There are probably thirty or forty thousand more that should be abandoned in order that rural parishes may be consolidated as we are now consolidating rural schools. But this is not what has taken place with these churches ; they have been simply given up from lack of support.


This can only mean that the rural church is not rendering, on the whole, a vital service to rural life. The church survey also discovered other interesting facts. In one county of Indiana seventy-six churches were found. Of those among this number that were organizing the social and recreational life of their people, sixty-five per cent were found to be growing in membership. Of those that were not organizing the social and recreational life only twelve per cent were found to be growing. In other counties, out of two hundred fifty-six churches that were not organizing any form of recreation only one was found to be growing. It is evidently good policy for the church to take this work seriously.

We have several shining examples of what such a church can do. The Reverend Matthew McNutt of Plainfield, Illinois, is one of the best-known examples. He came from the McCormick Theological Seminary to a dying country church twelve years ago. He first organized a singing school, which brought the young people into the church one night a week to sing. t soon developed that there were several good voices, and out of this singing grew a boys' quartet, a girls' quartet, several soloists, and a good chorus for the church. After this a gospel chorus was organized that met around at the houses of the members. A considerable part of these evenings were given to sociability and became very popular among the young people. This built up at once the church attendance and the choir. A series of sociables were planned and held at the different houses of the neighborhood. No charge was made, but light refreshments were served free. These developed a spirit of good-comradeship among the young people. There was a missionary circle for the girls, which was largely social, and an athletic club among the boys. An annual home-coming and picnic was arranged for, and a series of extension lectures and entertainments were given in the winter.

Since Mr. McNutt came to this pastorate twelve years ago the church has erected a new ten-thousand-dollar edifice, which was paid for as soon as completed. The pastor's salary has been raised forty per cent, and more than six thousand dollars has been given in the last five years to outside benevolences. Practically every one in the countryside belongs to the church. This church is out in the open country, six miles from the nearest railroad or trolley line. It is not far from Chicago, Joliet, or Aurora, yet almost none of its young people have left the farm to seek city life. During his entire pastorate there only one young person in the neighborhood is known to have gone wrong.

The Reverend Mr. McNutt says :

When a church once gets a reputation in a community of helping the helpless, for befriending the friendless, for showing mercy to the poor, for rendering a cheerful, loving, helpful service to all in need, there is no question about its becoming a church full of life a church that will command the respect, the cooperation, the support of everybody.

The great trouble with the church in the past has been that it has been ministering to itself, seeking to run a " gospel ark " for its own members, without feeling that it owed any duty of service to the community as a whole. The reward of both men and institutions is in close proportion to the service they render.

The Reverend Anton T. Boise, in reporting on his survey of rural conditions in northern Missouri, says :

The strongest country church that I found was one where for more than twenty-five years it had been the custom of the young people to go off together every Sunday after church or Sunday School to some one place for dinner and a good time and also to meet together at some home once or twice a month, during the week. In that community I was told by two different men whose word I think I can trust that for twenty years there had not been a case of a girl going wrong, and that none of the young men or boys had ever been known to be drunk.


The things that have been spoken of in the way of recreation and sociability are not difficult to organize. The young people in the country are eager for such opportunities and only too glad to respond. Almost any girls' Bible class can be organized into a social club to meet on some evening or afternoon during the week. t is easy to turn a boys' class into a baseball team or a Boy Scout patrol. The task of social organization is in some ways much easier in the country than in the city, because there is a lack of other attractions there. In the city any organization that may be formed will have to bid against the moving-picture show, the theater, the dance hall, the pool room, the cheap excursion, parks, play-grounds, etc. There is no lack of society in the city, but in the country there are none of these counter attractions, and there is a hunger for companionship. The entire problem of rural recreation might well be turned over to the church, if every country church had and could support a pastor like the Reverend Mr. McNutt. But this is far from being the case.

