Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2005


Published in Great Plains Research Vol. 15, No. 1, 2005. Copyright © 2005 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


Discussions of religion in the rural Great Plains present two radically different images: one of declining and abandoned churches, the other of surprising in congregational vitality. Both images purport to describe how rural churches are adapting to declining population, but neither view has been examined very systematically. Kansas provided a natural laboratory in which to examine the relationships between religion and rural depopulation. From 1950 to 1980 Kansas experienced the sharpest decline in number of farms in the state’s history. Yet population change in rural counties varied widely. I compare 39 rural counties that experienced the greatest depopulation with 30 rural counties that experienced only modest depopulation and 31 rural counties in which population grew. I first use demographic and economic data to describe the different trajectories of these counties. I then examine county-level statistics on church membership and numbers of churches to determine how religious change was related to depopulation. Finally, I compare the changes that occurred within selected denominations. The results suggest that churches, church membership, and average church size remained relatively robust in the fact of severe depopulation. I consider several alternative explanations for this robustness.