The real difference is the resilience that comes from generations of families committed to one place.

“What is the most significant difference between urban and rural churches?”

That was the question I was asked at a church conference. It was a good question, and I knew what my answer was. It doesn’t sound like conventional wisdom. Most of the time the differences between churches in rural and urban cultural contexts are assumed to be mainly political, theological, and financial.

There is certainly reason to think about rural churches being more conservative and having less financial support than urban churches. Yet these differences are far less significant than may often be assumed. The truth is that I have pastored rural congregations that were majority Democrat voting churches. And I have pastored urban congregations which were majority Republican voting churches. I have also discovered that the financial resources of congregations have less to do with cultural context and more to do with giving patterns over time.

So what is the difference? Here’s what I think.

Most of the time urban church parents expect that their children will graduate from high school and move away from home for good. And most of the time rural church parents hope that their children will graduate from high school and stay or go to college or the military and will one day return. Maybe that is not the answer that you were anticipating. Yes, it has nothing to do with ideological perspective, worship styles, budgets or church architecture. But these differences of expectations and hopes are crucial to understanding the unique character of rural church.

Let me say that I do not think either set of these hopes and expectations are objectively better or worse than the other. They simply reflect a combination of cultural values that are different from each other, like the rural value of place and the urban value of mobility. For example, when my son decided upon a small liberal arts college that is an hour away from home I breathed a sigh of relief. We encouraged him to choose what he thought was best for him. His decision to opt for a small school in southwestern Virginia instead of a large university in New York City may have made Mom and Dad happy. But the New York City school remains an outstanding institution. It is good for parents to be aware of our own cultural preferences and to be ready for the possibility that our children may choose differently.

I continually watch high school graduates come up with very creative strategies for staying home in order to remain connected to family and community. Some young people choose to attend community college, which might provide a path to keep working the family beef and dairy farm while trying new approaches to agribusiness. Military service can teach technical skills that some learn and bring back home to help them find good paying jobs within commuting distance. One of the perennial strategies has been the public school system. Young students pay attention to what their local school systems need and then go off to college to get degreed to be able to return home. Law enforcement, nursing and other health care work are among the other avenues they choose.

From my perspective, the number of those trying to stay or return has grown. That is purely anecdotal, and the rural county in the Shenandoah Valley where I work has a strong economy that provides rural young adults opportunity. Yet even the U.S. government has a hard time tracking the numbers. Check out this report from John Cromartie at the USDA Economic Research Service:

“Persistent population loss is a fact of life for hundreds of small communities across the country. ….. Yet return migrants play a critical role in their rural home communities by slowing population loss, generating jobs, and increasing human, social, and financial capital. However, little is known about rates of return migration to different types of places, the timing of moves back home, or the socioeconomic characteristics of returnees compared with other groups. Most migration data sources cannot adequately identify return migrants, especially those moving back to rural areas.”

To answer questions about the causes and consequences of rural return migration, researchers traveled to 21 communities in 17 States and interviewed more than 300 individuals at high school reunions during the summers of 2008 and 2009. Reunions are the only venues that allow for simultaneous interviews with stayers (who never moved away), return migrants (who moved away and later returned), and nonreturn migrants (who moved away and still lived elsewhere at the time of the interview).”

The difference that grown children staying or returning to their rural localities makes for the church is the high level of commitment they bring to their communities and churches. They are willing to work for their children having the same opportunity to stay or return as they did. The second, third, fourth, and fifth generation lay leaders of the rural church give the rural church its most unique characteristic – resiliency.

Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.