When I started seminary back in 2000, I was told that there was a good chance that I would end up in small town, rural ministry. At the time I was nervous about that since my plan was to go to a large church in a city to serve as a youth pastor. I grow up in a small town; population approximately 1,600, so I was familiar with small town, rural life, but I wanted something more; something big.
But God had other plans.
I served my internship year at Fir-Conway Lutheran Church; a small church in Washington about an hour north of Seattle. While there I fell in love with small church life. I was “adopted” into a family/congregation and heard the call to be a solo pastor in a small town, rural setting.
Today, I have been the called pastor at Salem Lutheran Church,
(approximately 340 members in a town of about 3,500 people) since June 2004; and because of a contact for services we have had with Belmont Lutheran Church since Dec 2005, this is my early Sunday morning commute to “work”:
Beautiful, isn’t it?
…Belmont Lutheran Church.
Belmont is a congregation of 58 people that worships around 15 to 20 per Sunday. In the midst of Minnesota’s nasty winters I have preached to as few as 5 people (including the organist, who, by the way, drives a couple hours from Minneapolis to play every week. He’s from Belmont and comes home to visit his mother). That is commitment.
When there’s a funeral at Belmont, it feels like everyone shows up to help. Annual meetings feel like a family event. And everyone takes their turn serving on the council and doing their part.
You may ask: How does this tiny congregation stay open with 15 to 20 in worship each week? That’s a great question. You see, there is a farm place across the road and 114.6 acres of land from which Belmont receives rent. And in SW MN, farm land rates are pretty good. Without this farm, Belmont probably would have closed it’s doors long ago; but then again, who knows :-)
I love serving and serving with my congregation in town (Salem) but there’s just something about preaching out on the prairie, in the midst of corn and bean fields, that you can’t experience anywhere else.
[It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I’ll try.]
It’s not that we feel alone and isolated and therefore we cling to that; trying to keep to ourselves. It’s not that we don’t want others to find us and get “too big”. It’s not that we are poor, simple people, cut off from the rest of the world. Those descriptions couldn’t be farther from the truth for Belmont. Rather, the “thing” about serving out on the prairie is that feeling of being part of a close knit family farm that has it’s doors open to anyone who would want to come in; not keeping to themselves as they share their faith in Jesus Christ. But even that description doesn’t do Belmont justice.
Basically, we are a little church on the prairie with a big heart.
The problem out here on the prairie, though, is that many small family farms are giving way to big corporate farms and thus many of these small country churches are closing their doors. I’ve seen that happen to a number of these country churches in SW MN. It’s sad, really, but I am very grateful that a family many years ago had the foresight to donate their farm to Belmont to help ensure that it’s ministry continues on for a long time.
God is indeed doing something here and I feel blessed to be part of it. We may not have the numbers that other congregations have but it’s not quantity that matters but rather quality. We can’t control the growth of a church; only the Holy Spirit does. The fact that Belmont is small doesn’t indicate that it is doing church wrong or is deficient in someway. All it says is that the Spirit has chosen to use this small congregation for big things.
So next time you are out driving in the country side, and you come upon one of these country churches; stop, look, and give thanks; for these churches were the beginning of the Church in the rugged, rural frontier. These congregations were the foundation for a way of life that continues to be important today. These small congregations are not deficient because they are small but rather, they are big with passion and faith. It’s not the size of the church building that matters but rather the faith being lived out in it’s members.
Lord God almighty, I give you thanks for those pioneers that built the Church in a rugged and wild land. I give you thanks for the people who passed on the faith. I give you thanks for the ministry of these places. It’s not the size of the building or the number of people but rather your Spirit working through people. Oh God, you are awesome in this place. In Jesus name I pray, Amen
The (small country) Pastor -|—