Depopulation and rural churches in Kansas, 1950-1980

Robert J. Wuthnow

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5 Scopus citations


Discussions of religion in the rural Great Plains present two radically different images: one of declining and abandoned churches, the other of surprising congregational vitality. Both images purport to describe how rural churches are adapting to declining population, but neither view has been examined very systematically. Kansas provides 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 face of severe depopulation. I consider several alternative explanations for this robustness.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-134
Number of pages18
JournalGreat Plains Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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