BUCKING THE TREND While Others Search for Paths to Recovery, Some Rural Churches Find Themselves in a Better Place Than Three Years Ago

 

Most churches, and virtually every other institution or business, is in some stage of recovery after being set back by the pandemic and are gradually building back. There are a few, however, that are already in a healthier, more vital state than they were before the pandemic.

(Two other churches were mentioned and in this Missouri United Methodist magazine article and below is the section on Oakton.)

Oakton UMC has found itself dealing with the same pandemic issues as many churches, but it has also started and stopped new campuses and continued to move forward with its multicultural ministries. Rev. Kent Garfield said the church has been busy in ministry and is in a stronger position financially than it was a few years ago. Tithing remained strong through the pandemic and is up more this year, and special designated giving has also been strong. 

“Our numbers aren’t through the roof, but we’re not going backward, and we’re doing a lot of new ministries,” Garfield said. Oakton is very rural. Garfield likes to say their church has done something few churches can claim – they’ve knocked on the doors of every home in Oakton and personally invited the residents to church. “All 10 houses,” he adds. “Barton County only has about 12,000 people in it.” Lamar is the nearest town, with a population of 4,200 and an active United Methodist Church of its own, so Oakton draws from a large, rural area.  Members of the Oakton youth group come from several different schools. Garfield says being together at church helps bridge the gap between neighboring town rivalries.

Oakton is a very mission-oriented church. It is deeply involved in international missions, building one of the first Christian churches in Albania. It was initiated so quickly after the collapse of communism that it was initially unclear how the congregation could go about owning land because, previously, all land was owned by the government. In Liberia, it is involved in education by supporting teachers there. Closer to home, Oakton has been involved with an inner-city ministry in Kansas City that dates to when Kent’s aunt, Rev. Sharon Garfield, was pastor at Grace United UMC. That former United Methodist Church is still in the mission, and Oakton supports it by sending a group of 30 people to run a Bible based summer school and assisting with homeless and recovery ministries. They couldn’t engage in this ministry in the same way in 2020 or 2021 but are back at it this year. Garfield enjoys and relates to rural Missouri, but his ability to bridge the rural/urban divide was instilled in him from his early childhood. Although he grew up in an all-white community, his mother would take him and his brother to a boy’s camp in Kansas City in the summer when they were children. “We were the only two white kids there,” Garfield said. They endured all kinds of teasing but also formed strong friendships.

Mission trips to Liberia, Albania and even Kansas City were put on hold during the pandemic and that hurt. “Working in mission not only builds the kingdom, but it also builds your church,” Garfield said. “When you’re in ministry with people on a mission trip, you get tight. You build rapport. You get close.”

Garfield said that although the ministry was down in areas that they couldn’t control, it remained strong in other areas.  The church took in the United Methodist Church in Liberal in its final year of ministry before closing. Although it closed this last year, Garfield does not feel their work there was a wasted effort. “They hadn’t had a baptism there in 20 years, and we had two in the time we were there,” he said. Oakton has been working to establish a new campus in Golden City, where the previous United Methodist Church closed. It is now a video venue, with a live video stream from the central campus in Oakton and a campus pastor on site. “They are part of everything we do online, as we do it,” Garfield said. “When we take tithes and offerings, they take tithes and offerings there. When we have altar time, they have altar time.” The church is participating in the town festival, Golden Harvest Days, and did a free diaper distribution day there on July 16.

For several years Oakton has had a Spanish language campus in Carthage. The church relates to their Hispanic ministry in Carthage as a part of their church, like the youth group, not as a mission project. “We treat everyone the same,” Garfield said. Oakton UMC used to have separate Spanish and English services at the campuses, but they have now merged into one service. The transition to this went even smoother than Garfield had hoped for. “I think why merging the services went so well us we all work together here through the week. We are one.”

The service alternates between Spanish and English, and translation is available for either language, using an in-person translator in the cry-room in the back of the sanctuary, which is translating through a transmitter with people in the congregation wearing audio receivers if they need the translation. They had tried using a translator upfront before but found it broke the flow of the sermon. With this system, the translator’s words are just right behind the preacher. The church had blended services on Wednesday nights and Sunday nights before, but having Sunday morning worship bilingual was taking things to another level. It was all worth it for Garfield when the first Sunday that he preached, a man who didn’t speak any English, came forward during his altar call. “He was there because he understood me,” Garfield said.

Recently when Garfield looked back on an old picture of the Methodist church in Oakton, he noticed the Baptist church in the background. That church isn’t there anymore. He attributes that not to any denominational or theological difference but to the will of the congregation and their desire to be obedient and follow God. “They chose to make a difference in their community,” he said. “The Lord will do this for anyone.” Garfield said the pandemic hit his community hard because they are primarily blue-collar, and they were required to keep working through it all, with many putting in even more hours than they were before, while much of the rest of the country had a time of respite. Garfield believes the blue-collar nature of his community has helped bridge what may be a cultural divide in many areas. “I think that’s why merging the services went so well. We all work together here through the week,” he said. “We are one.” The unity Garfield has seen in his church and community could be used as a bridge elsewhere. “I believe the Lord can use us to show the world how to get along,” he said.