The term "community" has come into such common use that it might be assumed that definition is unnecessary. And yet when learned bodies get together to discuss community problems a large part of the time is usually taken up in attempting to define what the different speakers are talking about.
When the writer lived in the open country several years ago he went to Mifflin Center school and attended Wesley Chapel church. The schoolhouse and the church were located at the same crossroads, and these two institutions drew for their constituency from an area of about four square miles for the school and a somewhat larger area for the church. Brownstown school, to the south, Hendrickson's to the east, and Whetstone to the west made up other school communities. Pleasant Grove church, Salem, and Brownstown, with a different territory covered by each, made up church areas that did not coincide with the school areas bounding Mifflin Center school territory. In like manner, when trading was to be done, Upper Sandusky and Kirby, five and six miles away, were the centers to which everybody went, generally on Saturday afternoon, when friends from other sections of the county might be found on the streets. The boundaries of the trade center were thus much larger than those of either the school or the church. In politics, the center of interest of the particular township with which the writer was concerned was the old schoolhouse turned into a township house at Mifflin Center, the location of the church and school. The local political interests of the other communities mentioned were at the appointed places in the respective townships. The seat of justice was for some time in the parlor of the writer's father's residence, or in the front yard, to which court was occasionally adjourned when weather conditions permitted. In a larger way county courts were held at the county seat, as were other of the larger political activities.
One could go on indefinitely illustrating the boundaries of interests of various kinds. Some of them centered in the State House; others in the national Capitol; and many a wordy political battle was fought in the little country section over the question as to whether the protective tariff or the Democratic party was responsible for the hard times the farmers and others were suffering. There were even world interests involved, as during the Spanish-American War or the Venezuelan difficulty during Cleveland's administration.
This concrete illustration both raises the question, Which of these is the "community?" and also points the way to the answer. None of the groupings mentioned can be considered "the community." Yet each is "a community." A "community" is a psychical and not a physical thing. It can only approximately be bounded by physical lines. In the last analysis the true "community" is nothing more nor less than that group of two or more individuals who are bound together by a single interest. Thus two people living within sight of one another may be members of the same religious community and at the same time be absolutely separated from one another in their political affiliations. Also one person can at the same time belong to many "communities."
But this definition, if adhered to strictly, would lead to confusion of thought perhaps more serious than a less accurate use of the term. Careful investigation of the relation of the different psychic communities to one another reveals the fact that geographically the areas of individual community interest overlap one another; and that in the better organized regions the centers of interests coincide and it is only the boundaries of the several interests that are not coterminous. The Mifflin Center illustration given above is good in that it had the religious, educational and political interests centered at one physical spot. The social and recreational life of a large part of this local area also was centered here. In the other local groups mentioned there was a division of interest much more marked. A more practical definition, then, of a "community" would be "That aggregation of population which is bound together by a predominating proportion of its local interests."
If this definition is accepted, then an inspection of almost any local aggregation, in the open country at least, will lead to the conclusion that there are few groups of people who have any large number of local interests in common. Perhaps the most powerful force to be considered in determining what is an open country community is that of the social life. People in a given section habitually seek those with whom they are best acquainted when they get together for social affairs of interest outside the family circle; and it is only occasionally that the mass will go out of these habitual associations in seeking social relaxation. This social life may be sought at one time in the school, at another in the church, again at a picnic, or in the home of some one in the "neighborhood." But the dominating factor is acquaintanceship rather than religion or education or business.
Villages are more easily defined as to the number of interests holding the group together.
One principal objective in the modern local community organization movement seems to be to bring together at some central point the focal points of as many local interests as possible, thus strengthening the community bonds and increasing the community consciousness. As this end is achieved the necessity for the strict definition given above disappears and the "community" becomes that aggregation of people the majority of whose local interests have a common center. This is the sense in which the term will be used in this discussion.
