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New Life in a Rural Church

In the U.S., the rural church has long been stable presence of faith and family in the community, a presence of hope and help through it all, both blessing and bane. The rural church has weathered it all, right along side the community.

 And like the surrounding community, it too has felt the effects of the waves of societal change washing over it, from the swelling tide of corporate farms eroding the family farm to its ebb carrying away young adults and families into the suburbs and cities. The landscape has changed significantly both church and community. Over the last generations, the church has watched its membership decrease while the age of its remaining members, in a sort of inverse ration, increases. As resources contract, the anxiety expands; congregations merge, others close, and pastors become sparse.

While this could describe any rural church in the U.S., this particular article happens to be a personal reflection of one rural church here in Dunn County. West Akers Lutheran Church, just west of Prairie Farm, was organized in 1905, which means it has been that stable presence of faith and family, hope and help  in the community for over 100 years. It is well acquainted with the ebbs and flows of change; it has experienced the decrease in members and resources and the increase in age and anxiety. West Akers, like other rural churches, has struggled with the question: “Is this the end?”

One of the traps many rural congregations, and communities for that matter, fall into is what is called “Inevitability Thinking.” Inevitability thinking is when we tend to think history is linear and an extension of the present, whether it be good or bad. Churches and communities that are growing and prospering tend to think this good fortune will continue. Churches and communities that are struggling, however, tend to think their problems will continue to worsen. The future, inevitably, looks either bright or bleak, depending upon one’s circumstances. Because of inevitability thinking, churches and communities that are struggling often think things will not change and, in a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy, things don’t change.

But history is not linear. In fact, history is anything but a simple straight line. History is full of twists and turns, with devastating disasters and extraordinary surprises. And if ever there is an institution with extraordinary surprises and filled with hope for new life, it is the Church. At the very heart and foundation of the Church is the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. The foundation of faith is filled with surprise, hope, and-best of all-new life! The God of surprises is our past, present, and future. This is what the rural Church offers, the promise of surprises and new life.

West Akers Lutheran Church has asked, in light of these significant changes, “Is this the end?” Their answer is yes…and no. Yes, this is the end because things have changed-as they always do. It is the end of how things used to be. And yet, it is not the end but a surprising beginning. West Akers Lutheran Church shares this reflection because it has not only experienced many surprises as of late but also looks for them.

West Akers Lutheran Church has faced similar struggles as other rural congregations but the surprises of the past few years help them remember and celebrate new opportunities. At their bleakest moment the members, with tenacious faith, moved forward to minister and served in the community. Rather than giving up, they pushed forward and found ways to gain the resources to continue doing ministry. They organized fundraisers such as garage sales, Valentine’s Day dinners, Hunters’ Breakfasts, Community Pancake Breakfasts and bake sales which allowed them to continue to be a helping and caring presence in the community. They were surprised with three wonderful transitional pastors who helped navigate these changes. And perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the growing presence of young children!

The congregation continues to not only expect surprises; they also go out looking for them. In November 2013, one of the members reached out to a pastor for their congregation. To make a long story short, both the congregation and the pastor were wonderfully surprised when they agreed to partner together. In December of 2013, Rev. Mark Woeltge of Lindstrom, Minnesota, accepted an appointment to serve as the Pastor of West Akers Lutheran Church (it is a good story; stop by and hear it). Pastor Woeltge has fifteen years of experience as an ordained minister and brings a unique blend of humor and intelligence and compassion and energy and magic (he is an amateur magician!). Pastor Woeltge has a wonderful gift with people young and old.

God is a God of surprises and new life. In Revelations 21, the One who sits on the throne declares: “See I am making all things new!’ we at West Akers Lutheran Church wanted to share a bit of our story as a reminder and a word of encouragement to not only expect surprises but also look for them. God is not done with rural communities, just the contrary. Rural communities are still the “breadbasket” of the world, able to feed the world both physically and spiritually. God can do and is doing new things in our congregations. Here at West Akers Lutheran Church, we are experiencing new life, growing in faith, hope, love, joy and friendship.

For over 100 years, the rural church has been a presence of faith and family, hope and help. And with God making all things new, we can expect many more years of ministry.

-Reflections of the West Akers Lutheran Church Council