Reaching and Revitalizing Rural America: Overcoming Misconceptions, and Answering the Call (Part 2)

In reality, rural America is in a perilous position — perhaps in greater danger of decay and decline than many cities.

Research shows that, regardless of geographic location, life-giving congregations and mission-minded, energetic churches that are active and engaged in their community are still needed in every rural county. A “Christian presence,” particularly one that is about nominal identity rather than engaged participation, is simply not enough in rural America. There is a need for church vitality with a missional focus. The so-called Bible Belt and other rural areas are not even close to reaching a gospel saturation point.

 

I recently wrote an article for Influence magazine with Tena Stone. Tena is director of research and training at OneHope, serves as a primary researcher for the Rural Matters Task Force in North America, and is part of a church plant in rural Georgia. It’s worth sharing here. God is on the move in rural communities, and it’s past time we acknowledge it and celebrate the work so many in rural ministry are doing. In Part 1, we gave an overview of the realities and talked about cultural homogeneity. Today, we talk about two more misconceptions about rural America.

Misconception #2: Idyllic Life

The second misconception is that rural America is doing fine, while the inner cities alone are in decline. Though the general population of rural communities is diverse, there are challenges that are increasingly pervasive and common among many of these people groups. This is due in part to national trends in population migration.

Over the past century, the U.S. has seen ongoing urbanization. In 1900, roughly 35 percent of the population lived in metropolitan areas. Today, that number is 86 percent. Urban sprawl has overtaken many formerly rural counties, transforming and reclassifying them. Fewer than 50 million people currently live in the 1,976 counties that remain classified as non-metro today, and the collective population within those counties is shrinking.

The result is a smaller American countryside comprised of slower-growing counties with a reduced and stagnant economic potential. Despite a resurgence of jobs and rising wages since the economic downturn of 2008, recovery in rural America is slower. In fact, rural employment rates remain below pre-recession levels.

A 25 percent decline in rural manufacturing caused 700,000 jobs to disappear between 2001 and 2015, with many of these jobs moving overseas. The jobs that do exist offer significantly lower salary rates than those in urban places.

Rural areas are also lagging in education and healthcare. Even as national education levels increase, there is a widening gap between the number of urban and rural dwellers with college degrees.

The Demographics Research Group at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia reports that since 1990, college graduates living at the center of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas soared by 23 percentage points, while in communities 30 miles away, the rise was merely 10 points. The gap grows as one continues to move further out from the city. This is due in part to the relocation of those who obtain degrees to find more economic opportunity.

Rural residents also tend to be older and sicker than their urban counterparts. When wealth and college graduation rates are lower in a community, it limits overall financial access to preventative healthcare. People with lower incomes simply don’t see a doctor when they are not (yet) sick. This is not the only cause of overall health decline, however.

After adjustment for age, we still see that the level of accidental deaths in rural areas is 50 percent higher than in cities. High-speed traffic-related accidents explain some of this, but so does opioid abuse and overdose deaths, which are highest among poor and rural populations.

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