Shirley, Tracy and Pastor Jeff drove 5-1/2 hours to attend the Grow! Leadership Conference in Willmar, MN. Their team is part of a small church, situated in a small town surrounded by Minnesota’s Iron Range that serves as the gateway to Lake Vermillion, and yet the town is not itself a tourist destination.
“Only about 17 of us regularly attend and we are not growing,” said Tracy.
“Our church is over 100 years old, and previously was a dynamic church,” said Shirley, of Cook Covenant Church.
Cook Covenant Church exists in the often overlooked context many rural and small town churches experience: small, often-times struggling, lacking in resources but not passion.
Four years ago, 10 members of the church prayerful sat around a table to decide if that was the night they were supposed to close the church’s doors, but God had other plans.
“We went into a phenomenal prayer time, and we believe God was telling all of us to keep these doors open, so now we are trying to rebuild our little church,” said Shirley.
Bigger is not better, deeper is better, transformed is better
The team hired Pastor Jeff, and has since intentionally been active in the small town of 568 people: hosting tea parties at low income housing developments, handing out life sustaining bags to hospitalized assault victims, hosting conferences and women’s retreats.
The Cook Covenant team says they attended the Grow! Conference this year to be spurred on with ideas and encouragement on how to be relevant and flourish in their community.
“We need to do more to engage to survive in the future. We’re not ready to close the door yet,” said Pastor Jeff.
Embracing Different Rural Needs
Doing ministry in a small town often results in unique needs, challenges and relational experiences.
“Everybody knows where you live, everybody knows where you work, everybody knows your family and everybody knows what you did last night,” said Rev. Kevin Kompelien, President of the Evangelical Free Church of America, and the Grow! Keynote speaker.
You have the Spirit of God who is in you, He has given you His word… He’s given you some people to invest in, precious people
Rev. Kompelien encouraged the group of 275 rural pastors to whole-heartedly embrace the place God has called them, reminding them that Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in the small fishing village of Capernaum.
“God has given you and entrusted you with this incredible message of the Gospel, and He’s called you to a very unique place. And lest you think, because the place he’s called is not big, that it doesn’t matter. Bigger is not better, deeper is better, transformed is better,” said Rev. Kompelien.
Rev. Kompelien told pastors to avoid getting hung up on attendance statistics, by focusing on the transformative power and work of Jesus and how many people know Him and are becoming more like Him.
“Don’t believe the lies that you don’t have enough people or resources; that you live in too small of a town, or you don’t have the right opportunities,” Kompelien challenged.
“You have the Spirit of God who is in you, He has given you His word, with more translations, and more study help than has ever been available in the history of the world. And He’s given you some people to invest in, precious people.”
Flooded by Encouraging Messages
Rev. Kompelien’s hope-filled message was just one of nine workshops with messages that resonated with pastors in attendance, including the Cook team.
you have people like us, from rural areas… we’re all in the trenches together
“The emphasis has been on Christ as to where we begin and where we end,” said Shirley of Cook.
“This is a unique conference. Here you have people like us, from rural areas who are similar to us. We’re all in the trenches together,” Pastor Hector, Morris Evangelical Free Church in Morris, MN.
Pastor Paul of Birch Hills Church in Melrose, MN got choked up as he shared how the message at Grow! spoke to the particular needs and identity of his church team.
“Ministry in a rural area is very unique and difficult, yet it’s a well worthwhile ministry,” said Pastor Paul. “It’s helpful that I’m not the only one telling that to our church staff, I’m glad my staff really resonated with that, and feels encouraging that we’re not alone.”
A Diverse Picture of the Body of Christ
Grow! attendees hailed from a span of 800 miles across the Midwest; making their way from towns near the Canadian border, the heart of Iowa, and North and South Dakota.
We’re not just getting one perspective, showing that we are the Body of Christ
The Grow! Conference was led by a diverse array of denominations, church leaders, and speakers which evoked a unifying spirit in Christ.
“The president of the E-Free Church spoke first, the conference is held at an Assemblies of God church, with pastors from the Vineyard, Covenant, and Baptist denominations teaching the workshops. We’re not just getting one perspective, showing that we are the Body of Christ,” said Donna of Buffalo Free Church in Buffalo, MN.
Even the workshop topics were wide-ranging, including: confronting poverty, being multi-ethic, developing leaders, discipling younger generations, and being a healthy bi-vocational pastor.
Rural Context, Appropriate Content
Due to the unique context experienced in rural settings, participants said the content was fitting and in many cases invaluable.
Where God has called you, He has gifted and equipped you. And He’ll use you
“Cokato, MN is not very big, so this conference was really relevant. There are a lot of relational connections in our town, and that creates a different context than in a city where a lot of people don’t really know each other. The way we need to interact and design ministries is different for our church,” said Pastor Matt of Elim Mission Church in Cokato, MN.
“Ministry in an urban or suburban setting is so different from doing ministry in a rural town where scheduling is different, and so is how people live their lives; to have this space (at Grow!) for learning in the rural context is very helpful,” said Bracston of Buffalo Free Church in Buffalo, MN.
“What we’re taking back from these workshop and incorporating into our church is crucial,” said Heather of Buffalo Free Church.
We hope each person takes from Grow! a sense that God is with them in their rural church, and He will give them what they need to share His love and message to their small town.
“Where God has called you, He has gifted and equipped you. And He’ll use you,” cheered on Rev. Kompelien.