A Recipe for Vitality

January 31, 2018

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:

  1. This church has a heart for children and youth. Adults of all ages step up to care for and teach the kids through Sunday School, youth group, and Vacation Bible School (which can reach 50-75 kids from the community each summer). For example, the church ended 2017 with a nice surplus of funds. At a recent board meeting, Pastor Ric encouraged them to set aside funds so that 10-20 kids could go to camp next summer and to also use some of the money for the youth group. There was very little discussion; it was a no-brainer for this church.
  2. Older adults communicate to the younger generations that they are the future of the church, and they are encouraged to lead. The older adults promise to support and help them, but they don’t micromanage or tell the younger generation that they have to “do things the way things have always been done.”
  3. There is an openness to change. Members have encouraged Pastor Ric to make changes to the worship service—especially if it will be more meaningful to the younger adults, children, and youth.
  4. Younger adults with children have made a promise to one another to raise their children together in the faith. They are determined to make this a reality for their children and they have formed a fellowship group that they call “Friends for Life.” These families are just as busy as young families in the big cities with school and sports activities, but you don’t hear folks at Graham complain that young families these days are too busy for church.
  5. They are planning their first mission trip for adults so that all ages have opportunities to serve and grow in their faith.
  6. The church is a strongly lay led congregation. The pastor doesn’t have to pull teeth to get things done. He trusts that if there is something that needs to be done, like the annual financial audit, someone is making sure that others are submitting the necessary paperwork. People step up, and they recognize God is calling some of them to specialized lay ministries. There are now four trained lay ministers who handle key areas of programming.
  7. Hospitality is a genuine strength and not something that they pay lip service to. There is warmth and authenticity. It would be easy for a church with so many generations of families to become clan-like but not at Graham. They continually draw new people and no one feels like an outsider. For example, the first Wednesday of the month is a meal for the community. Nearly 150 people show up each month and are embraced. Vacation Bible School and the monthly meal are two of their feeder systems to reach new people and make an impact in their community.
  8. They deal well with conflict. They handle issues with grace and extreme care for one another. No one likes to deal with disputes, but they don’t back down, and they don’t do things that will damage their mission and vitality as a congregation.

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

122 West Franklin Avenue, Suite 400 Minneapolis, MN 55404


(612) 870-0058