By Karen Wingate
The ground swelled beneath me as my plane descended toward the Moline, Illinois, airport. Looking out the oval window, I saw a patchwork landscape dotted with clusters of trees and buildings that represented small towns tucked between corn and soybean fields. After living in Western Illinois for several years, I knew each town of less than 1,000 residents contained several small churches, none with a membership much over 150.
Most megachurches have larger populations than such small towns as LaHarpe, Stronghurst, and Roseville. The population base of Western Illinois would never sustain the likes of a large, multiservice church. Yet for most of my life, I’ve heard people use terms like lukewarm and deadwood to describe small, static churches. Is there any hope for the rural church that has no potential of megachurch status?
I soon discovered that in spite of their humble buildings and family-like atmospheres, the churches of Western Illinois are having tremendous impact on kingdom growth. They just go about growth in a different way. Or as Steve Minkler, minister at the Stronghurst Christian Church, said, “We’re not just suckin’ on a hayseed.”
How does a small rural church stay viable, even vibrant? Three Western Illinois churches believe the solution is to make evangelism a priority. As Jim Oliver, an elder at the Roseville Christian Church, put it, “The church’s role is to always be evangelistic, whether it’s in a rural or metropolitan location.” Even small towns contain people outside the church who need Jesus and believers who crave discipleship, encouragement, comfort, and opportunities to serve. This desire to reach outward enables these churches to survive and thrive.
LaHarpe: Released to Serve
The church in LaHarpe believes outreach is a matter of mindset. Their strategy has been to lend support to those called to serve outside the walls of the church. Nothing showcases this philosophy better than the ministry of One Family, One Purpose.
When church members Roy Day and Ryan Johnson heard the news about the EF-5 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, they felt compelled to help with the cleanup efforts. During their time in the devastated city, the two men caught a vision of how they could combine their construction and organizational skills to create a disaster relief ministry. Their plan was to utilize the financial resources and volunteer spirit of several churches in Western Illinois. In the ensuing four years, they and their teams of volunteers have built seven homes through One Family, One Purpose.
The LaHarpe church initially helped them establish a financial framework and supported them with prayer and encouragement, but the ministry quickly grew beyond the confines of the local church.
“This has little to do with building an actual home,” said Nate McCarter, minister at the LaHarpe Christian Church. The people who volunteer with One Family, One Purpose weren’t necessarily regular churchgoers, Nate explained. While rebuilding, workers observed the lives of other workers, watched God answer specific prayers during the build, and caught the essence of why they were there in the first place. “They come back changed,” Nate said.
LaHarpe carries the theme of outreach into other facets of church life. Church members volunteer for other construction projects, such as the Carpenter’s Crew, a group that builds homes in Mexico. They are involved in the community food pantry and church functions like the Harvest Hoedown, an annual event that brings community people to the church property, allowing them to rub shoulders with church people.
This involvement, explained Nate, helps people “understand we are there to serve them.”
Stronghurst: Using Their Gifts
Several ladies in the Stronghurst Christian Church found a way to use their unique skills to support One Family, One Purpose. Under the vision casting of Angela Meyer, a group of women make bed covers, afghans, or quilts for the beds of every single family member whose home is being rebuilt. The church is a staging area for collecting used furniture and other household items to furnish the new homes. One year, in conjunction with One Family, One Purpose, the church initiated rebuilding a home that had burned down in a nearby community. The couple were both mentally challenged and had lived in a tent for most of a year.
The ladies make hospitality bags filled with toiletries and other useful items for an outreach in Mexico, directed by Bruce and Paula Hepburn. The sewing group makes the bags, and then puts out a call to the church at large for donations to fill the bags. Church members make one or two trips a year to deliver the gifts and other needed items.
Desiring to seek a forward and outward focus, the Stronghurst church intentionally hired a family life minister. While their youth program is not strong, they are building their youth program from the ground up, reaching young families who have filled the church nursery in recent months with 13 babies. They also emphasize service to others and community involvement.
“Our people prefer to be hands-on,” Steve Minkler said. “They want to get in the car and go. Sometimes our Sunday morning attendance shows that.”
Steve believes that gospel preaching is the key to building a mindset of service: “Keep preaching the Bible. That’s what turns people on to helping.”
When Roy and Ryan presented their passion for the One Family, One Purpose ministry to the Roseville Christian Church, the leadership didn’t hesitate. Rolling up their sleeves and digging into their pockets was nothing new for this missions-minded church. Since 1967 the congregation’s Faith Promise program has supplied local and foreign missions with over two million dollars. Faith Promise giving represents about one-third of the church’s annual budget.
Their missions-oriented thrust doesn’t stop with financial support. Years ago the small congregation set a precedent for outreach by establishing a local nursing home. Several church members found jobs there and Jim Oliver resigned as minister to take on the position of administrator, a post he held for many years. Even after the nursing home was sold to a for-profit organization, the church remained involved through Bible studies, helping with mail distribution, Christmas caroling, and special programs (such as a bridal show where women modeled dresses from over a 50-year time span).
Today the men of Roseville attend a monthly men’s fellowship of 45 churches from Illinois and Iowa to support the LaMoine Christian Service Camp. Groups of Roseville women knit hats and scarves for various missions groups and take homemade cookies to the Campus Students for Christ ministry at Western Illinois University. Recently 10 women sewed 250 individual cloth tissue packet holders to give to Elder Orphan Care, a ministry to elderly homeless folk in Romania.
Roseville Christian Church has a different take on internal growth. The worship service on Sunday morning becomes the last step to a newcomer’s involvement rather than the first. They use many approaches to facilitate community outreach, including an after-school kids’ program on Tuesday where 75 percent of the children are unchurched and a Wednesday evening $2 donation community supper. A knitting group on Thursday nights has loved several women and families into fellowship with Christ and his church.
Space doesn’t permit me to tell of other rural churches like the one in Indiana that fills a container car once a year with clothes for Christians in Eastern Europe, a church of 15 members that collected 20 jars of peanut butter for a mission group, or a church nestled in the wheat fields of Kansas that is known and lauded for their funeral dinner ministry. These congregations are living the axiom that the most important church is the one you are serving.
The churches in Western Illinois have discovered that by banding together, they can do even more for the kingdom of God. LaHarpe, Stronghurst, and Roseville’s work with the LaMoine Camp, the campus ministry at Western Illinois University, and One Family, One Purpose has been in cooperation with many other area churches. The parachurch organizations serve as a unifying force for the churches, explained Jim.
“When the small churches come together, we become like a megachurch,” Nate added. “The churches work together to make things happen. We might be separated by distance, but we are united in purpose.”
Jim best described the impact of the small rural church: “You never know what little things we do that will influence lives.”
Karen Wingate and her husband, Jack, work with the church in Roseville, Illinois. She writes a blog (GraceOnParade.com).