While Robert Wuthnow’s Small-Town America (Princeton University Press, $35) is about far more than religion, the sociologist of religion provides a compelling portrait of how faith and congregational life still impact town communities.
Wuthnow and his associates conducted interviews with a representative sample of 700 people across the U.S. seeking to understand the state of community life in small towns. They found that aging members are, not surprisingly, a key challenge– both for these congregations and their respective small towns as well. It follows that participants viewed these congregations as vitally important, fulfilling both social and spiritual roles. Churches are found to be more visible in small towns not only because they are less populated but also because there are more churches per capita in these areas than in more populated places.
Wuthnow additionally found that identification with small town churches is based more on life-long habits of participation rather than spiritual experiences or adherence to congregations’ beliefs (although the rate of attendance in small towns is only five percent higher in comparison to higher population cities). Lifetime religious habits are fostered by public pressure for loyalty (especially among community leaders and upscale residents who have a 15 percent higher attendance rate compared to their counterparts in larger population areas), which discourages congregational switching and engaging in ministry to outsiders. Faith also transcends particular congregations, with public mourning rituals and other social services done on a cooperative level.
These could include addiction and unemployment programs, as well as the creation of new congregational partnerships with those in developing societies.
But even such cooperation may be waning in small towns, particularly as more competitive non-denominational churches that may have less long-standing community ties have gained prominence. The large percentage of conservative churches in small towns may also make some towns likely targets of Christian right organizations’ activism This is another factor that may reduce community ties. Aside from potential division and aging members (and clergy), Wuthnow concludes that challenges to small town congregations include their tendency to resist mergers even when they are too small to operate on their own (and a smaller number of sister churches to provide assistance) and the need to adapt to greater ethnic diversity.