Stepping into Immanuel Lutheran Church, known simply as “Immanuel on the hill” by locals near Clayton, is a bit like stepping back in time.
The brightly colored, more than 120-year-old stained glass windows still shine like new, and worshipers still sit in old country school chairs with wire hat racks attached to the seats’ undersides.
“We play the organ and look at hymnals and have bulletins,” said Pastor Margaret Grant.
But some things have changed: First gathered in 1890 by local farm families, the congregation now has only three farmers.
“I think farmers bring a trust in God. They trust God to bring their harvest,” said Grant, who was raised on a dairy farm near Phillips and answered her first call to serve two churches in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “With our loss of farmers, we don’t see that connection anymore.”
While some small rural churches have shut their doors in recent years, Grant has faith in a bright future for Immanuel, as well as the other two rural churches she shepherds, Moe Lutheran near Clear Lake and Faith Lutheran in Clayton.
“It’s like having three different kids,” she said. “They’re all different and each has their own gifts.”
Immanuel, the smallest of the trio, is rich in heritage, with a loyal following of longtime families and a beautiful, history-filled sanctuary.
Those qualities have helped draw in new participants, including many people who attend weddings or funerals there.
“People like a small place where we can learn and grow,” she said. “There’s an appreciation for that slowing down.”
The church has about 120 members, with 30 to 40 people attending on a typical Sunday morning. Church membership has been growing a little each year, Grant said.
She said they’ve been working hard to appeal to the younger generation. For example, she now sends out a weekly email of announcements, and once in a while, the organist plays a contemporary song.
A few years ago, Sunday school, which had been discontinued for lack of enough youngsters, was re-introduced. It’s grown in that time from five to 16 students.
While they still have the old “crying room” at the back of the sanctuary, crying babies are welcome any time, Grant said. “We’d rather have a crying baby than no babies.”
Good, old-fashioned hospitality also brings people through the doors, she said. Although many women now hold jobs, the church ladies’ group still hosts luncheons for funerals and other events.
“They make it work,” she said.
With the sluggish economy, many rural churches have seen smaller offerings in the collection plates, Grant said, and Immanuel hasn’t been immune to that, but recent generous donations have helped them restore one of their stained glass windows.
“Every church, I think, struggles as the economy struggles,” she said. “Being in a rural area, we have seen a lot of unemployed and struggling; that hits the pocketbooks.”
Grant said 80 percent of her time is spent with Moe and Faith, and adding Immanuel seven years ago brought her to 100 percent employment. She serves a total of almost 600 church members, racing the clock to make three different Sunday morning services. Joint services are offered during Lent.
“I get paid way under salary here,” she said, “but one of the fringe benefits is rural people understand if you need a break, you just take it.”
More small churches are getting creative as far as sharing ministers and utilizing more lay people, which allows them to meet their budgets and offer a wider variety of programming.
While they aren’t without challenges, country churches also hold plenty of appeal, according to Wayne Jansen, an elder at Christ Lutheran Church — Pipe Lake near Comstock. Jansen is a retired dairy farmer who raises beef cattle.
“While our community has lost many of the dairy farms that I remember in my lifetime, the population hasn’t changed much,” he said. “People are a lot more mobile now compared to when I was growing up. Most families had cows to milk, and evening services didn't start until 8 p.m.”
Jansen said the Pipe Lake congregation, while small, is tight-knit and has benefited from strong leadership and faithful families.
“Pastor has commented that coming into the church before service is like entering into a family gathering; it’s not like that in some other congregations,” he said. “Some people may not care for that type of atmosphere, but others are drawn to that setting.”
The congregation also has been blessed with solid financial support, making the duties of the church council much easier.
“A small congregation can’t offer programs that larger ones can, but lay members can pick up some of the slack that a staff person might offer,” Jansen said.