It’s not uncommon for area churches to engage in ministry work overseas, but now ministers are looking closer to home, wondering if small rural congregations can continue. The Rev. Dwight Dozier at Great Bend’s Encounter Church recently completed his master’s thesis, titled, “Population decline in rural America: A case for continued church planting and ministry investment.”
Dozier gave a brief program about this research recently at a Great Bend Rotary Club meeting, where he is a member. Dwight and his wife Dottie have been at Encounter Church (formerly Assembly of God) for 20 years and in ministry long before that.
“Our 44 years of ministry primarily has been in more rural settings,” Dozier noted. For his thesis, he looked at communities with a population under 10,000 people that are not in close proximity to an urban core. He asked, “in light of declining populations, does it make sense to plant churches or try to revitalize churches in rural communities, or should we just let them die?” Dozier concluded there is still a good case for revitalizing churches in rural communities.
Losing a community church can be as devastating as losing a grocery store, he noted.
“When a church closes in a small rural town, oftentimes there are no other viable options for the residents of that community to find spiritual nourishment that they need,” he said. “Every community deserves to have a healthy church, not just a building that occupies space on the corner.”
He said a healthy church is vital to the very survival of rural communities.
“There’s a social need that’s not being met because not only have churches closed, but movie theaters close, bowling alleys close, skating rinks close. There’s little opportunity for engagement for the young people and the young families that live in those communities. That’s one of the reasons why in rural America today, drug use, opioid use in particular, is higher than it is in many urban centers. Teen alcoholism is higher in rural communities than in urban centers by far and has been for a number of years. Along with that, there’s often not access to services such as counseling or treatment centers in rural communities.
“A healthy church provides some of those services. A healthy church provides opportunity for social interaction and interacts within the community.”
And even though pastors may not be licensed clinical counselors, churches often provide a place for people to receive counseling, he said. “Many pastors are very effective in helping people walk through issues in their life, in their marriages, and a healthy church provides an opportunity for that in places where those services are not available,” he said. “A healthy church provides spiritual guidance.”
Dozier’s church has an ongoing commitment to approximately 65 missionaries and ministries throughout the world. But now he sees a need closer to home.
This is something that his local congregation was already doing when he arrived, Dozier said. In 1996, they planted Iglesia de la Cosecha, a Hispanic Assemblies of God church, at Third and Frey Street in Great Bend. In 2007, the Great Bend church sent one of its staff pastors, Larry Schumacher, to help the Lyons Assembly of God Church.
“That church was on the verge of closing and we sent a team of people with Larry. That church was revitalized as a healthy congregation today,” Dozier said. “And then from 2006 to 2018 we did some limited work in Coldwater, Sterling, Greensburg and Kinsley, partnering with those churches to try to invest into their health and strength,” he said.
“In 2019, we partnered with Randy and Lisa Parr, and sent a team of 15 people to work with them for the first 90 days and then we had seven people that relocated in Ness City, to help them relaunch the Assembly of God church in Ness City, now called the Generations Church,” he continued. “That was a very successful venture, as we partnered with them both with financial resources and human resources.”
The year 2020 saw limited in-person meetings at churches because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Encounter Church was just returning to in-person services when the Assemblies of God district superintendent called Dozier and asked if he’d consider taking on the Sterling Assembly of God Church as a satellite.
The superintendent told him that the church was on the verge of closing. “Their pastor had kind of abruptly resigned and there were just a handful of people left in the church,” he said. “We were consumed with our own issues but I agreed that we would send people to fill the pulpit for them and pray about it.”
The result was the Encounter Church Sterling campus, where the Great Bend church has an ongoing commitment to help with administration and guidance.
What can be done to revitalize rural churches? Dozier found some root causes for decline that went beyond population loss. Although it is a challenge for all denominations, for Dozier’s research he turned to the Assemblies of God historical records in Kansas and focused on two dozen rural churches that closed between 1970 and 2020.
“I found some common denominators,” he said.
For the most part, the churches closed because of leadership issues, he said. Key issues were internal dysfunction or infighting and a general loss of vision.
“Oftentimes, we place more emphasis on our traditions and our preferences,” he said. “I think sometimes at the church we get settled into our own little circle and we overlook the opportunities that exist.
“We’ve got to be effective in reaching that market share, so we’ve got to find new ways of doing things.”
Dozier stresses emphatically, “The gospel message that God entrusted us to is sacred. But that’s the only thing that is sacred.”
However, he said, “If singing something besides 16th Century hymns will attract a younger audience while we maintain the integrity of the gospel message, or if setting in comfortable chairs instead of old rigid pews will somehow be a greater appeal, if having some light accents on the stage, etc., – whatever it takes, as long as the message stays intact, the conveyance of the message is what’s important. We must convey it in an effective manner to reach the culture that we’re in. God has entrusted that culture to us.”
The final reason Dozier found for a decline in rural church membership is shortcomings in pastoral leadership. The most effective pastors are committed to their congregations and have a vision for evangelism and making a connection with the next generation, he said.
“Ray Anderson, who wrote the book, ‘The shape of Practical Theology,’ said this: ‘Revitalization occurs when ... the mission of God emanates through the church into the community.’”