Study of Rural Churches in Missouri

Project Number: 
Start Date: 
Thursday, January 1, 1981
End Date: 
Friday, December 31, 1982

Drawing upon and extending earlier studies conducted on the organizational attributes of rural churches in Missouri in 1952 and 1967, Edward W. Hassinger, Professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri, researched the same area in 1982. This study, based on longitudinal survey design and spanning over thirty years, enabled interpretive comparisons with situations in 1952 and 1967. It made possible a study of changes and constancies in rural churches in the backdrop of major demographic changes in American society. The need for equivalence of concepts and their operational indices in accordance with basic considerations of the comparative method led to a consistent following of the conceptual and operational definitions of the first study in 1952. Lawrence Hepple and his associates conducted the initial study in 1952 and 1953; they assumed the rural school as a model for the study of rural church in that the former was expected to diminish in number and consolidate in larger places as a result of urbanizing influences. However, the study of the same area in 1967 that followed the baseline data of 1952 led to the conclusion that although there were parallels between rural schools and rural churches as institutional systems, the rural churches have avoided a dependency relationship on centralizing urban influences.

The rural churches have not been as sensitive to the standardizing and urbanizing influences as the rural school system that have now been incorporated in complex and standardized educational systems controlled at the state and national levels. The rural church did not follow the same course as a rural school and hence the need to take the rural church as a primary group. Within the construct of rural church is an important church/sect distinction: the former displays a tendency to adjust to secular society, while the latter shows a tendency to withdraw or revolt against secular society, as Hepple had proposed in 1957 based on his 1952 study. The church-type rural congregations were affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations such as the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Southern Baptists. The sect-type rural churches were affiliated with peripheral denominations like the Primitive Baptist, Freewill Baptists and the Pentecostals. Over the thirty-year period there was a net loss of 55 church-type religious groups and a net gain of 23 sect-type groups. This comparative study over various areas in rural Missouri exhibiting different social and ecological indicators concluded that the rural churches continue to persist with small membership and limited resources. The autonomous sect-type congregations seem to flourish when compared with the church-type as the latter’s affiliation with organizational structures outside the community requires more resources to survive.