Today we kick off a four-week series on the lives of rural Christians and the rural Church. We reached out to a variety of writers in rural America, resulting in essays and interviews that reflect a struggle to bear faithful Christian witness, which is often messy, difficult, and decidedly against the norms of the dominant culture. While rejecting nostalgia for the small town life and churches of the past, many writers in this series are proposing something new, in some cases breaking from church traditions in order to affirm and build the Body of Christ.
Our first essay is by Erik Carlson, a participant in the Collegeville Institute’s Rural Fellows Program and pastor of a rural church in Dawson, Minnesota, who writes about leading his small church through a season of change. Check back on Thursdays in July to read more perspectives on rural life and faith.
In rural spaces we spend much of our time looking back. We say things like “the landscapes don’t look like they used to” or “towns have gone from vibrant hubs of commerce to struggling communities with shrinking populations and economic life.” We reminisce about family farms, lamenting that the agricultural industry has gobbled up land, creating farming operations that span thousands of acres.
The inevitable result of these very real changes is that structures and institutions now serve smaller populations. Businesses have closed, schools have consolidated, and churches have shuttered. Congregations founded in towns and in the countrysides during population booms are now a shadow of their once-vibrant selves. Countryside churches like mine face oceans of monocrop farmland instead of a rural landscape peppered with homesteads.
For the congregations that haven’t already shut their doors, there seems little hope of returning to the perceived golden-days of full pews and multigenerational fellowship. Not only has population shrunk, but those who remain lament that their children and grandchildren aren’t interested in coming to church except for the occasional holiday service or baptism. Many attending rural churches wonder if there is a future for their faith communities. Perhaps shifts in culture and demographics make the challenges of rural ministry insurmountable.
Eight years ago when I arrived to take the position of pastor at Dawson Covenant Church in rural Dawson, Minnesota, it felt like a risk. My wife and I had a son under a year old, we both grew up in large cities and had spent the previous eight years in Chicago. All of my personal experience and training took place in or near urban settings. I felt unprepared and inadequate to pastor a rural and remote church. And yet, as I stood outside the church building and saw sprawling fields noticeably devoid of farms, I knew one thing for certain. We needed to answer the question: “Why are we here?”
This congregation needed a clear, distinct reason for existing. There was no longer an obvious township neighborhood of farming families to serve. Relative to population levels, there were plenty of existing churches in town, or nearby. Most people in our region already self-identified as Christians. Reasons for existing that worked for other churches—the need for worship spaces, an existing community to be served, and the need for missional presence—weren’t sufficient answers for our church.
Entertaining such a fundamental question as “why do we exist?” is unsettling. We might struggle to develop a good answer, or, scarier yet, finding an answer might lead to fundamental changes in a ministry model that had lasted generations. The answer most feared (and I believe this stops many from exploring the question) is that the church time is finished in this place.
Change is unsettling and pastors know this well. Our local ministerium runs a tent at our country fair called “The Diaper Depot” for nursing, feeding, and diaper-care for young infants. In an attempt at levity, the booth is subtitled “for those still willing to accept change.”
Resistance to change isn’t just out of stubbornness or fear, though that can be a part of it. Rural communities often place a high value on tradition, respect for elders, and the desire to avoid causing offense (perhaps especially in Minnesota). When enacted at their best, these values created strong community ties and loyalties that were integral to survival. But it has made many afraid to reimagine things, perhaps especially in our churches.
As a rural pastor I’m convinced that we can respect the past, but we also need to leave room for imagining new futures. We must be willing to answer the question, “why are we here?” even if it is painful, and when it leads us into discomfort or difficult decisions. Our deep histories and traditions can be fuel for positive change if we can remind ourselves that every song was once new. Most of our ancestors who planted these churches did so with great risk and uncertainty.
In my own church’s journey, we sought to address the question “why are we here?” by asking more questions. What things did we need to change or let go of that no longer speak to our context and identity? What ministries is our congregation most passionate about? As our church leadership explored these questions, we arrived at a foundational conclusion: We don’t exist for the church of yesterday, but rather for the church that is here now and the church that will be.
This emphasis on the church of now freed us to reinvent ourselves and even reclaim parts of our rich history that had gone out of focus. This led to renewed emphasis on ministry to children, youth, and families, as well as integrating new musical expressions in worship. While our region has plenty of churches, there was room for contemporary worship expression. We had the musicians, space, and technology to offer a blended worship style that spoke to younger generation without jettisoning our hymnody.
While the township population has diminished, understanding our place as a regional church allowed us to focus on developing a welcoming posture. We couldn’t depend on the township to support the congregation: there weren’t enough people. But we could model ourselves after Christ by intentionally loving every person that walked through our door. We expanded our definition of neighbor from those in the eight-mile radius around to the church, to one that included neighboring towns and counties, and this meant surrendering our historical identity for our regional reality.
We let go of some of our cultural church traditions as a Swedish immigrant church that no longer spoke to much of our congregation. Together, we said goodbye to Lucia Fest, a December celebration focused on Santa Lucia, and replaced it with a hymn sing and favorite holiday-dish potluck. We are even considering reclaiming our historic name as Mission Covenant Church, since many of our members now come from the surrounding region and not just Dawson.
However, the most important piece of our church’s transformation was a willingness to look at what God was already doing in us and around us, and adapt. As people explored membership, we allowed the newcomers to change who we were. We began holding a ministry fair every fall to introduce everyone—new and long-time members— to opportunities for service. We welcomed people to serve as greeters, ushers, coffee-servers, and on lay-committees. We made time for new members to get to know people by scheduling social Sunday School hours once a month, the same Sunday as communion.
As mentioned, we are considering reclaiming our historic name as Mission Covenant Church, since many of our members now come from the greater surrounding region and not just Dawson. It may be the case that most people identify as Christians in our rural location, but it isn’t true that everyone feels as though their gifts and talents are a vital part of a congregation.We wanted to communicate that we valued the contributions of everyone, and that our faith practice was as much about doing life together as it was about a confession of faith. Our mission was not just to tell people about the Gospel but to disciple those who had joined in our membership—emphasizing their value as members of the greater body of Christ.
Committing to adapt was not easy for our church. More than once I heard a lament that we weren’t the small country church we used to be. More than once I heard longtime members remark bittersweetly that they didn’t know many of the new people in the church. Oldtimers have had to learn to connect with newcomers and bring them into the wider family of the church.
So much of our church’s story isn’t about what we have done but how we’ve responded to what’s going on around us. Many families that have joined our church over the past ten years didn’t come because they are new to church. Rather, our church has become a landing spot for people whose churches have closed. We have been a middle ground for couples coming from different denominational backgrounds. People who are new to our region feel welcomed as contributors since we’ve become flexible and invitational.
Our story as a church is part of larger story of our surrounding region. What has become more clear over the past few years is that part of our calling is to stand in the gap as a regional church located in the countryside. The changing rural landscape has deemphasized the importance of centering on small town centers, and instead has created regional partnerships where communities thrive because of their relationships with one another. For example, healthcare providers have formed networks to address rural needs because the resources, in both town and country settings, are limited. Similarly, we hope to forge relationships in the wider area in order to welcome and care for those whose own faith communities are no longer sustainable.
Fostering a church culture that sincerely values hospitality and relationships has been central to our mission. As a result it’s become a hub for relationships in a sea of change. We often take for granted in rural areas that everyone feels known. However, people in rural areas can be just as isolated, just as siloed in their relationships, as anywhere. Intentional hospitality is no less important in rural contexts as in what many perceive as the anonymity of the city.
Freedom is also key to who we are as a church. We have decided to anchor ourselves within the stream of the great traditions of the Church and to allow freedom in Christ wherever we can. One of the core affirmations of our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, reads: “We offer freedom to one another to differ on issues of belief or practice where the biblical and historical record seems to allow for a variety of interpretations of the will and purposes of God. We in the Covenant Church seek to focus on what unites us as followers of Christ, rather than on what divides us.” This posture has allowed us to forge relationships within the church body that would normally cause breaks in fellowship. This commitment comes with tensions, but we’ve found space for new people, new relationships, new mission, and renewed hope.
As the trends of farmland consolidation and population movement out of the countryside continue, I believe rural churches must ask hard questions and be willing to step out on new and uncertain paths. Perhaps asking these questions is the first step in retelling the rural story. While it is true that rural places have witnessed dramatic changes over the past fifty years, our hope in Christ compels us to rejoice in the new day God has made.
As the landscape has changed, so has the possibility for transformation. We must pay attention to the Spirit’s leading because, as the prophet Joel tells us, God is at work, “your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, and your young people will see visions.” May we pay attention to dreams and visions of those in our fellowship when we answer the central question: “Why are we here?”