Renewing Rural Churches
It is no secret that rural communities have had more than their share of challenges over the last decades, and that often includes the churches in those communities. The church I serve, Wiley Heights Covenant Church outside of Yakima, Washington, is not without its own challenges of navigating how to do ministry well in this day and age. COVID-19 has created a whole new set of circumstances which leave us, along with many other rural churches, imagining what will be when we come out on the other side. It’s safe to say that what we all hope for, after this long COVID winter, is that a new spring, a season of renewal, will arrive.
Churches searching for renewal might find part of their answer in Growing Projects.
Our church’s Growing Project, Sharing the Harvest, started out of conversation, imagination, shared effort, and serendipitous alignments and affirmations, which we can only credit as God’s handiwork. Since 2012 we have worked with up to 30 churches to sell apples grown in our community to benefit overseas programs with Growing Hope Globally. Our Growing Project has been a part of our renewing story.
Our Growing Project celebrates our rural identity and legacy. Wiley Heights is well over 100 years old and it originated as a community drawn here because of the arrival of irrigation, lots of sun, and the anticipation of fruitful orchards. Many in our community over the generations have been growers or worked in the agricultural industry. We get to celebrate that rural identity and legacy through our project.
We do that through our apple packing day event every October which draws more than 250 people from participating churches in the Portland, Seattle, and Spokane metropolitan areas. They come to our church to enjoy a BBQ, press apple cider, learn about an overseas program that is working to alleviate hunger, help bag up apples their church has purchased, and transport them back to their respective churches.
This life-giving event is energizing for all who participate. For those who come for the day they come away with a greater sense of where their food is coming from, enjoy a day in the country, and have the opportunity to make a global difference. And for those of us who call this area home, we can celebrate and share that which we cherish by putting on an event which so many enjoy. It helps us feel that we are making an impact far beyond our size.
Our Growing Project involves our church and broader community. The Growing Project is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor for our church. We have opportunities for people to serve, whether they are in their 90s or in elementary school. Everyone knows that they have a part to play, be it helping prepare our BBQ, working with growers to get donated bins of apples, pressing cider, or maintaining our project’s website.
Our broader community has been involved, as it takes several growers donating bins of apples to pull off the number that are needed each year. A cold-storage warehouse donates space and helps with transporting the bins. Local manufactures have donated other supplies. Inevitably we annually find ourselves with excess apples, which go to local churches that sell them to their congregations to benefit our Growing Project. Other apples are donated to schools, the volunteer fire department, or ministries to the homeless and at-risk.
This shared work helps create a sense of cohesiveness in our congregation with a common mission of benefitting others globally, but in the process reinforces local relationships.
Our Growing Project helps us put our faith into action to make a real impact. We know that Jesus’ came to heal, to save, and to demonstrate good news in word and in loving action. He invites us to participate in this same endeavor, as the Body of Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote to one church, “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8) By being involved in a Growing Project we can see our faith put into action, sharing what we have to make a tangible impact, raising resources and coming alongside those who are doing amazing work in overseas programs supported by Growing Hope Globally. For us, this meant first supporting CEFA, in the Central African Republic, and then Jitokeze in Kenya. Their faith-filled community development work to alleviate hunger and malnutrition has been an inspiration. The opportunity for us to be involved in some form of their work has strengthened our own faith.
While the work ahead for our church will be filled with challenges, as it will for all churches, our Growing Project has been a gift and an exciting chapter in our story of ongoing renewal. What if rural and small-town congregations became those leading the way in making an impact against hunger and demonstrating God’s love, while tasting the good fruit of renewal? As your own church looks towards writing a story of renewal, one element to that story might be starting or expanding a Growing Project this spring and beyond, a renewing venture in which Growing Hope Globally can help.
By Pastor Mark E. Swanson