The Potential of Churches to Contribute to Thriving and Vibrant Rural Community: A Case Study Approach
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The Anglican Church is present in most communities around the region of Taranaki, New Zealand. Where churches were once hubs of community life, in rural and small-town settings they are now often on the periphery. Frequently attended by ageing and diminishing congregations, the capacity to reach out and serve the wider community is dwindling. Buildings become used less frequently, some are closed. Although these churches are well placed to continue to contribute to their rural communities as they have previously done, the opportunity is seemingly ebbing away. Adding to knowledge in the field of sociology of religion, this study of Anglican parishes in rural Taranaki examines what is being done and what could be done by churches in their communities. The research is based on the positive premise that the potential to contribute is there and still to be found, although what it may look like could be radically different from now. Nine parishes were surveyed initially, and three of these were chosen as case studies. The decision to undertake case studies in parishes that are diminishing was questioned – would it not be more useful to research the ideas and activities present in thriving parishes instead? But this study needed to start “at home”, to understand what is or isn’t happening, and why. With this in mind, the study was influenced by the values of Action Research: respectful, participatory and democratic, with the tenet of local beginnings. The parishioners were engaged through meetings, questionnaires and in-depth interviews. A foremost finding was the strength of emotion they expressed. This was often sadness, sometimes frustration, anxiety, and an anguish of not knowing what to do. “I don’t know“ was a frequent response. Others did express energy and ideas, sometimes thwarted. These findings suggest that an educative response will assist, firstly with understanding the barriers to innovation and change, and what will support the parishes to move past these obstacles and re-mobilize their strengths in their communities. Ideas that arise from the strengths, gifts, interests and assets of the congregations and their communities will be owned by them. Whether the ideas stimulated as a result of this process are action plans for an on-going church or a legacy plan for one less likely to survive, the outcomes of this study suggest potential for contribution is there to be explored.