The full story of rural North Carolina’s churches and towns can sometimes be lost in a barrage of bad news and worrisome statistics.
Manufacturing jobs have disappeared by the tens of thousands in the last decade. The poverty rate is significantly higher in rural areas than in the rest of the state—45 percent higher among children. Hundreds of rural churches struggle to pay their bills, and some have closed or been forced to consolidate as members moved away or simply stopped coming.
Yet, even as they face great challenges, North Carolina’s rural areas are home to some of the state’s most vibrant ministries, says Jeremy Troxler, director of Thriving Rural Communities, a Divinity School-based program that works to support and strengthen rural congregations.
“Sometimes there is a view that we don’t have much in rural North Carolina—that it is a place of barrenness, loneliness and loss of economic opportunity,” says Troxler D’02.
“But it also is a place of beauty and abundance.”
Consider Solid Rock United Methodist Church, which opened in 2001 in Spout Springs, just a few miles north of Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army base near Fayetteville. Worship attendance at the church, housed in a blue metal building, has grown from a single family to more than 300 on most Sundays.
Solid Rock’s ministries include two daycare programs; Angel Food, a pantry that feeds nearly 500 people each week; and a prison ministry that reaches 240 inmates. At a time when churches worry about aging parishioners, Solid Rock’s congregation, which includes many military families, has a growing membership of those 20 or younger.
“Part of my job is to inspire people to believe that they can do big things right where they are,” says Gil Wise D’88, lead pastor at Solid Rock. “They’re making a difference in the Kingdom, and they don’t have to go to a bigger place for that.”
The Thriving Rural Communities program works to inspire and lift up congregations, and to help rural pastors meet the unique challenges of their vocation. Funded with $4.8 million from The Duke Endowment, the program represents a partnership of the Endowment, the Divinity School, and the two conferences of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina.