Mission Field: The North American Rural Context Part I

In our last post, Mission Field: Urban Context Part 2, we discussed application and approaches that can be utilized in the North American urban environment. Today, we will pivot again to discuss and define the rural context(s) of North America.


What Is “Rural?” by the Numbers


The U.S. Census Bureau identifies “rural” as, “encompassing all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.” This definition lacks a great deal of nuance and depth in regard to what makes up the North American rural landscape. To better understand the problem, we must revisit the U.S. Census Bureau Urban definition.


The U.S. Census Bureau identifies “urban” as two separate, yet related, areas:


  1. Urbanized Area(s): 50,000 in population or more;
  2. Urban Clusters: at least 2,500 in population and less than 50,000 total.


Instead of being an inclusive definition it is exclusive, “anything that is not urban is therefore rural.” This makes things a bit complicated. According to the definition above, some “urban areas” include rural populations. That is to say, some people living in areas with a population of 2,500 are included in an urbanized area by definition.


So, how do we as church planters address these concerns and form a working definition?


Rural: A Church Planter’s Definition


Though many of us probably have an image of “rural” in our minds when we hear the word, the lack of an agreed upon definition can complicate things for church planters. To this end, a combination of the U.S. Census Bureau numbers along with a practical understanding is the best approach. Tom Nebel provides us this breakdown in his book, Big Dreams in Small Places:


  1. A population base (Regional) between 2,500 and 15,000;
  2. The community stands alone; it is not attached to or dependent upon an urban area as a “bedroom community” or as a suburb.


This is not a final solution to the definition debate, but it does provide us with a working platform to address the unique aspects of rural communities. For one, they are typically smaller in population numbers but larger areas geographically. Typically, they also tend to function as standalone communities, without heavy (if any) reliance on urban areas for jobs, etc. However, they do have their own cultures, capabilities, and/or difficulties.


The North American Rural Snap Shot


So, what do these rural areas look like?[1]


  • 19.3% of the U.S. is Rural (U.S. Census Bureau 2010)[2]
  • More Homogeneous Culturally
  • Agrarian, Manufacturing, and/or Mining Based Economies
  • Strong Local Identity
  • Historically Poverty Stricken
  • Geographically Isolated
  • Historically Low Education Rates
  • Increased Younger Generations and Technology Forcing Change
  • Presence of Multiple Main-Line Protestant Denominations


In part two of this discussion on rural context, we will look to the approach and application of church planting methods specific to these contexts.

[1] Garner, George W. Rural Church Planting: A Missional Footprint. Alpharetta, GA: North American Mission Board, 2011.


[2] Again, we need to remember that a good number of areas/communities that could be considered rural have been defined and identified as urban because of their connection to larger population centers. Thus, the rural population could certainly be considered a significant percentage higher.

Mike Dodson Author
Associate Director for North American Church Planting
follow me
Posted in Blog, Missions Resources and tagged , , , .


  1. Pingback: Mission Field: The North American Rural Context II – Center for Great Commission Studies

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *