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A church like a family; Members tout close-knit benefits of smaller churches

By Anna G. Larson

Forum News Service

WALCOTT, N.D. – When Nicole Rostad Holdman was growing up, it was like her life was full of multiple mothers and grandmas due to the community Richland Lutheran Church provided.

Rostad Holdman, a sixth generation member, ended up returning to the church after she was married and attends services there while living a half-hour north of Walcott in Fargo.

“I’d get lost in the crowd in a larger church,” she said. “In a small church, everybody has to help.”

It’s also important to her to show her young children what a small church is like.

“If we don’t show our kids a church like this now, they’ll likely never see it,” she said. “It’s like a church on a postcard, a little white church in the country.”

Older rural churches are shrinking across the U.S. Only one-third of churches formed in 1600 to 1945 are growing, according to a study by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

But Richland Lutheran and Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in nearby Colfax are growing and stable, attracting a combined 100 people on a typical Sunday during the school year.

Richland Lutheran was founded in 1879, and Our Savior’s in 1909. The churches share one pastor, one part-time organist and one janitor. In the summer, they combine services.

The two small congregations don’t combine because each church wants to retain its own identity, said the Rev. Roger Reinhart, who has been the pastor at both churches for 17 years

“We’re blessed with what we have in resources and congregation members,” said. “We’re alive and well.”

Where you’re missed

The appeal of smaller churches, Reinhart said, is the family aspect, the same dynamic that drew Rostad Holdman back.

“Churches our size have been described as family churches,” he said. “You’re missed if you’re not there.”

Diane Wehlander of Colfax has attended Our Savior’s for about 17 years. Both she and her husband grew up in small churches.

“There’s something comforting about having a church family,” she said. “It’s its own little community.”

Wehlander and her husband lived in Fargo for 10 years, where they still commute to for work, and tried attending various larger churches in the area.

“We never really felt all that at home in big churches,” she said. “There’s something comforting about having your small church family where they genuinely worry if you’re not there.”

In large congregations, if there’s a loss in membership, the church feels it, Reinhart said, but the congregation remains intact.

In small churches, that loss is felt in the form of a changed identity, he said.

Small churches are also unique because they generally don’t attract people who wish to remain anonymous, Reinhart said.

“It isn’t so much that large churches attract people who might want more anonymity, but one who wants to be anonymous wouldn’t seek out a small church,” he said.

In small churches, a larger percentage of the membership has to be involved in the leadership of the congregation, often filling more than one leadership position, Reinhart said.

“This may lead members of a small congregation to an even greater ownership of the congregation,” he said. “That then lends itself to a closer family feel again.”

Changing to grow

Richland Lutheran Church has about 200 members in its congregation, with an average Sunday attendance of 70. Our Savior’s Lutheran Church has just over 100 members and about 30 regular Sunday attendees.

Both churches’ weekly worship sizes fall in line with the national average; 59 percent of churches have seven to 99 weekly worshippers. More than one-third, 35 percent, have 100 to 499 weekly worshippers, according to the Hartford Institute.

Richland and Our Savior’s were seeing a decline in membership until about five years ago, Reinhart said. Our Savior’s is stable but not growing like Richland, he said.

Young adults moving back to the area and a church remodel are two major reasons Richland Lutheran is growing, Reinhart said.

“Richland has a lot of young people and a variety of ages,” he said.

Both churches are also focusing on new ministry and reorganizing their leadership in ways that would be familiar to attendees of larger churches.

Some of the leadership organization had been the same for 100 years, Reinhart said. “I think reorganizing has brought new life into the parish,” he said.

The reorganization started three years ago, leading the congregations to approve last year a new model of leadership that includes four ministry teams.

During this process, the parish formed a parish worship committee, a praise band and an education committee.

“It’s interesting to see that we’re not limited to the members who were born into it,” Rostad Holdman sad. “We’re thriving and attracting new members.”

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