by Amanda Fanger, Reporter and Farmer
Shrinking population is just one of many factors that are coming into play for the struggles of rural area churches. In addition to a smaller populace, roads, travel conditions and church attendance becoming less and less of a priority for many, rural churches are especially feeling the pinch.
The problem with a smaller number of churchgoers, according to Pennie McIntosh, lay preacher at Skudesnes Lutheran in Pierpont, “That goes along with a decrease of financial wealth (for the church).”
McIntosh says many churches, like Skudesnes, cannot afford to hire ordained pastors. They turn to part-time lay preachers then. For Skudesnes, the last time they had a full-time pastor was in the 1990s. For several years, she says the church got by just filling the pulpit Sunday to Sunday with lay and retired pastors.
“(You) can’t expect (ordained ministers) to live on only a few hundred dollars a month,” she said. Lay pastors, who have other jobs in the community, are able to work for that price, she says.
How long a church can go on with declining finanical growth, she says, depends on each individual church.
“(That’s) what will make or break a church,” she said. “I think each church tries to keep its doors open as long as possible.”
The decrease in general population isn’t the only factor in the problem of decreasing church attendance.
“A lot of people have fallen away from church,” McIntosh says. “Socially, the whole country has seen a decline in church attendance.”
McIntosh says with a society that is so busy with work, school functions and other activities, the church is no longer looked at as the social center of a community.
Also, “Many feel the church is not really important in their life. They have a ‘there’s nothing there for me’ type of an attitude. Younger people tend to feel that church is too ‘old fashioned’ for them,” she said. “God has not changed and some of the younger people feel that He should have. God calls us to come together and worship.”
By all standards, Tabor Lutheran Church fits the description of an old-time country church. Its building is about a dozen miles outside of Webster. Being located down a Day County township road that is not maintained well, churchgoers often found difficulty even getting to church on Sunday mornings because of drifting snow.
“We were missing so much church…the main roads were decent, but if a wind came up, it blocked the county roads,” said Tabor’s lay pastor, Mike McCarlson. “The church came to a general concensus that if we wanted to continue to worship together, we had to figure out something different.”
They decided to forego the identity of a ‘rural’ country church and began meeting in town on Sunday mornings during the winter. For three years now, Tabor Free Lutheran has been meeting at Heritage Village in Webster.
“We have grown since then,” McCarlson said.
Tabor went from an average attendance of 20 people on a good day in the country to now seeing an average of 40 to 60 people in town.
During the summer, Tabor holds two Sunday morning worship services, one in town and one in the country.
“We look at it as an opportunity to branch out our ministry from our current church,” he said. “Rather than expect people to come to us, we’re bringing the ministry to them.”
Sharing for survival
St. John’s Bradley and Crocker Lutheran Parish in northern Clark County have found that sharing is key to their survival. Separated by little more than five miles, Marion Grimes has ministered both churches for the past decade.
“Certainly, the declining numbers in rural areas, we face that,” Grimes said.
“We’re seeing that rural decline as far as numbers.”
The two communities, which were both once thriving, are now scraping to get by. In one, there is a bar and in the other is a post office with hours that have just been reduced.
“There are no businesses really,” Grimes said.
In Bradley, the sign says the population is 112, but Grimes says she knows there are not that many residents anymore. Likewise, Crocker has about 20 people living there.
In her 10 years there, Grimes says she has performed 34 funerals in Crocker and 22 in Bradley.
“You put those two numbers together and that’s a lot of people gone from here,” she said.
When people start moving into assisted living and are living off of set incomes, Grimes says, “that’s a concern.”
Looking to the little ones
For many churches, it’s the upcoming generations that are offering hope. In Bradley, there seems to be a recent population increase with several younger families coming back to the community, people who grew up there wanting to return to raise their children.
“It’s looking good,” Grimes said. “We’ve never had so many young people!”
Grimes says their churches are doing what they can to make the younger generations feel more a part of the church. They hold contemporary worship services sometimes, which are geared towards the kids.
“We try to really encourage the younger ones,” she said.
Likewise, another area rural church is seeing an influx of young people beginning to attend.
According to John Sigdestad, a lifelong member of Bergen Lutheran Church near Bristol, “We have a large group of young folk coming up. It’s good to see so many young people coming (to services).”
Sigdestad says that the average Sunday morning attendance is now 35-40 people, although he remembers there being many more when he was a child.
Jan FitzGibbon, pastor for both Bergen and the American Lutheran Church in Webster, says declining population is the biggest difficulty churches face.
“It’s the number one problem for all churches,” she said.
Sigdestad agreed and said, “It gets hard to keep going sometimes. We’ve lost so many rural families. Farmers have just gotten bigger.”
But those farm families who are going to services there, according to FitzGibbon, are “good, solid families who help keep the church going.”
“I’m glad we can keep it going,” Sigdestad said. “We don’t like to see a church die.”
Bigger isn’t always better
Bigger churches and more attendance isn’t always a good thing.
According to McCarlson, oftentimes mega churches look at growth as a numbers game. “They start counting heads,” he explained.
For Tabor, although their church is growing, McCarlson says, “We look at how individuals are growing. It’s about the inward growth rather than the external growth.”
In the same sense, Grimes said that the smaller community churches have more of a family atmosphere.
“People are good about helping each other out,” she said. “We’re kind of a big family. Everyone comes together. If anyone needs anything, (someone) is there to help them out. The community comes together.”