As rural life changes, a church lets go of the past
Selling their building, Minnesotans come to terms with population trends that test rural congregations
In its heyday, First Mennonite Church in Mountain Lake, Minn., saw between 400 and 500 people fill its pews and balcony on a Sunday morning. Built in 1955-56, it was the home of a General Conference Mennonite congregation founded in 1878 by immigrants from Russia.
On special days, additional seating filled the aisles. The capacity “with overflow and chairs” was 1,000, according to a Building Committee document.
“That’s one of the fond memories: ‘We used to have to put chairs in the aisles,’ ” said Elaine Kauffman, the pastor since 2000.
It’s one of many memories — the stained-glass windows that depict theological concepts, the acoustic-sensitive architecture of the choir loft, the space-efficient design of the pastor’s study bookshelves and “the best church kitchen in town,” Kauffman said — that now belong to a closed chapter of history.
First Mennonite sold its building toward the end of 2015 and met there for the last time Dec. 27. Sunday morning attendance is now around 40 people.
The decreased size and budget concerns, Kauffman said, led to the decision to sell.
Disagreements caused some of the membership loss, according to Gordon L. Harder, whose great-great-grandfather donated land for the congregation’s first building. But the biggest factor has been change in the agricultural economy.
“The farms are getting bigger,” Harder said. “We’re so rural there’s no other work in the area that’s not agriculture-related.”
Kauffman agrees. She describes the southern Minnesota town of Mountain Lake as “a very rural town” surrounded by corn and soybean fields, with some poultry and hog farms. The population was 2,130 in 2013.
“Farm families have shrunk,” she said. “People who send their youth off to university or college don’t feel like it’s a good result to have them come back and work on a pig farm.”
Outside of agriculture, professional opportunities for college graduates are mainly limited to schools and health-care facilities.
“So a lot of our youth have gone to school and gone on to somewhere else,” Kauffman said. “We’ve supplied a lot of places with a lot of good people… . But they don’t come back here, not that much.”
It’s a situation facing many congregations in rural areas.
“There’s a lot of mourning over the loss, and a sense of frustration and sometimes a felt lack of know-how,” Kauffman said, speaking for rural churches in general. “How do we attract people? There are lots of people in this town who don’t go to church, so what are we doing wrong? I don’t have the answer, but I think the church of the future is going to look different.”
Rural social concerns
Before the industrialization of agriculture after World War II, there was a pattern of young people leaving rural communities for college and voluntary service, and then returning to inherit land, according to S. Roy Kaufman, author of Healing God’s Earth: Rural Community in the Context of Urban Civilization and pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Freeman, S.D., from 1999 to 2010.
“They not only kept the farms going, but they brought education and experience from elsewhere,” Kaufman said. This trend still continues in Freeman, with other young families moving there “to be part of a small community” without farming.
But in general, churches in rural communities struggle to maintain membership.
“Rural churches are struggling, I think, because we no longer have a good understanding of who we are and what our mission is as a rural church within a rural community,” Kaufman said.
He said much of the conversation on church growth and mission at the denominational level assumes the congregation in an urban setting, which makes “rural churches feel increasingly alienated.”
“We try too much to pattern ourselves after urban congregations, and we sense that we need to change things so people are attracted to us,” Kaufman said, though he added some changes aren’t necessarily bad. “We’ve forgotten that our calling isn’t to replicate urban churches in the countryside. It’s to build community, to create a viable agrarian culture. It doesn’t mean the churches will grow, necessarily, but it will help them understand what their mission and role is in the community.”
The mission “to reinvigorate the whole community as a vital base,” according to Kaufman, involves producing and consuming local foods and paying attention to issues of land tenure.
“Those are the kinds of concerns that rural churches ought to be devoting their energy to, rather than bemoan that they don’t look like urban churches,” he said. “If we’re going to continue to eat five generations down the road, we’re going to have to move to other models of agriculture, which, eventually, will engage other people and rebuild the community.”
Kaufman said he would like to see a synergy between rural and urban congregations, with each learning from the other.
“Urban people who are concerned about food and the environment will be the major agents of change for rural communities like mine,” he said. “It would be really empowering for people from urban churches to come to us and say, ‘We want to see you as our primary source of food.’ … If you have local food systems, you can be less dependent on industrial agriculture.”
More than agriculture
Rural churches’ concerns can be more varied than food production. David Boshart, executive conference minister of Mennonite Church USA’s Central Plains Conference, said two indicators of a congregation’s health are its strength of leadership and clarity of mission.
About 45 percent of Central Plains congregations are rural (when “rural congregation” is defined as one made up of people who live in rural settings). Boshart cautioned against seeing all rural churches as dealing with the same issues.
“There’s a huge amount of diversity in rural congregations,” he said. “The mission of each congregation is going to be different in each context… . Where congregations are engaging their context in very particular ways — [asking,] ‘Where is shalom being disrupted in this community, and how can we be witnesses to that?’ — where churches are paying close attention to that, there tends to be real vitality.”
Boshart sees sustainable food production as “one form rural witness can take, and I think rural communities are particularly poised to bear that witness, although that can be a source of conflict in those communities because there are different philosophies about what sustainable food production is.”
Other areas he suggested are economic development, health-care availability for lower-earning or self-employed people who would have to travel longer distances, immigration and “how we build genuine community with newcomers, where this life we share is something that benefits us all,” and the welfare of retiring farmers.
Hope for the future
Two blocks away from the building that First Mennonite sold, Kauffman now has a pastor’s office at Bethel Mennonite Church. Like First, Bethel is affiliated with Central Plains Conference.
“We continue as sister churches; we do things together,” Kauffman said. “When we decided to sell our building, Bethel said, ‘We’re open to helping you any way we can.’ One of the ways they helped was letting me use this office space.”
Community Bible Church, the Mennonite Brethren church in Mountain Lake, has offered support as well.
The question of whether First and Bethel would merge “has been asked many, many times,” Kauffman said. “From the outside, it looks like a no-brainer. It looks like the obvious solution, and that may be where the congregation will go, but they’re not jumping in feet first.”
This year will be a time to think about what’s next. “Disband, merge, what do we want to do?” Kauffman said. “Nothing is decided.”
For now, one consolation is that their longtime home now belongs to another church.
“It’s hard to lose a physical piece of your history,” she said. “It feels good to know that it’s continuing as a church.”
The buyer is Iglesia Pentecostal Unida Hispana (United Hispanic Pentecostal Church). Many of its members are immigrants from Guatemala.
“There are a lot of young people with a lot of energy,” Kauffman said.
Meanwhile, First Mennonite is meeting in a local nursing home, gathering in the chapel for worship. A few members who already lived there can now attend services, and other residents have shown interest in checking out the church.
“That may be our niche for ministry right now,” Kauffman said.
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