There is a small Lutheran church that sits quietly on the glacier-flattened prairie of the Red River of the North just a little more than sixty miles from Fargo, North Dakota. Vukku Lutheran Church is a classic rural church and when I was very young it was all about the neighborhood.
My fraternal grandfather was the preacher there. My parents were married there. I was baptized there. It was the center of social activity for the families of those Norwegian farmers. Lives began and ended there. Coffee was consumed in bucket loads there. Casseroles of all types were shared and compared. Ice cream socials, sewing circles, and pancake feeds kept the building humming even in mid-week. It was, apart from the farms themselves, the center of life for a great many locals.
Many members were related and many were not. And more than blood and faith, they shared an identity; and the connections they maintained through that church were the lifeblood of the community.
Quite a few of those small rural churches are still around, sitting empty, but well maintained by local families. There are not enough farmers left on the prairie to keep them active. As a congregation, Vukku has vanished from the maps, but as an ideal it lives on in stories about our shared past.
Empty churches are still out there, most not on the prairie. In fact, most are in suburban and urban communities, some not so empty, hanging on to the past and hoping for a different future.
Some of these faith communities have successfully made their buildings into a local resource for meetings, classes, rental spaces for young businesses, and even some coffee shops. Many more would like to follow that model, hoping to keep their doors open for their own needs.
The key to being an integral member of a community is becoming an integral member of the community. This is not something that happens just by opening doors to a few 12-step programs and hoping for the best, it is opening the doors to the community and asking what it is that it needs. The question to ask is, “What can we do with you to become a resource for community needs?” Lasting and useful partnerships are not created by one party attempting to do something for the other.
And, it is exceedingly unlikely that this partnership will result in more warm spots in the pews on Sunday. Expectations of success should be capped at being happy that there are new shingles on the roof. Even then, this is done in partnership. This relationship must have a vision for the future that is shared; written down and shared in public. To get support, be supportive. The little church on the prairie, sitting alone in its small grove of trees miles from anything likely can best hope for the grass to be watered and the lawn mowed. But, the emptying church at 44th and Main has an exciting future if it is willing to open its doors and embrace a new day. The lifeblood of a community is its members connecting in community. All its members.