Probably country churches need to be consolidated even more than rural schools. They have often created a most unchristian spirit in country neighborhoods, and have some-times been kept alive largely by the frictions and spirit of strife which they stirred up. They have divided the community up so much that it has been impossible to get an audience at any one church or to raise enough money to support the minister. The country community needs sadly a community center. The centralized church, such as the one at Plain-field, is probably the best center possible.


The country church is at the present time without a pastor. In the study of the churches of northern Missouri it was found that ninty-two percent of the country ministers had four or more churches, and that the remaining eight per cent had two or three churches. There was not a single minister who was giving all his time to one country church. All but three of these ministers lived in the towns and not in the open country at all ; ninety-two per cent of the churches were what are known as three-hour churches; that is, they had two preaching services one Sunday a month. Such churches, of course, have no pastors. It is impossible for this absentee preacher to minister to the social needs of his flock. He is not a minister or a pastor, but only a preacher. This condition is as disastrous to the country spiritually as absentee-landlordism is industrially.

Again, many of the country preachers are not highly educated ; they have not the requisite social interest or training or breadth of view to organize its social life.

All the signs seem to indicate that a better time is coming to the country church. Many of the leaders of thought are alive to the problem. The seminaries are beginning to give training. The rural-life conferences and summer courses for country ministers are giving direction to the movement. But it will be a generation, probably, before this condition can be remedied.


How far is it possible for the church to organize the social life of the community without a resident pastor ? It is purely a question of leadership. Social leadership is always inadequate in the rural community, but if the country churches would conceive of this as a duty that they owe to the community, and to themselves as Christians, and to the church, they might do much, and the church would get an increasing support from the community that might enable it soon to maintain a pastor.

Nearly all country churches are doing something at the present time. Even the ordinary preaching services are social occasions more or less. The Reverend Mr. Boise says :

I was talking not long ago with a very intelligent seventeen-year-old boy, the son of a well-to-do farmer. I asked him what recreations there were for himself and his friends. He thought a minute and then answered, " Well, there is church on Sunday, and then there is Sunday school " but he had trouble in thinking of anything else.

Most churches have also oyster suppers and strawberry festivals in order to raise their share of the minister's salary. These are held selfishly by the church for its own ends, but they serve as valuable social occasions for the countryside nevertheless. Some of these events were, I remember, among the largest events in my own childhood.

Probably the largest, and often the only, social service the church is rendering is represented by the Woman's Missionary Society, which frequently meets and sews for the sick or the poor of the neighborhood. Probably the service which the women render to themselves and to each other, by meeting together in a social way, is no less than their service to the sick or the poor, but they do not usually think of this side, and render their work unselfishly. t is to be feared that there is a good deal of gossip at these meetings, and that there is not as much intellectual stimulation as there should be. But however conducted, they are worth while, as they are often the only social gatherings of any kind the farm wife attends. If the rural church will only see the value of these things, it will be possible for almost any church congregation to hold several good free sociables during the year, which will be a boon to the young people who want to get together, and will be sure to create a spirit of friendliness toward the church.

Any capable teacher of a young men's Bible class can organize his class into a baseball team or a Boy Scout patrol to meet at some time during the week, and this will be good for the boys and good for the Sunday school. A good deal of this is already being done, as Mr. West, Chief Scout executive, estimates that eighty-five per cent of all scout patrols are organized in connection with Sunday schools. At least twenty-five per cent of the scout masters are ministers.

In the same way it would not be difficult for any capable teacher of a Sunday-school class of older girls to organize them into a missionary or other band that would meet once a week or once a month for discussions, sewing, and sociability.

It is believed that a realization of the value and the need of social life is getting abroad in the country communities, and that we may expect more and more from the church in the way of the organization of recreation and sociability along all of these lines. The results will not, however, be satisfactory until the rural church can get a pastor, and a pastor who conceives that he owes a duty of service to the community as a whole. With such a pastor the country church will assume a new importance in the rural community, and nearly all will become members. His preaching will be a by-product of a life of service, but it will be better and more effective preaching.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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