Surprising poll results on attendance at small-town churches

Friday, July 27, 2012

We've all seen towns that have little more than a bar and a church -- perhaps we even live in one -- but one of those institutions isn't as important as it used to be, according to a new University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll.

Yes, the "church goin' small-town folk" stereotype is still mostly true, but not so much when the town has 500 or fewer people, according to the 17th annual Nebraska Rural Poll, which included church attendance and perceptions for the first time.

The problem, the poll seems to indicate, is the miles between churches, population and the age of residents.

While 75 percent of the poll respondents said they are members of a church, and 39 percent say they attend services at least weekly, those who live in or near towns of fewer than 500 were less likely to attend that often, 35 percent.

Pollsters guessed that the problem was a smaller number of churches, lack of the preferred denomination and the distance to church.

The sparsely-populated Panhandle showed the lowest church membership, 65 percent, compared to 78 percent in the Northeast and Southeast regions.

Not surprisingly, older people are more likely to be church members and attend church at least weekly, and those who work in agriculture are involved in church more than those in other industries.

Those with at least a bachelor's degree were more likely than those with a high school diploma or less to be church members, and were more likely to go to church.

Whether they attend or not, however, most respondents think churches serve as a resource to the entire community, especially those in larger towns and those who are older.

What's the upshot?

The poll is probably no surprise to ministers and church members struggling to serve their communities, not to mention keep their doors open. With demographics and distances working against them, churches, like most small-town institutions, have to find ways to adapt and thrive.

Technology may be part of the answer, but nothing can replace personal interaction on a local level.

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