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Big dreams in small towns

Church planting is taking root in rural America

By Christina Quick

For more than five years, Sarah and Dan Eichers faithfully made the 40-minute commute to attend services at River of Life Assembly of God in Cold Spring, Minn.

The two were active members of the congregation, even leading a small group for couples. But when a new AG church recently opened in Sartell, just 10 minutes from their home, they decided to go there instead.

It wasn’t that the Eichers were disloyal to their former church. They agonized over the decision to leave. Ultimately, the reduced drive time wasn’t even the main consideration. More than anything, they wanted to help another burgeoning congregation get off the ground, a mission River of Life has taken seriously since its inception.

“There were some tears shed when we left, but it’s a good thing,” Sarah Eichers says. “This new church was needed, and the community was ready to embrace it. It’s so exciting to be a part of this.”

Denny Curran, senior pastor at River of Life, welcomes the migration. Over the years, his congregation has planted four churches in rural communities that formerly had no AG presence. Each one has required investments of time, money and people, but Curran says the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.

“We’ve always believed if we gave, God would supply what we needed,” Curran says. “Every time we’ve lost something or sent people toward a church plant, God has blessed us and our attendance has grown.”

Located in a town of only 3,000, the church has an average weekly attendance of 650. Many congregants drive from other hamlets that dot the landscape between Minneapolis and St. Cloud.

Full-gospel churches are few and far between in the region. That is why Curran feels compelled to keep planting new ones.

When The Waters Church in Sartell held its grand opening in September, it became the seventh house of worship and the first Assemblies of God church in the town of 14,000. More than 500 people attended the first service.

A live video link allowed the Cold Spring congregation to view the inaugural celebration, which was an emotional event for Curran and his laypeople.

“We saw about 100 people there from our church,” Curran says. “But we also had 15 new families at our church that morning.”

River of Life has poured thousands of dollars into the Sartell church plant, even as expenses piled up at home.

“Our total giving for the project has been about $30,000,” Curran says. “We needed the people and the money here, but we became aggressive and decided we’re not giving up ground.”

Curran has always taken an enterprising approach to church planting. River of Life began as a church plant in 1993, when Curran gave up a pastoral position at an established church in another town to lead a weekly Bible study in a tiny motel conference room.

Before the fledgling church was six months old, a group of people from the small community of Glenwood asked Curran if he would start a church there. The result was Minnewaska Assembly of God (named for a lake in Glenwood), planted in 1993.

During the next several years, River of Life met in a high school gymnasium while planting two more churches — first in the tiny village of Freeport, and then in nearby Becker.

Curran admits that his church, which used the gym for nearly eight years, likely would have had a permanent facility sooner if resources hadn’t been funneled into the church plants.

“But it would have been a little building with 100 people,” he says. “God’s really blessed us. We’ve got one of the nicest facilities in our community.”

Located on 20 acres, River of Life has a youth building, counseling center, coffee bar and missionary guest home. The growing church is planning an expansion of the sanctuary and youth facility.

Each of the church plants River of Life has sponsored was in response to requests from the community. Curran says he couldn’t ignore the pleas of people wanting a place to worship.

“They came and said, ‘We’d like you to start a church in our town,’ ” he says. “Every time I hear that, I feel like it’s God’s voice.”

Though The Waters Church is only a few months old, Curran’s congregation is already mulling the location of the next church plant.

“I don’t believe this congregation will ever stop planting churches,” Curran says.  “They feel it’s something we’re supposed to do because we’ve done it since our birth. They think as soon as we stop planting churches, we’re backsliding.”

Steve Pike, national director of Church Planting and Development for the Assemblies of God, says new churches are desperately needed in many rural areas. A recent survey conducted by his office revealed more than 15,000 American communities with 5,000 or fewer inhabitants do not have an AG church.

“The potential to reach lost people in these often-overlooked places by starting new churches is incredible,” Pike says.

Curran says there are certain advantages to small-town church planting.

“News travels fast,” he says. “You don’t have to do a lot of mass marketing. Once you put an ad in the newspaper or tell a few people in the beauty salon or barber shop, the whole town knows you’re there.”

The passion for church planting apparently travels fast as well. When the Minnesota AG District recently challenged congregations to plant a church within the next three years, Doug Vagle, pastor of the new Sartell church, made a commitment to do just that. It’s one more example of church planting coming full circle.

“It’s an exciting journey to venture into new territory and develop the dream God lays on your heart,” Vagle says. “The Bible says God can do more than we can imagine, and I can imagine and dream a lot.”


CHRISTINA QUICK is staff writer for Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at cquick.agblogger.org.

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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