The term "rural" likewise conveys a different thought to different people. Indeed, so likely has the term been to mislead that in a recent national survey of religious conditions, the term was abandoned and "town and country" substituted. The simpler plan is to arrive at a definition of the word "rural" which will include what the latter term connotes. To confuse "rural" with "agricultural" is to ignore both the past and the present in movements of population and in organization of interests. To an increasing degree the interests of the open country are centering in the village, or even larger centers. So that in discussing the problems of the agricultural population it is often necessary to make the center of discussion the organization of the village with an agricultural environment. The better plan is to definitely discuss the problems of the open country under the term "agricultural" and retain the other term for all interests of groups of population in smaller communities, whether in the open country or in the villages. In general, the division of the United States Census will be observed and the term "rural" regularly applied to all groups of under two thousand five hundred population.
At a recent meeting of country ministers an attempt was made to define what is the problem of the rural church. The definition as framed is herewith presented: "The rural task of the church is the nurture and development of all phases of human welfare in those communities where the general life and thinking of the people are related to matters which pertain to material natural resources."
This definition is inadequate from the administrative point of view in that it would exclude the small manufacturing community, the educational center, the summer and winter resort communities, and similar specialized groups where population is small. The problems of these small communities not directly related to material natural resources have many characteristics in common with those included in the above definition. Size of community has much to do with the type of problem presented; and the one who understands the problems of the agricultural village is probably better able to deal with the problems of the villages of the type mentioned than is the one trained for service in a metropolitan center.
The term "church" is here used in the sense of including all religious forces in rural life. The Sunday School Association, the Christian Associations, Church Federations, and other groups allied to the church are included in the general term.
THE MANIFOLD FUNCTIONS OF THE CHURCH
The church is the only agency in existence that is concerned with man in all his relationships. It is concerned with keeping alive in human consciousness the existence of a Divine Being and of man's relationship to that Being. It is the only agency that proceeds on the theory of the immortality of the human soul and that has a program of preparing the soul for a life after death. In common with other agencies the church is concerned with the individual life of man on this earth and endeavors to lead human beings to that course of life which will result in the maximum of personal spiritual welfare. And in common with other agencies it is concerned with man in his relations to others and to his material environment because these relationships have a vital effect on his spiritual life.
A full analysis of the functions of the church would include a discussion of those features of church work which have to do with man's relation to God and to an immortal existence. But in a discussion of the church in relation to the community it is not necessary to consider man's relation to God nor to a future life except in so far as beliefs in such relationships influence his personal welfare on this earth or his relationships to his fellow man. Thus this discussion falls in the field of sociology rather than in the field of theology or psychology. A casual observation of the forces at work in human relationships, especially in the smaller communities, leads quickly to the conclusion that beliefs both with reference to God and to a future life have a vital effect on social conduct. But it is the effect instead of the truth of beliefs that is the subject matter to be considered.
Having thus defined the field of our discussion both as to subject matter and as to the phase of the interests of the church to be considered, it is next in order to note the size of the task.
According to the census of 1920, 50,866,899 people in the United States lived in rural territory, that is, in communities of less than 2,500 population. This was 48.1 per cent of the total. For the first time in the history of the country the records showed a larger proportion of the total population living in urban centers than in villages or in the open country. The population in incorporated villages of less than 2,500 population was 9,864,196, or 9.3 per cent of the total, while that in unincorporated or open country communities was 41,002,703 or 38.8 per cent, as compared with 8.8 per cent and 44.8 per cent respectively in 1910.
The total rural population increase was but 1,518,986, or 3.1 per cent. Incorporated village increase was 1,745,371, or 21.5 per cent, while the unincorporated community population actually decreased 227,355, or .6 per cent.
These figures indicate two conclusions of importance to our discussion. The first is that the villages of less than 2,500 inhabitants are sharing with the large centers in the general increase in population. Their increase proportionately is not so marked as is that of the extremely large centers, but it is sufficiently marked to indicate that they offer opportunities that attract more than does the open country. This village growth must be reckoned with in determining policies of location of church buildings and the type of local church program for community service.
The second conclusion is that the open country is still at a disadvantage so far as its possibilities of supporting a large population are concerned. Actual depopulation of the open country, the enlargement of the size of farms, the abandonment of acreage once under cultivation, which preliminary figures issued by the Census Bureau indicate, show that not yet is the demand for agricultural products such as to make a much larger open country population possible. This fact also points the direction for readjustment of rural community life.
