On a beautiful fall Sunday last October, surrounded by gently rolling farmland, the time had come during the worship service for the faithful to share the joys and concerns of their lives. As expected, there were several prayers lifted up for the ill and those who were struggling. And then, a long-term member spoke up. “I am just so thankful to be here today and for this church and for all of you. And, I’m so happy that there are two pews filled with four generations of my family.” She said this through a few tears of joy, and I was struck that I don’t hear that kind of deep gratitude often enough for the gift of a congregation.This is a typical Sunday at Graham UMC, located 5 miles east of the little town of Rice in central Minnesota. GPS won’t exactly get you there, but when you arrive you won’t want to leave, for this is a very vital congregation. After worship, thirty kids will spill out onto the church’s baseball diamond or start climbing on the playground equipment while adults enjoy the brunch that is served most Sundays. It feels so idyllic. Every time I visit I can’t help but think of the 1980s movie Field of Dreams. When actor Kevin Costner is asked if the baseball diamond in his cornfield is heaven he says, “No, it’s Iowa!” If someone asked me if this was heaven, I would smile and say, “No, it’s just Graham United Methodist Church!”
About a year ago, Rev. Ric Koehn saw a posting that this church needed a new pastor and was interested. Ric had retired from ministry but realized he wasn’t really ready for retirement. When he saw that this was a small, quarter-time pastoral position, he thought it would be the perfect way to stay busy in retirement, ministering to what he thought would be a small group of elderly folks. He was so surprised to learn how large and how vital this congregation was with only a quarter-time pastoral position.
The recipe for vitality
How does a rural church miles from the nearest town, at a time when there is such decline in traditional congregations across the United States, maintain such vitality?
I believe there are several factors that are contributing to their health:
I was recently talking to some members of a church that has been through a season of conflict. When they shared with me their belief that it is not possible for churches these days to reach younger generations I shared with them the story of Graham. When I shared the part where the older members of Graham have been willing to let go of the reins and let the younger generation lead, one member of the conflicted church said, “Oh, that could never happen here! We have folks that will never let go of control.” I felt very sad to hear this. Granted, it is much harder for a congregation that has lost all of its younger folks to change dramatically enough to rebuild and reach new generations. Many do wonder whether it is even possible. I am convinced that a turnaround is possible and can happen in many of our long-established churches now, if we have enough courage to make those major changes and to live deeply into the mission.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church