By Bob Smietana
Back in the 1970s, things looked pretty bleak for a pair of churches in rural Kansas. Alert Covenant Church and Clay Center Covenant Church were small and aging with so little money they were forced to share a retired missionary as pastor. Both were barely hanging on.
Then, little by little, things started to change.
Some new people showed up at both Alert and Clay Center Covenant. The older members welcomed them with a smile and made room in the pews. Today, both of the congregations are thriving—despite being in an area where few people go to church.
Kansas, in general, is a fairly religious state. About three-quarters of Kansans identify as Christian, according to Pew Research. Just over half are part of a congregation and regularly attend services, according to the 2010 U.S. Congregational Membership Report.
But in Riley County, home to Alert Covenant Church, only about a third of the people have ties to a church.
Focused on Families
“There are a lot of people here who say, yes I believe in God,” says Dwight Diller, pastor of Alert Covenant. “But they aren’t engaged with a church.”
Diller’s been pastor at Alert for more than two decades. It’s the only church he’s ever served. Ironically, the first time the church tried to call him as the pastor he turned them down.
At the time, he and his wife were doing ministry with kids and youth—traveling from church to church, running Vacation Bible Schools.
One of those churches was Alert Covenant. When their previous pastor left, the church asked Diller to serve as interim, and then later as permanent pastor. He said no at first, thinking he wasn’t ready. But after another pastor came and went, they asked again, and this time he agreed.
It’s worked out pretty well, says Diller.
The church has seen some changes over the years. When he arrived, the church had about 100 people, he says.
Since then, the church has grown to about 140 people. And the average age has decreased, says Diller.
“We’ve worked really hard to try and attract families,” he says. “That’s where we’ve seen the most growth.”
Like every church, Alert has its struggles.
A number of people from church drive to Manhattan, about 35 five miles away, for work, so they’re less likely to have time for small groups or other church events or ministries during the week. People—even out in the country—are always busy, says Diller.
There are other issues in the community. The divorce rate is high. Meth use—a problem that plagues many small communities—is an issue. Jobs aren’t that plentiful. The local food pantry, run by churches, serves about 25 families a week.
Still, there are benefits to rural life. Diller says he appreciates the connectedness of a small town, where everyone knows their neighbors and is willing to lend a hand.
In their church, some of the church members have three generations worshipping together. “The community is family oriented, and so is our church,” he says.
A similar rebound happened at nearby Clay Center Covenant Church. It all started with kindness, prayer, and few tasty treats from a local bakery.
A welcome table
In 1977, Beth and Maury Catlin, a newly married couple who’d just graduated from Kansas State, arrived in Clay to teach at the local high school. The two had been active in college ministries and wanted to find a church.
They ended up at Clay Center, a tiny Covenant church where most of the members were in their 70s. Still, the Catlins felt at home.
The sermons were plainspoken and filled with kindness; the congregation was warm and welcoming. One of the older couples befriended the Catlins, who had no family nearby, often inviting them for dinner.
Catlin said she knew that Clay Center Church was her home not long after her son Ryan was born. He was crying one morning in church, and she got up to leave. Other church members told her to stay.
“It sounds so good to hear a baby in church,” one of them told her. “We haven’t heard that sound for so long.”
By 1980, when the Catlin’s second child was born, there were five kids in the children’s program, a veritable baby boom.
Other young families began attending—some of those families discovered the church through a small Bible study that met in a local bakery. The Catlins and some friends from town had started the study to meet other young couples. Diller, who later became the pastor at Alert Covenant, also took part in the Bible study.
Most of the folks from the group joined the church. They wanted their kids to grow up in a church that would love them and nurture their faith, says Catlin.
Busting at the seams
Within a few years, the tiny church was overcrowded. So, they set up a television in the church’s basement and piped in the service. Newcomers met in the sanctuary, while the regulars watched in the basement.
There was no flash to the service. Money was still tight. But people were genuinely glad to see newcomers.
Anderson did all the small things to make people feel welcome. If someone was missing, he noticed. And the older people took the new people under their wing.
Now retired from teaching, Catlin says her next job is to make sure every person who walks in the door feels just as welcome as she did 40 years ago.
“When someone walks in the door, we want them to know we care. You can’t hire someone to do that.”“When someone walks in the door, we want them to know we care,” she says. “You can’t hire someone to do that. You have to have all the people in the church welcoming them.”
Regardless of the perks or problems of their small town, Catlin says she knows this is where they’re supposed to be.
“We have a mission field right here.”
BOB SMIETANA (@bobsmietana) is former senior writer for Facts & Trends. In September, Bob joined Religion News Service as editor-in-chief.