The data from the religious census of the United States, taken in 1916, while not classified as rural and urban, give hopeful figures as to the progress of religious institutions in this country. While the total population of the United States increased during the decade 1910-20, 14.9 per cent, the church membership from 1906-1916 increased 19.6 per cent. The total church membership increase, 6,858,796, was 50.2 per cent of 13,710,842, the increase in total population. These figures of church membership increase, covering a period before the European war began to affect this country seriously, indicate that the general rising ethical standards of American life have had their reflection in the larger personal as well as financial support of the religious forces.
While data are not available as to the proportion of rural and urban population belonging to church, the census gives figures as to the church membership in communities of over 25,000 population. According to census estimates, 32.7 per cent of the population lived in cities of over that population in 1916. The religious census shows that 36.5 per cent of the church membership lived in communities of that size. Contrary to popular impression, the larger centers actually have a larger proportionate church membership than do the smaller communities. The facts show that the problem of advance of the Christian Church is more of a small-community problem than it is of the larger centers.
While the proportion of the total population belonging to church increased from 38.1 per cent in 1906 as compared with the 1910 population to 39.6 per cent in 1916 as compared with the 1920 population, the magnitude of the unfinished task is still almost staggering. If the proportion for rural America were the same as for the country as a whole, there would be 20,143,292 people not belonging to church. Church membership, of course, is not the only criterion of the influence of the church; nor would all denominations admit that all the people should belong to church, since some would not accept children not yet having reached the age of accountability. But in any case Christian America is not Christian even in church membership. This does not take into account matters of social and economic relationships which the spirit of Christianity has not yet penetrated and by which church members as well as nonmembers are bound.
More than 50,000,000 rural folk rising to a consciousness of their inherent solidarity and community of interest, and more than 20,000,000 of these not affiliated with any religious organization, present a challenge for trained leadership unequaled in the history of the world. Urban interests have grown powerful. Urban life has rapidly advanced for at least the more favored groups until it has far outstripped conditions in rural communities that go to make up the best in modern civilization and culture. Germs have been found in the "Old Oaken Bucket" in the country, while the scourge of typhoid has been banished from the city, and the "Church in the Dell" has crumbled in decay, while the metropolitan pulpit has taken the best leadership for its own. The country has been unable to compete with the urban centers for educational, religious, or social leadership because wealth has accumulated in the cities. Rural population has declined because the prizes in wealth accumulation were in the cities and because it was easier to secure those things there that people have learned to value as most worth while, in good housing, medical attendance, education, and recreation. While city poets have sung the praises of country life, many people who have lived in the country and endured the long hours and little pay from husbandry have, like the Arab, folded their tents and slipped away; and when once they have tasted the advantages of urban life, have not returned.
No civilization can be wholesome or permanent so long as any one great group is permanently handicapped in its struggle for economic or social welfare. So long as any group is evidently at a disadvantage the shift of population from the less-favored to the better-favored groups will continue; that is, unless castes are formed which compel people to remain permanently in one group or the other. And this does not happen in modern democratic society. And so long as there is a continuous shift of population in one direction or another we have evidence that conditions are such as to induce the shift.
It is the existence of conditions such as these that makes the challenge for a trained loyal service on the part of those selected to attend to matters concerned with rural public welfare.
It is the purpose of the following pages to outline briefly some of the conditions to which the church must give attention if it is to meet the demand now made upon it by modern rural life. It is not intended to be a treatise on practical theology in the sense ordinarily accepted in courses on that subject. Very little attention will be given to matters of organization or administration of the local church. It is believed that if only ministers of the gospel can once attain an adequate grasp of the purposes of religious service, the matter of method of accomplishing results may be left largely to the pastors themselves. On the other hand, emphasis upon method, which seems to be demanded by many ministers instead of knowledge of ends to be attained, is more than likely to lead to overorganization, or organization not adapted to objectives. One of the essentials in all leadership is that of having definite objectives toward which to work, and it is the purpose of this text to call the attention to objectives and to organization, both local and general, adapted to the attainment of objectives rather than the methods of attaining them.