Four Reasons for Decline of Rural Churches

A rural church in the central China
A rural church in the central China
By CCD contributor: Li DaonanJuly 22nd, 2019

Recently, a joint meeting of several rural churches was held in central China, on a theme that the churches were to share resources in order to address the current plight of rural churches; urging to share preaching personnel, funds, theology and other resources, with the hope of resolving the hardship they face.

The rise of urbanization has brought about the aging of rural areas, which is reflected in rural churches in that the membership is mostly composed of the elderly, and there is a huge age gap due to shortage of intermediaries between the elderly and nursery children. The 36-99 age groups of the rural churches in the past may now end up being closer to 99, i.e. the elderly are numerous while the young are too few.

In rural churches, in addition to the gender and age ratio crisis, there is also a crisis in the serving teams as most young people have migrated to cities. Most of those who have ideas and have had theological training have left for cities, leaving a vacuum in theological and spiritual teaching to rural churches, to the extent that the churches do not serve holy communions and sermons for a long time.

Apart from the rising tide of urbanization, other reasons for the departure of young preachers include the decline in devotion brought about by the decline of young believers in rural churches, which has directly led to financial crisis in rural churches; the economic depletion means those churches are unable to pay salaries to missionaries to sustain their livelihoods. In the traditional rural church, under the mindset of "the poorer the more spiritual", rural preachers are suffering beyond words while there are preachers around them who migrate due to urbanization and tend to gradually get better off. So in view of this contrasting situation, rural preachers decide to leave the countryside for cities.

In fact, the rural church already has a crisis and the rise of urbanization simply makes this crisis more pronounced. Therefore, the idea of churches connecting with each other to share resources can only be described as wishful thinking in this crisis. The reason why this idea cannot be realized is directly related to the church's own view and understanding of the Gospel, and today's rural church crisis is the result of this view of the church and the Gospel.

1. The concept of a religious kingdom

The traditional church sees itself as a kingdom independent of the world, which is a religionized idea of Jesus' Kingdom of Heaven. According to Jesus' teachings, heaven is built in the heart and transcends the world. Heaven is also a growing process, so Jesus used many metaphors, such as mustard seeds or seedlings. So Jesus' kingdom of Heaven emphasizes a change of heart and transcendence beyond the world. Yet the traditional idea of the rural church is to realize the kingdom of Jesus directly on earth, and to put the church and the world in opposite and competing positions.

It is due to this kind of idea that the rural church is more concerned with the development of church entities so as to focus more on membership numbers, size or income from devotion, etc. In the church crisis brought about by urbanization, it rightfully hits the church's vital part, the decline of numbers, scale and devotion. So the crisis of the rural church is manifested in terms of its focus on entity, which is the result of the worldly kingdomization of Jesus' Kingdom of Heaven.

2. The dualism of holiness and worldliness

It is on the basis of the need for the kingdomization of the church that they deliberately widened the tension between the church and the world, placing the church and the outside world in positions of opposition and exclusion. To be a kingdom independent of the world, there must be clear boundaries between the two. The doctrine of the dualism is based on this need, from which it is generated and applied.

On the basis of this dualism, the church commits itself to its own kingdomization, i.e., to be busy with the goal of Christian familiarization, family and community Christianization, to the extent that its own resources are rarely applied to issues like social care, thus resulting in very low social effect from the church.

3. The flawed industrialization of the church

In addition to the above misconceptions, the church also has a tendency to industrialize. This industrialization comes from the church's view of itself as a business unit; in developing its size and influence with an investment-minded manner, hoping for profits from the congregation's devotion. This economic behavior manifests itself in rejection among churches, such as repeatedly avoiding stealing of each other's members.

In addition, the church's industrialization is reflected in its enthusiasm for attracting sponsorship, especially to the developed urban churches, and the fact is that those who pull sponsorship stakes can also receive substantial commissions.

It is industrialization that makes the church keen on improving its financial income, which is why many rural churches recognize reduced economic devotion as an important indicator of the church's decline.

The industrialization of the church has also led to privatization of the church, which is seen as one's own or even a family's business.

4. The atomization of the church

The mutual exclusion between churches, even between churches of the same denomination. Even churches whose leaders were classmates in the same seminary often stay mutually exclusive to each other. The reason for this exclusion is precisely the thirst for economic resources. In order to prevent the economic resources of their own church from coming under threat, the leaders reject members from other churches so as to avoid having their own members getting pulled away to those other churches.

Mutual exclusion between churches due to resource constraints has resulted in the atomization of the church's resources, making it difficult to share resources within the church as a whole. In addition, this mutual exclusivity portrays a negative image of the church towards society.

To sum up the above reasons, today's crisis in rural churches stems from the religionization of the Gospel. The conflict between Jesus and the upper echelons of Jewish society was rooted in the fact that Jesus' teachings threatened the real interests of the Jewish priests and the Pharisees, who sought their interests from the repentant people's sacrifices to the temple, thus making the Temple a market for trade; the Pharisees relied on the formulation and supervision of the Law to have complete control over ordinary Jews so as to raise their social status in order to share the proceeds of the temple's atonement with the priests. The idea of God to the priests and Pharisees is a religious model emphasizing the tradability of God's grace and monopolization of the brokering of transactions. Yet Jesus came to spread the Gospel not to the secular interests of reality but to the transcendence of the Gospel beyond worldly interests. This is the greatest difference between Jesus and the priests.

The way out for the rural church today is to return to the gospel of Jesus and make the church a tool for the gospel, not vice versa.

- Translated by Charlie Li


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