By Patrick Bowler
Valley Life Church (Lebanon, OR) 

In a previous post, I mentioned that rural communities can look as different from one another as metropolitan communities do. I utilized the idiomatic expression, “Comparing apples to oranges” to emphasize the dangers of applying a one-size-fits-all canvassing of any particular cultural compartment. In the particulars, one size does not fit all. However, some similarities can be found. I am repeating myself here to reiderate my disclaimer regarding the nuances of rural America before moving into to a piece that would seem to suggest the contrary. There have been some significant cultural trends in the last one hundred years that, from a five-thousand foot view, could shed some light on the condition of rural America as well as continue to stir the vision for church planting in small town, USA.

Out-Migration and Rural America in the Twentieth Century

For much of the last century, rural America experienced consistent population loss.[1]  The primary contributor was credited to what sociologists call “out-migration.”[2] People were moving out of small-town America and heading for the city. The city certainly offered new opportunities for our aspiring, dream seeking young people but personal preference was not the only motivator behind the exodus. Employment opportunities in rural communities were diminishing.

Take farming for example. At one point, the farming industry was one of the primary employers in rural America, but automation changed that.  Mechanization rendered the employee nearly superfluous.  Unable to keep up, smaller family farms were forced to close up shop due to the increase of corporate “mega farms.” These larger farms were able to utilize equipment that maximized production while reducing labor costs. Smaller farms struggled due to their lower production levels and higher labor costs. Add to that increased government regulations on agriculture over the years and the small farms were pretty much finished off. Larger farms, though not unaffected, were able to comply to the more stringent laws and still come out ahead while smaller farms could not. The only choice for many during much of the 20th century was to leave the country for the big city. Many questioned whether or not small-town America would even survive this trending depopulation. Turns out, she would do more than survive.

“Rural Rebound”[3]

To the surprise of many, the depopulation trend of rural America came to a sudden stop in the early 1970s. Sociologist Dr. Kenneth Johnson of Loyola-University in Chicago credits “Demographer Calvin Beale (1975) of the US Department of Agriculture” as “the first to identify this ‘rural turnaround.’”[4] Johnson states, “In all, more than 80 percent of the counties then defined as rural gained population in the 1970s. In fact, the rural population growth was so great that it actually exceeded growth in metropolitan areas—an occurrence virtually without precedent in the nation’s history.”[5] He goes on to say that what makes these findings so surprising is that “Traditionally when the rural population grew, it had been because births exceeded deaths… but the rural turnaround of the 1970s was fueled primarily by people moving into rural counties from American cities… In all, some 2.5 million more people moved from metropolitan areas to rural areas than moved in the opposite direction.”[6] These numbers are truly amazing and though in the decades that have followed the numbers have lagged; the general trajectory has been upward.

This current population turnaround in rural America is truly a phenomenon that is leaving sociologists scratching their heads and returning to the proverbial drawing board. Ron Klassen and John Koessler, in their book, No Little Places, pose an important question, “If farm population is decreasing but small-town population is increasing, then who is living in small towns today?”[7] That is a good question. If what Johnson says is correct, that today only “6.5 percent of the rural labor force is engaged in farming,”[8] what accounts for the population growth?  In his book, Small Town Bound, John Clayton addresses the new face of rural migration. He writes:

Everything about this migration is new, not just the direction. In fact, if you’re part of it, you’re part of the hottest demographic trends in the country. In analyzing the trend, sociologists pointed out two unique factors. The first is motivation. In the past, people moved from rural areas to cities to improve their economic or cultural opportunities. Or they moved from one metropolitan area to another… because of the demands of a career. But today, people are moving away from the cities for a host of other, interconnected reasons. These reasons are frequently summed up in the phrase “quality of life.”…

The second unique factor is the demographic diversity of the new migrants. It used to be that young people left rural areas to start life in the city. But the faces of migration are changing.[9]

[1] Kenneth Johnson, Demographic Trends in Rural and Small Town America (Durham, NH: Carsey Institute, 2006), p. 7.

[2] Ibid., p. 7. See also Patrick Carr, Maria J. Kefalas, “Hollowing Out The Middle,” (Boston, MA: Beacom Press, 2009), pp. 1-19.

[3] Tom Nebel, Big Dreams in Small Places (St. Charles, IL: Church Smart Resources, 2002), p. 13. Nebel credits Dr. Kenneth Johnson with coining the phrase, “Rural Rebound.”

[4] Kenneth Johnson, Demographic Trends in Rural and Small Town America (Durham, NH: Carsey Institute, 2006), p. 8.

[5] Ibid., p. 8.

[6] Ibid., p. 8.

[7] Ron Klassen and John Koessler, No Little Places: The Untapped Potential of the Small-Town Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), p. 58.

[8] Kenneth Johnson, Demographic Trends in Rural and Small Town America (Durham, NH: Carsey Institute, 2006), p. 7.

[9] Tom Nebel, Big Dreams in Small Places (St. Charles, IL: Church Smart Resources, 2002), p. 15. Citing John Clayton, Small Town Bound, p. 12.