Pastor Bethel Church-Kerkhoven, MN & founder of Best Life Ministries
I remember the day clearly. White puffy clouds peppered the sky, as a cool breeze blew over the little, rural church where I was guest speaking in a neighboring town that Sunday morning.
Once I had finished my sermon, I waited outside and chatted with people as they left. The demographics that morning were ages fifty to ninety.
A tall grandpa, hair slicked back and thick black glasses sliding down his nose grabbed my hand. He asked, "Can we talk?"
For the next few minutes, my husband, Dean and I listened to his sad story. He attended a small Lutheran church several miles away, whose numbers were dwindling. He told us how the younger generations had moved on to colleges, jobs, and large cities.
A steady stream of tears dripped down his nose, past his glasses onto the ground. I listened and held his hand as he cried. "Can you help us? We can only meet two times a month because no pastor will come out to serve us. Would you come and speak once and a while?" I nodded, gave him my number and prayed with him.
As Dean and I got into our SUV, we determined to help rural churches however we could. Dean drove, I prayed.
A short week later Bethel called me to come and speak. Fifteen miles from our home, I was familiar with the kind congregation. For five years I had filled in for their pastor. That pastor had left and an interim was at the helm, ready to retire.
As I headed up front to speak, the head deacon asked me if I would consider applying for the job as their part-time, lead pastor. Although we had just prayed and committed to help rural churches, this was a bit different than what we imagined.
Growing up Baptist, I knew that being a woman would be a challenge for this rural church. But I also knew the flip side. Pastors today are uncertain about the challenges of rural America, and unsure how to shepherd those congregations. Congregations can't afford salaries to support pastors with families. That day alone, there were nine openings for lead pastoral positions within a sixty-mile radius.
After prayer and conversations, I graciously accepted the position. That was 18 months ago. I moved forward with an attitude that welcomed the challenge of change. If we were to grow, it was time to revolutionize and change what our church had done since its beginnings in the 1890s.
Change is a funny thing. Most of us like change when we can control it. Many of us dread change, oppose it, and even become depressed at the very thought of the concept.
But without change, we can become stagnant. The same old same old brings a dried out, musty feel to our very essence. Our main focus can become diminished and our vision can burn out like a candle that has burned its way down to nothing.
Bethel had burned down to about 38 people in attendance. God would need to work with us to bring changes that would draw people inand encourage them to stay.
Utilizing social media, my son-in-law's graphic skills, and word of mouth, we began to welcome interested visitors. During my first eight months, 86 visitors attended worship services. But they weren't staying. It was time to step back and analyze.
Change was inevitable. What hadn't worked must be re-worked, re-created, re-envisioned.
Bethel sought God and He led us to these four key changes:
1. Createa culture (value our church and others)
2. Cast a vision (reach the lost and deepen our relationship with Jesus)
3. Construct a welcoming atmosphere (re-design the look and feel of the building & service)
4. Care for people (make people want to attend and feel connected)
The church body was so used to their habits and patterns, they had a difficult time understanding what was unappealing to the visitor.
Our people were coming late, leaving early, and were no longer connected. What was once exciting had become rote and mundane.
It was time to create a culture. It was time to be excited about church.
I began by creating an "Entry" class. Once you visited several weeks and showed interest, you came to supper at our farm with key church leaders. My father always told me, "Kathleen, invite people over — people just like to be together."
Once connected, we moved forward with our "Next" class, a lunch following our morning service. We talked about our history and vision for the future. We asked about their relationship with Jesus and followed up with baptism, if necessary, and membership.
Next, Bethel created an atmosphere of 10/10. Within 10 minutes, visitors will know if they want to return. I asked our people to come 10 minutes early. Stay 10 minutes later. Use 10 times more energy to focus on visitors.
From the pulpit, I cast vision for growth. I envisioned a church with people growing in their relationships with Jesus Christ. Energy. Commitment. Things happening.
It was time to bring change. We created a logo for the church. We designed a new look for the interior. We created small groups. Reformatted Sunday mornings. But change does not come without a cost, and many were troubled. We walked beside them, worked with them, and prayed continually!
Shoulder to shoulder, seeking God, we pushed through decisions and began our steps into a world of change. Out with the old pink, fabric-covered pews and in with dark grey, multi-purpose chairs. The worn blue carpet was changed out with soft gray-toned carpet squares. Walls were painted, dark corners brightened, light fixtures updated.
With relevant messages and a comforting atmosphere, we heard changes in the responses of our visitors. "Welcoming." "Warm." "Inviting." "Comforting." "Makes you feel ready to worship." Many saw our updates on social media. Growth began. We brought back many of those who had dropped off and welcomed twenty-five new regular attendees. Looking out from the stage, the rows were beginning to fill with young adults, and families with children.
Recently at our "Entry" supper at the farm, a visiting couple told us why they were attending. They said, "Because we feel loved and cared about. Where does that happen in today's society?" Our people had begun to love deeply and care about each person who walked through the doors.
Although still in process, we are growing through the change. Growing through our experiences. We're learning. We're challenged. We're praying. We're leaning into God. We’re looking to the past for help and looking to the future for hope.
For at the very core purpose of why we do what we do is simply this — we embrace the mindset of Jesus' words in Luke 14:23. In His parable He said, "Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full."
Bethel won't change God's Word or our beliefs that have withstood the tides of time. But we will continue to look for ways to invite people to come in the doors and grow in their knowledge and faith of Jesus Christ.
Kathy Weckwerth, Pastor Bethel Church-Kerkhoven, MN & founder of Best Life Ministries
Kathy Weckwerth is founder and executive director of Best Life Ministries and lead pastor at Bethel Church in Kerkhoven, Minnesota. She's also an author of 6 books, a newspaper columnist, and host of the radio show/podcast YOUR BEST with Kathy Weckwerth. Kathy has served in church leadership for 30 years, most of that time as a worship leader. Her passion is to encourage women so that they know with confidence that God meets them and loves them in their day-in-day-out world. She and her husband Dean have three kids, three grandkids, and a farm. They live next door to their headquarters: a 1900-vintage church they purchased for a dollar on Craigslist.