Rural 'exurbs' see population boon, promising growth for Southern Baptists?

by Will Hall, |
Car enthusiasts gather in Dawsonsonville, Georgia, located in Dawson County. The county is projected to grow in population from about 22,000 to 100,000 during the next 20 years. The area is home to about 15 Southern Baptist congregations. | Destination Dawsonville

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) -- The Great Recession, which began with the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 and officially continued through 2009, stalled population growth in rural areas as people moved to urban centers in search of work. But new census data indicates a swing back out to these outer rings of metropolitan regions, particularly in the Sun Belt -- and this boon appears to be good news for denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, which in a 2009 report stated half of its congregations were located outside of metropolitan areas and primarily in the South.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the growth favors "decidedly rural Americana" that still evinces a "small town feel" -- essentially a domestic migration to the "outermost surburban counties."

Dawsonville, Georgia, a rural community on the "outer ring" north of Atlanta, is projected to experience a 9.3 percent growth in population from 2012 through 2017, advertising itself as "ideally suited for families with children or for luxurious retirement living." | Destination Dawsonville

Likewise, an analysis by the Brookings Institution stated people are moving back to the "exurbs" for jobs and more affordable homes.

The Pew report explained that between 2005 and 2006, "exurbs" experienced peak growth while urban counties lost over 1.3 million people as people left for the far reaches in surrounding counties.

According to information in SBC Annuals, this time frame was the last period of growth for the denomination, peaking at 16,306,246 members before seeing a 0.24 percent drop in 2007, the year the housing bubble popped, and incremental decreases each year since.

Meanwhile, acording to William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cities grew.

Between 2010 and 2013, the average annual growth rate for cities nearly doubled the rate of the previous decade, he said. Cities with more than 250,000 people experienced population increases of more than 1 percent a year. Washington, D.C., Denver, Seattle, Austin and Charlotte, North Carolina surged, and, demographers declared rural America dead.

Now, Frey says Millennials are exiting core urban communities, which combined lost 363,000 residents between 2013 and 2014, in favor of suburban and exurban counties.

"People said millennials wanted to live in cities, close to cool jazz clubs. But young people might have settled in a city because they had no place to go." Frey said, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. "It's too soon to say how much of this is changing preferences—and how much of it is the economy."