Rural community churches transforming to become regional churches

The Northwest Conference is comprised of roughly 140 churches, ranging from rural to urban, big to small. As generations change, churches continue to seek out new approaches to ministry rooted in the unchanging fundamental of God’s desire for His Church to be fruitful.

One trend among rural churches in the NWC has been an emphasis on moving their ministry reach beyond just the local community, out into the broader region.

Dawson Covenant Church in Dawson, MN, and Mission Covenant Church in Poplar, WI are two examples of churches that have experienced this shift over the past decades. Their pastors, the Rev. Erik Carlson and the Rev. Darrell Nelson, recently shared insights from their experience.

How and when did you move from a community church to a regional church?

Nelson: We transitioned from a community church to a regional church in the early 1990s. As a result of our church’s music ministry, strong preaching and good youth and children’s programming, we started to experience growth to the point of needing a new church building.

In 1996, we transitioned from our old building to the new building and continued to add on in the following years as the church continued to grow.

Carlson: Our church has had members from nearby towns for decades, but in the past five years there has been significant growth from outside our immediate community. I don’t think we did anything intentional to target regional growth at the outset. Our focus was to be a healthy missional church that welcomed visitors and demonstrated God’s love.

Over time, we noticed more people coming from different communities on verbal recommendation. Any assessment, however, of how we became a regional church would not be fair without recognizing the larger demographic/church declining trends in our surrounding area. We are the only Covenant church in about an hour’s drive, and one of the few “evangelical” churches in the region.

Transitioning to a regional church happened to us, we weren’t directly striving to make it happen. Yet, what our church did recognize was God’s movement. We’ve hoped to cooperate with these changes as faithfully as possible.

What does ministry at your church look like as you have moved toward becoming a regional church?

Nelson: Our facility has really enabled us to host many large sized events to love, serve and share our faith with those in our community and region. We host weekly children’s playgroups, day care programs, sporting events, Boy Scouts, a Karate club, a monthly food-share program to help feed families in our region and much more in support of our greater community.

The average person attending our church drives 13 miles one way. As a result, we try to do everything really well in short blocks of time. We only offer one youth and one adult Bible study on Sunday mornings. Confirmation is offered on Sunday morning or Wednesday night, whichever meets the parents and families’ schedules and travel needs. We have a full hour Children’s Church and three Sunday morning worship services.

One of the real draws is the fellowship time between and during services in the fellowship hall. Coffee and refreshments are served and people just enjoy being together in community. We also have a variety of small groups located geographically in the regional communities for people who attend our church from further away.

Carlson: Over the church’s 125+ years, we have gone from ministering to Swedish immigrants in the township, to people from a variety of backgrounds from two counties. The church has always been tasked with making disciples. Our mission has just expanded from sending disciples into one community to many.

Recognizing that people were hearing about the church and were willing to drive a distance led us to make changes. Some of our events like ‘Lucia’ were beloved, but did not speak to the growing numbers of people that didn’t grow up in the Covenant and had no Swedish heritage. We transformed that fellowship event so that it invites people to bring whatever heritage foods they like.

We also had to rethink how we were making a broad spectrum of decisions based on a multi-community rather than a single-community model. What is unique about the ministry that you are doing?

Nelson: We have the only youth pastor in the region (rural churches). I believe also the only full-time youth pastor in the Evangelical Covenant Church in America in this small of a community—the Village of Poplar—603 people. Our youth programs draws youth from around the region.

Our Children’s Ministry, Mission Kidz!, is also really a huge focus in our church. We do not do Sunday School for our young children anymore, but strictly put all of our efforts into Mission Kidz! Children’s Church as we have a greater opportunity to reach non-churched, non-Christian families that way.

In addition, we have Individual Education Plans for any special needs children and will pair up a highly-skilled personal attendant to work with them alongside of the class. This ministry has had a powerful influence in our region and community.

Carlson: The church also took a leap of faith in hiring a full time youth pastor (the first additional pastoral staff in the church’s history) and building an addition focused on reaching the youth in the region. My understanding is that we are the only church in a 40-mile radius with full-time youth staff and regular weekly gathering.

What is your hope/vision for the future of your church and your region?

Nelson: Our area is in serious economic and social decline as people regularly leave for employment, schooling, opportunities, etc. The opioid/drug epidemic has also hit our county and neighboring county hard.

Certainly, we need revival and we need to faithfully continue all of our outreaches with the gospel and our ministries to our community. We want to continue to love God and love our neighbor!

Carlson: It is my hope that our church will continue to be a loving and welcoming place, and that God can use us to form mature disciples who will go on to make more disciples. I believe God wants to use our church to sustain and minister to the surrounding region for generations to come.