This article was originally published by The Mennonite

The anatomy of a rural church

10 learnings from summer prayer walks around the church’s neighborhood

In the winter of 2008, I was granted a four-month sabbatical from my home congregation, Salem Mennonite Church in Freeman, S.D., where I served as lead pastor. The theme of my sabbatical was “Renewing the Vision for Rural Ministry.” I wanted to pull together what I had been learning about rural ministry for the past 36 years.

A spiritual discipline I engaged during my sabbatical was a weekly, day-long (sunrise to sunset) walk in a natural setting. After my sabbatical, I resolved to be more intentional about the spiritual discipline of walking. So I planned and led four prayer walks from June through September 2009. These were walks of eight miles around four sections in each quadrant of the church—southeast, southwest, northwest and northeast, lasting three to four hours with prayers.

Kaufman_SRoySetting and context of the rural congregation. Salem Mennonite Church celebrated its centennial in 2008, having begun as an outgrowth of the original Swiss Volhynian Mennonite congregation established 2.5 miles north of Salem in 1880. This group of Amish background had come to America from the Ukraine in 1874. Salem experienced rapid growth during its first four decades, from a charter membership of 129 in 1908 to 539 in 1950. However, its decline was nearly as dramatic, declining from a peak membership of 578 in 1970 to a current membership of about 370.

The four prayer walks I led encompassed the church’s immediate neighborhood, 16 square miles in the north central part of Childstown Township, with the church at the center. This neighborhood is all rural countryside. Salem Church overlooks Turkey Ridge Creek, with Turkey Ridge beyond. Two of the four prayer walks crossed Turkey Ridge Creek, and the area is traversed by north to south creeks tributary to Turkey Ridge Creek.

Southeast South Dakota was first inhabited by Native Americans, becoming the home of the Nakota Sioux nation in the 1700s. The United States “purchased” Louisiana, the Missouri/Mississippi watershed, from France in 1803. The Nakota nation ceded control of southeast South Dakota to the United States in the 1858 Yankton treaty. Turner County was surveyed in the 1860s, and Mennonites arrived in 1874.

Ministry area of Salem Mennonite Church. Prior to the prayer walks, I had identified the church’s ministry area, 29 townships extending approximately 15 miles in each direction from the church. This is where most of the local membership resides, mostly in Turner and Hutchinson counties. This area has two towns of about 1,300 people and seven smaller towns. There are eight school districts, two hospitals, facilities for the aged and medical clinics, as well as rural water, rural electric and telecommunications services. There are 57 Christian congregations in this area, representing more than a dozen denominations.

The church is in Turner County, with a 2009 population of 8,237, a decline of 6.9 percent since 2000. The town of Freeman, where many members live, is in Hutchinson County, with a 2009 population of 7,124, a decline of 11.8 percent since 2000. The population density is about 10 per square mile, and the population is overwhelmingly white (98 percent), though a Hispanic minority is growing. Within a 50-mile radius of the church, there are two cities of about 14,000 each and one metropolitan area, Sioux Falls, to the northeast. This is the rural area Salem Church is called to serve in the name of Jesus.

Here are 10 learnings I gleaned in the course of the prayer walks.

1. Walk participants. I invited the congregation to participate in the four prayer walks and provided a handout describing the walk, the prayer stops, a description of the quadrant and a listing of all the members in that quadrant. Four farmers showed up and joined me for the walks. Four other men joined us on later walks, and on our last two walks, one intrepid woman. I had envisioned these as silent walks except for prayers. But I made no objection when the men began to converse as we walked. Indeed, one of the richest benefits of the walks was what we learned from one another about our community and our church.

2. Prayer walks as a spiritual discipline. Some of the individuals who participated in the walks were not likely to show up for a prayer meeting at church, but they all participated authentically in the spiritual discipline of these walks. Churches are often one-dimensional in the exercise of spiritual disciplines. The prayer walk provided an alternative spiritual discipline for those uncomfortable in conventional prayer meeting settings.

3. Praying for each member of the church family by name. There were 546 people (369 members) in our church family in 2009. I had resolved to pray for each member of the church family, pausing for prayer in proximity to their homes. It was a powerful experience to pray audibly by name for every person in our church family, sometimes acknowledging in prayer special needs and experiences members were having.

4. The physical location of church members. We discovered that only 37 members (10 percent of the total) lived within the church’s neighborhood. The bulk of our membership, 246 (66.7 percent) lived in the rest of the church’s ministry area. Another 31 members (8.3 percent) lived in the 50-mile radius around the church beyond the ministry area. And the rest of the members (55, or 15 percent) were nonresident members living beyond southeast South Dakota. This location of the church’s membership outside the immediate neighborhood of the church has implications for the church’s ministry and ministry area.

