In my part of the Midwest, small-town populations are shrinking. Younger people are moving away, jobs are disappearing, and community services are hard to find. The decline has been going on for decades and is unlikely to be reversed in most communities. However, not all shrinking towns are the same. Some thrive even as their population shrinks. “Shrink-Smart” communities have something to teach congregations about how to thrive where population is declining.
According to research on rural towns by sociologists at Iowa State University, some shrinking small towns thrive in quality of life, as measured by the perceived quality of health care, public schools, housing, and local services. The study calls such communities “Shrink-Smart,” and places where the quality of life declines as population falls, “Shrink-Poor.”
Shrink-Smart and Shrink-Poor towns are similar in many ways:
- Geography does not seem to be a major factor. Shrink-Smart communities are often close to ones that are Shrink-Poor.
- Surprisingly, the two kinds of communities are similar in terms of employment. More people in Shrink-Smart towns work in agriculture jobs, but such jobs declined rapidly during the study. Shrink-Smart towns show faster growth in goods-producing jobs, but have fewer full-time and full-year jobs, slower job growth in other sectors, and slower growth of high-skill jobs.
- The proportion of minorities, elderly persons, or people with no high school degree are similar in Shrink-Smart and Shrink-Poor communities. Shrink-Smart towns have more children under 18, fewer single-parent families, and more college graduates.
- Shrink-Smart and Shrink-Poor towns are essentially identical in both income and income inequality.
The study did find that Shrink-Smart communities have a few key advantages:
- Shrink-Smart towns have stronger bridging ties, defined as ties between very diverse and unfamiliar people. (Bonding ties, which are emotional ties between very similar people such as family and close friends, were basically the same in the two kinds of communities, although rates of bonding ties were stable in Shrink-Smart towns while falling in Shrink-Poor towns.)
- Residents of Shrink-Smart towns are more engaged in groups within and outside the community.
- Shrink-Smart towns are notably more open. Residents rate their communities as safer, more trusting, better kept, and more open to new ideas. They are also slightly more supportive and tolerant of others, and those positive perceptions have grown stronger over the past two decades.
If we had a similar study of congregations, I think we’d find that some could be described as Shrink-Smart and others as Shrink-Poor. Certainly in most shrinking communities, some churches thrive while others suffer. The differences between Shrink-Smart and Shrink-Poor communities suggest that similar factors might be at play in congregations.
Congregations with strong bridging ties, for instance—willingness to form relationships with unfamiliar people—respond to decline in a smarter and more resilient way than other congregations. Even our most rural communities offer opportunities for bridging. I talked today to a colleague who, on a trip to see the “American Gothic” house, came across a soccer complex full of players from all over the world!
Congregations whose members stay engaged, both locally and outside the community, are more apt to thrive as membership declines. Some of the smallest congregations in my presbytery send members to El Salvador to work with sister congregations there. Those members return home with a fresh perspective on their church’s mission they could not have achieved easily by staying home.
Small congregations that work to stay open—to keep trust with one other by exposing themselves to new ideas about worship or hospitality or justice—find new and healthy ways to keep faithful even as their numbers fall.
We Can Do It
The rural sociologists who wrote the study think that Shrink-Poor towns can intentionally become Shrink-Smart. By seeking opportunities to reach out across dividing lines of class, race, ethnicity, and gender; by initiating projects that engage residents locally and beyond; and by making it a practice to support each other and consider new ideas, Shrink-Poor towns can break the cycle of despair and get smarter about dealing with a situation where many of the numbers go down rather than up.
All this is good advice for congregations, too—and not only in declining rural towns. Many urban and suburban congregations find themselves in situations where traditional church growth is an unlikely path. But when one path is closed off, another opens: by bridging, engaging, and working to be open, even shrinking congregations can find faithful ministry to do.