To the churches of the Medina-Streeter Lutheran Parish: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This past summer our synod of the ELCA, the Eastern North Dakota Synod, held an event at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota specifically aimed at Rural and Multipoint Parishes within the synod. The event bore the name Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Your Congregation. Recognizing that this was a conference that would most likely benefit our Rural, Multipoint Parish, I invited members from each church to attend this conference with me to gain ideas in order to do what the name of the conference suggested; to build vitality within our congregations and parish. Out of this conference came many great ideas that I hope to be able to utilize in various ways throughout the coming months and years.
One of the take home ideas came in the form of a book each congregation, or multipoint parish, received by attending the conference. Over the next few months it will be my goal, through this avenue of monthly newsletter articles, to share with you the insights gained from this book that bears a similar name to the conference itself. This book, written by David Poling-Goldenne and L. Sannon Jung, is entitled Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001). Through each chapter of this book, the authors take us through stories of hope within churches in rural America that have found vitality, all the way down to the possible mission the audience can have within their own congregations to discover hope for the future. It is my intention to lead us through these nine chapters in the coming months.
In the opening chapter, entitled Stories of Hope: Finding Vitality in Rural America, we are invited and welcomed on a journey of discovery. The first stop on this journey was to lay out the problem most congregations in the rural setting face; that is a general sense of despair. Rural congregations that find themselves in despair, according to the authors, will generally have these sentiments running through its voices: “We are too small,” “We have no young people,” and “We just can’t afford our pastor.”1 With these sentiments in mind the researchers set out to find out what the real experts of rural setting vitality had to say on the subject; the people who have experienced it first-hand. What they came up with was a collection of stories that highlight some “best practices” from the field for the field; from those who have done it in the past for those in similar situations who are willing to learn from those who have been there before.2
But why rural America, one might ask about the focal point of this study? The authors explain that this is because “rural congregations are now found in agricultural, mining, logging, ranching, open-plain, recreation, and small-town settings—or any combination of the above— in just about every state in the nation.”3 Not to mention that, not so coincidentally, congregations in the rural setting make up more than half of the congregations affiliated with the ELCA. And so in the opinion of the authors, “Rural congregations matter! They are the church … There is power, hope, and great potential in rural congregations!”4
To conclude the first chapter of their book, the authors give three examples of congregations that have shown vitality within their context of rural America. They admit that there could be dozens of these stories to be told, but these three best represent that power, hope, and great potential of rural congregations in their eyes with the recognition that “borrowing another congregation’s activities or programs is not a recipe for long-term success, but in the stories and examples you will find principles, ideas, and models that have worked in rural settings.”5 What all three of these stories have in common are congregations that refuse to cave in, embracing new ideas like starting a rural crisis and support group, refining tradition like celebrating “Rogation Sunday” in which local farmers bring their tractors, combines, and trucks they use in their life and work and seek God’s blessing, and finding a niche that is unique to them and their context like being intentional about their focus on prayer and Bible Study.6
In the next two chapters, which we will look at in depth next month, the authors explore what role prayer and worship play into building a vital congregation, especially in rural America. Until then, may the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in the sight of our Lord; the source of our strength and our redemption.
In Christ, Pastor Ryan
P.S. If you would like to order your very own copy of the book Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations you may do so by calling Augsburg Fortress Publishing House (800-328-4648).
1 Poling-Goldenne, David & L. Shannon Jung. Discovering Hope: Building Vitality in Rural Congregations (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 15.
2 Discovering Hope, 16. 3 Discovering Hope, 17.
4 Discovering Hope, 19. 5Discovering Hope, 24.
6 Discovering Hope, 21-23.