OSLO, Minn. — A tiny Lutheran church, in the middle of a sugar beet field near Oslo, Minn., is reaching people around the world, thanks to the resourcefulness of its pastor, Chris Rosebrough, who credits much of the growth of the church’s international outreach to COVID-19.
Now, because of Internet connections, Kongsvinger Lutheran Church is reaching people throughout the United States as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Barbados, Canada, Finland, Scotland, Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Switzerland and African nations.
Kongsvinger was founded 140 years ago by immigrants from a community on the border between Norway and Sweden. Some of them had relocated from Finland.
For the past several decades, the congregation slipped from 40 to 50 members, or about 20 family units.
“When I got there, there were maybe 15-18 attendees,” said Rosebrough, who was installed as pastor in 2014.
Like many small, rural churches, Kongsvinger’s membership had been steadily shrinking, as congregants moved away and technology allowed for larger farms, which needed fewer farm families to operate.
“We were not going to grow in numbers,” said Don Mathsen, church treasurer and lifelong church member. “Probably, in 15 or 20 years or so, the church would have died out, literally, like many small country churches throughout the area have in the past 50 years or so.”
Since March, more than 300 individual IP addresses have registered to attend one or more Kongsvinger services. About 80 family units faithfully attend one or more worship, devotional and educational sessions each week. These include three Catechism classes on Thursday, men’s and women’s Bible studies Saturday mornings, two international Aletheia worship services on Saturday afternoons and Sunday morning service and Bible study.
Just as Norwegian and Swedish were the languages of the church in 1880, it is again possible to hear participants, over the Internet, converse in Norwegian and Swedish, Rosebrough said.
“Nobody could foresee what would take place,” said Mathsen, noting that COVID impacted the area in unexpected ways.
About Rosebrough and his Internet ministry, Mathsen said: “Some have found it a distraction, and others found it amazing that other people around the world would attend. I would say he’s breathed a whole new congregation into the church. In the past nine or 10 months, it’s become a different congregation.
"(The church) is much larger and much more diverse, and (people in) different parts of the world have brought new perspectives,” he said.
“The Internet has actually breathed new life into Kongsvinger, and some people think it’s great and some people are a little threatened by it,” said Rosebrough, noting that he laments the fact that some members have left the church.
Rosebrough’s outreach ministry began when he started Pirate Christian Radio in 2008. He’s been doing his radio podcast five days a week, “Fighting for the Faith,” for the past 12 years.
Recently, Rosebrough began preaching to and interacting with people through the Internet, first using Skype, later GoToMeeting and finally through Zoom. He said his audience consists of people who “couldn’t figure out how to fit into their church anymore or they’re geographically out in the middle of nowhere."
“We’re happy to refer them to a good congregation, but we noticed a small number who were just geographically falling through the cracks," he said.
“In the time that I’ve been doing this, we have built a very international audience; we’ve been reaching people all over the world,” said Rosebrough, who, in addition to his seminar studies, holds degrees in business administration and entrepreneurship and has a background in corporate business.
“The goal was to find a way to get Lutheran doctrine and theology at least available for people to learn about who are not Lutherans,” he said. “The thing I’ve learned about Lutherans is they like to keep to themselves. I decided to drag them out of their mighty fortress and put them into the marketplace of ideas and try to help people have contact with people who are Lutherans, because finding a Lutheran is actually more difficult in some parts of the country than finding Sasquatch.”
Kongsvinger church began offering services online, starting with one family and the audience grew from there. Through its Aletheia outreach program, Rosebrough began serving people internationally, some of whom have provided financial assistance to the church. In several cases, new local churches are being formed in countries abroad as outgrowths of the Aletheia Program.
The financial support is very important, according to Mathsen, explaining there have been some substantial gifts to upgrade equipment for Internet programming.
“It’s just a growing group. We don’t even advertise it," said Rosebrough, pointing out that the basis for growth has been word-of-mouth. We really want people to get plugged into a local church; we want Aletheia to be a choice of last resort."
The livestreamed Aletheia services are presented from the pastor's home in Grand Forks at noon Saturdays to reach people in Africa and western Europe and at 5 p.m. Saturdays to reach those in Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
After COVID struck worldwide, many in his international audience became involved with the Kongsvinger church because their own churches halted in-person services.
International viewers who participate in the Aletheia outreach programming are becoming tied to the Kongsvinger church in ways no one could have predicted, Rosebrough said. Along with local members, they are viewing the church services and taking part in post-service Bible studies which allows them to ask questions and delve more deeply into the message embodied in the sermon. They’re also participating in a women’s Bible study that the pastor’s wife, Barb Rosebrough, conducts.
“People overseas have always felt an affinity for Kongsvinger,” he said. “Kongsvinger has become a lifeline for them. Attendance at Kongsvinger, because of people who are attending virtually, has just gone through the roof. This is a tiny little church in the middle of a sugar beet field in rural Oslo."
“Rather than COVID creating a problem, we’ve just exploded,” Rosebrough said. “COVID has been like the best thing that’s ever happened to Kongsvinger; it’s the weirdest thing.”