I was asked to serve as the pastor for a small group of people meeting in Ekalaka during my time at American Lutheran Church in Baker. I think there were 10 people at my first service there. We gathered in the Catholic Church at that time. A couple of mothers had a Sunday School for their children who were in 1st and 2nd grade at the time, three children. I started a bible study Wednesday nights for the adults that was well received.
One Sunday, the lone 4th grade girl approached me. Valorie was a bit precocious in a good sort of way. "Pastor, I've been thinking about our Church a lot. We have services on Sunday. They have Sunday School for the little kids. And you're doing a Bible study for the adults. But there is nothing for kids my age. I think we should start a youth group for my age."
"That's a great idea Valorie, but I see one problem. You're the only youth your age, and its hard to have a youth group with only one kid."
"Pastor, I told you I've been thinking about this a lot. And you know what? I knew you would say that. (As she shook her finger at me.) So, I have a deal to make with you. If you will come and start a youth group, I'll bring my friends."
So we started a youth group.
The first day Valorie was disappointed and discouraged. She had invited here whole class from school, and only her best friend Sam (short for Samantha) came. And so, Valorie, Sam, and I had a youth group meeting. They insisted that we start with a bible lesson of some sort, and then we could play games. Soon, Sam's little brothers and sisters came. I'm still tire when I think of trying to keep up with them. Their favorite game was a form of tag, and I was always "It", and they would escape from me under the pews and every which way. In order to keep up with them, I'd use my long legs and run over the top of the pews. Rowdy behavior, I know, but hey, this was Ekalaka.
What was amazing is what happened the next Easter. 10 people were baptized, including three generations of Sam's family. Later, St. Elizabeth's Lutheran Church was formally organized as a congregation with about 60 or more members. This in one of the most isolated, rural, areas in our country. A few years ago, I was blessed to attend the dedication of their new sanctuary which they had built with all sorts of volunteer labor. Quite an amazing building.
"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few." What Jesus meant, quite frankly, is we need more Valories. "You bring the message, I'll bring my friends."
The problem is we don't actually believe there is a harvest to be had. And so many of us simply think that we are off the hook as evangelists. The result is that congregations are dying in communities that have hundreds of thousands more people than Ekalaka. I mean, if anyone had reason to be pessimistic it would have been the Ekalaka folks. No one in our Church's evangelism offices would have tagged Ekalaka, a small isolated rural community with a dwindling population, as a good place to start a Church.
Perhaps the reason why St. Elizabeth's worked, was the make up of the farmers/ranchers there. You see, Ekalaka is not Iowa with deep rich loam and abundant rain fall. For soil they have this gumbo. And what rain they do get, evaporates quite quickly in 100 degree temperatures with 30 mile per hour winds. But somehow, against all odds, they've learned to prosper on this land. Harvesting a crop that many would think impossible.
"All, hell, any place in Montana is a good place to start a bar."
Can it be true for the Church as well. Any place is a good place to start a church.
That is, if you'll make the same deal as Valorie.