Janesville81.2°

Rock County rural churches finding ways to thrive

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 31, 2011

As theological concepts go, “proximity,” “convenience” and “contemporary music” have a lot going for them—especially if you want to fill the pews.


What if your church is in the middle of a cornfield or tucked into the woods surrounding an unincorporated rural hamlet?


In Rock County, many rural churches are thriving in an age where convenience often is considered more important than creed.


How do they do it?


Pastors and church members first credit the Almighty. When pressed, however, their responses carried common themes: Faith is sustained through community, biblical basics and genuine outreach and mission.


The Rev. Jamie Swenson is pastor at Rock Prairie Presbyterian Church, 8605 E. County A. The closest community is a crossroads—Johnstown Center.


Swenson’s congregation comes from the rural townships surrounding the church, and from Janesville, Milton, Whitewater and Waukesha.


“A lot of churches will dangle the big fish in front of the door, or a carrot to get people to come in,” Swenson said.


The newest music, elaborate staging of the services, facilities for youth that rival public schools—all those are attractive lures, especially for young families.


“There’s nothing wrong with that—they’re not being unfaithful to the Gospel,” Swenson said. “But Rock Prairie stopped playing that game a long time ago.”


The secret to its success?


“They have Christian community right,” Swenson said. “They’re not perfect—but that’s part of being in a Christian community.”


What does that mean, exactly? It means continuously reaching out to each other, engaging in mission and education.


Swenson described his congregation as having a “very traditional core.”


Those “mountain-top” experiences that sometimes occur in more energetic, contemporary services happen at Rock Prairie, too—but they’re not going to happen every week.


Instead, the congregation offers the consistency of purpose and “people working with you to do the will of God,” Swenson said.


When people are led to genuine moments of grace, it solidifies their connection to a community, he said.


At Fulton Church, 2909 W. Fulton St., Fulton, congregants come from the rural townships nearest the church—Janesville, Milton, Evansville and Madison.


“The families that are in our church are there because they know we will teach them and encourage them from the Bible,” said the Rev. Larry Mackenzie, Fulton’s pastor. “And they also want to know their Bible.”


Isn’t that common in all Christian churches?


In response, Mackenzie relates the story of his father’s experience with faith.


Mackenzie’s family attended a mainstream denomination because it was “just what people did.” It was a civic duty rather than an expression of faith.


Mackenzie’s father stopped going to church, but after an accident he began to read the Bible. He found a connection to Christ through the Bible he hadn’t had before.


The moral of the story?


“You have to make a decision for Christ,” Mackenzie said.


That doesn’t mean life will be free from strife.


“We can’t soft-pedal things,” Mackenzie said.


People, even young people, respond to substantial truths, finding in them a guide for life that’s both challenging and reassuring.


Sometimes, it’s family tradition that ties people to a church.


Emerald Grove Congregational Church, 8147 Highway 14, Emerald Grove, is in a picturesque spot without much residential development around it.


But people come from all corners of Rock County to attend services.


Some members, such as those from the Archie Morton Sr. family, live close by and have been attending for several generations.


Joyce Aldrich has been attending the church since 1956, two years after her marriage to Percy Aldrich.


“We’re a family church,” said Aldrich, who serves as church moderator. “Some of the people who come here from farther away grew up in this church.”


Aldrich seemed to think that family ties were enough to bring people back. But that’s not the case at other churches, urban or rural.


So what is the intangible something that keeps people at Emerald Grove?


When Aldrich was growing up, her family didn’t attend church. Even before she got married she knew she wanted to be a part of a “church-going family.”


“I think we reach out to each other, we help each other if we’re in need,” Aldrich said. “It’s a small family church, and we’re pleased with it and comfortable there.”



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