5. Historical sites relevant to the congregation. Since 30 of the 110 pioneer homesteads in the East Freeman community in 1874 were in the church’s neighborhood, we heard many stories about these pioneers. One pioneer homestead was the now abandoned home of my great grandfather, Christian Kaufman. He was a pastor for the first Swiss Volhynian congregation from 1878 until his death in 1906. We walked within a half-mile of the original church he served, past the site of another early Mennonite church destroyed by a storm in 1902, near the site of a breakaway church in the 1920s and through the Salem cemetery. Walking these 16 square miles put us in touch with the lives of our pioneer forebears and the history of our congregation.

6. The rhythms of the natural world. Two of our walks began in foggy or drizzly weather, but we persevered. Our walks began with a Scripture reading and a prayer in Native American style, turning in each direction to give thanks for the portion of the day and the season associated with that direction—morning and spring to the east, noonday and summer to the south, evening and fall to the west, and nighttime and winter to the north. As modern people we have isolated ourselves from the rigors of the weather and the rhythms of the natural world upon which our lives depend.

7. The variety and diversity of natural life. Walking the country lanes, we could see the biodiversity of our rural community. We saw the wildflowers (and yes, weeds) and wildlife (and yes, sometimes pests). We heard the buzz of insects, the songs of birds. We became aware of the natural community of life with which our lives are bound up. We saw the effects of invasive species (including ourselves and our crops and livestock) on the land and the ecosystem, in the form of eroded land, polluted streams, natural imbalances, litter and ill health.

8. The depopulation of the rural community. We estimated the population of these 16 square miles to be 115, or 7.2 per square mile. We identified 55 building sites where there was or had been a homestead, 3.4 homesteads per square mile, as one would expect when homesteads were made on 160 acres. A quarter of these homesteads were now abandoned. There were 40 occupied homesteads in these 16 square miles, 2.5 per square mile. Of these, 29 were operating farms, and the other 11 were rural residences, occupying what were once farmsteads. It is significant that over a quarter of the homes in the church’s neighborhood were occupied by nonfarm residents we did not know well. A major challenge for the rural church is learning to know and include a more diverse population into the life of the community and the church. In 1905, the population of Turner County was 13,895; today it is 8,237. Almost half the population of the county has disappeared in the past century.

9. Losing control of the land. Using plat maps, we found that the land of these 16 sections was owned by 84 parties. Eleven parcels were rural residences, the rest agricultural. Thirty-four agricultural landholdings were rental properties, and half of these appear to be owned by absentee landlords. Whenever outside parties own the land, the community loses some control over the resource needed for the vitality of the community, for then those living in the community are no longer able to decide how land will be used. With many local farmers in their 60s and 70s, the church may have a role in facilitating the transfer of land to the next generation for the revitalization of the rural church and community.

10. Diversity of land use. The dominant use of land in these 16 sections was for the production of agricultural commodities, using the methods of industrialized agriculture. There were large, multi-family dairy and cow-calf operations as well as many smaller cow-calf operations. But there were also two organic farms and a wildlife reserve.

Within the larger ministry area of the church, there were berry farms, a grape vineyard, vegetable farms, intensive grazing operations, farms raising registered animals, and much more. The image of a monolithic agricultural paradigm presumed for rural communities is no longer a reality, at least here.

The prayer walks enabled us to study a specific agricultural area of a rural community—the 16 square miles surrounding Salem Mennonite Church. The result is a brief story that could be repeated thousands of times throughout North America. Pioneers came to a new land, settled it and made it fruitful; succeeding generations built up the infrastructure required for a prosperous and vital rural community; subsequent generations saw the work of these years slip from their grasp as their community and church made the radical decline of the past 40 years.

Rural people have always understood that stewardship of the land and the welfare of the community are at the heart of their vocation. For Mennonites, this is an ethic that was carried forward through generations of agrarian life across Europe and here into North America. Still, Mennonites acculturated to American society rapidly. Mennonites accepted citizenship and abandoned the village pattern of life. Technologies representing the industrialization of agriculture were adopted with little thought as to their effect on the community. Agricultural enterprises grew larger and required an economy of scale, resulting in the decline of the rural community we observed on these walks.

Farmers in the Freeman community want to be good stewards of their land and their community. What they lack is a communal mechanism for discerning the appropriate use of technologies for the benefit of the community. This used to be seen as the role and mission of the rural church. We might have learned from our Amish roots, for a distinctive mark of the Amish is to examine the effect a particular practice will have on the community and its welfare. Will the rural church reclaim its roots and reinvest itself corporately in the stewardship of the land and the revitalization of the community?

S. Roy Kaufman was pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Freeman, S.D.

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