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The Culture of a Country Church:
The Use of Myth in the Examination of Place

Theresa L. Hest

NDSTA Journal,
Volume 15, 2002.


Abstract

This essay examines messages supported by myth and communicated through place. Specifically, a country church is described and analyzed in terms of mythic discourse as presented primarily in the scholarship of Tarla Rai Peterson. The farmer as the noble hero myth, a Christian myth, and utilitarian myth are applied to the “place” messages sent by the rural church. The analysis suggests that the mythic discourse, which has allowed this church to exist for over a hundred years, could ultimately result in its demise. In many ways, the church has become a victim of its own beliefs by clinging to tradition and myth at a time when its membership must be propelled to send a more welcoming and inclusive message in order to survive.

 

1891. Kirkebo now had a church, a beautiful large church but it did cost money…the farmers promised to give grain from one acre of land in a given year (Kirkebo, 1981).

Every space or place communicates a cultural message through a variety of physical attributes such as the architecture, fixtures, landscaping, and artifacts. Within these spaces, groups interact and strengthen their cultural identity, but they can also isolate themselves from other groups (Martin, Nakayama, & Flores, 1998). As the rural climate changes and country churches struggle to survive, the nature of the messages a church sends to its community becomes significant. This essay explores the culture of place communicated by Kirkebo Lutheran Church, a small country church along the Red River in northwestern Minnesota. Analysis of this church culture is developed through a description of place and application of mythic discourse primarily identified in the scholarship of Tarla Rai Peterson. Specifically, a summary of the appropriate myths is presented, a description of the place and people is offered, the myths are applied to Kirkebo Church, and, finally, implications of this analysis are discussed in terms of survival for rural churches.

RATIONALE

Rural churches have played a significant role in farm history in the Midwest (Liu, Ryan, Aurbach, & Besser, 1998; Swierenga, 1997). As Swierenga (1997) argues: “The tolling of the church bell each Sunday morning set the pattern of the week for most believers and nonbelievers alike—six days labor and one day rest” (p. 415). Rural churches impact their surrounding communities in a variety of ways. They foster community friendships and increase attachment to the local community—helping to stabilize rural populations. Historically, rural churches provided members with a cultural identity and socialized them into the local community (Bultena, 1944).
The exploration of the culture of a country church is justified in light of the changing face of agriculture and the loss of many rural churches. Tevis (1999) contends that rural church memberships “are dwindling due to movement of farm families to urban centers” (p. 61). She further argues for the need to sustain these churches because of the importance of “nurturing the faith and spirit of rural Americans” (Tevis, 1999, p. 61). Rural churches provide a vital function in their local communities. An exploration of the culture and communication of a rural church may provide insight on rural church survival.

MYTH AND RURAL LIFE

Myths are stories that can answer questions, provide a sense of what is sacred, and offer heroes and villains (Peterson, 1991). Hart (1990) argues that myths are stories that “serve as moral guides to proper action” (p. 305). Some of the specific myths explored by Peterson include the frontier myth that embodies the farmer as a noble hero, a Christian myth that involves God looking favorably upon farmers, and a utilitarian myth of earth as machine. The myths selected have particular relevance for a rural church in which all members have a connection to agriculture.

The frontier myth is centered on the historical belief that man must civilize the country and that God intended all land to be suitable for farming. As McMullen (1996) argues: “From the beginning, the frontier myth, and its embedded promise of a new life, has shaped American consciousness” (p. 31). Farmers responded to the challenge and, as Peterson (1986) writes, “with the blessing of a whole nation, the farmer set out to turn the plains into an international breadbasket” (p. 7). Farmers provide the link between wilderness and civilization. These frontier heroes always moved ahead of civilization as they paved the way through the wilderness and, as such, they “experience a certain level of heroic isolation as they lead society into the future” (1991, p. 297).

The frontier and noble hero myth set the farmer up as civilization’s caretaker. The burden of feeding civilization and/or maintaining the land for future generations forces agriculturists into a “noble” role. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson identified “cultivars of the earth [as] the most valuable citizens” (Kelsey, 1994, p. 1172). Swierenga (1997) explains that: “Both Calvinists and Lutherans believe that God created and sustains the earth and assigned Adam and his descendants as caretakers of it” (p. 418). Implicit in this myth is a seeming contradiction in that farmers are compelled to maximize a harvest from the land and, at the same time, be careful stewards of the land. Historically, there was the belief that the future success of the country was dependent upon “the perpetual ascendance of America’s sturdy yeomen, who integrate the progressive value of human mastery over nature into the traditional value of cultural stability” (Peterson, 1991, p. 294).

A Christian myth offers the link between faith and farming and embodies the idea that the Lord looks favorably upon farmers. This myth embraces the belief that God endorses farming and takes care of farmers (Peterson, 1986; Peterson & Horton, 1995). Farmers were “guided by the biblical injunction to care for the garden” (Peterson, 1986, p. 12). Jane Pederson (1992) studied the Norwegian Lutherans of Trempealeau County in Wisconsin and argues that these farmers view work as a sacred calling and a way of worshiping God. Rural life was viewed as “moral; it was not merely secular, but religious” (Peterson & Horton, 1995, p. 156).
The Christian myth has similarities to the frontier/noble hero myth with farmers blessed by God to farm the wilderness. Farmers can rest assured “that ‘seed time and harvest’ shall ever continue through all coming time” and farmers “are the chosen people of God” (Peterson, 1990, p. 13). Swierenga (1997) articulates:

Farming is a business enterprise, of course, but it is also a way of life, a “calling,”an expression of ultimate commitments. As the farm family carries on its dailytasks, the members put flesh on their deepest beliefs and values. Farming, in this sense, is an act of faith, and one’s religion is practiced through farming as much as through gathering for Sunday worship. (p. 416)
The Christian myth addresses the connection between faith and farming in a rural community.
A third area of myth is a utilitarian or “earth as machine” myth. This myth provides a functional or “use” perspective to the notion of place. This discourse involves the idea of the farmer as a technician using knowledge to control nature and get maximum use of the land so that it is not wasted (Peterson, 1991). This utilitarian myth embodies the idea that, like a tool, land should be used to its capacity. The church, in this context, must also be functional and not “wasted.”

METHOD

This analysis draws from ethnographic participant observation, analyses of Kirkebo Church documents, and informal conversation with church members. In terms of subjectivity, the researcher has been a member of Kirkebo Lutheran Church for 13 years and joined the church as a non-Lutheran, a non-Scandinavian, and non-rural. Additionally, the researcher had no historical or familial connection to the church. As such, the perspective offered blends both an objective and subjective view of the people, the place, and the messages. A description of the place and people is followed by application of the mythic discourse, as offered by Peterson, to discover the implications of the messages of place on the growth and survival of this country church.

Kirkebo Church: God’s Place in the Country

1887. The schoolhouses were now being used for conducting services, especially the ones close to Gunder Riste and Middleton. People were not satisfied with this arrangement. They wanted a church, a holy place where they could commune with God (Kirkebo, 1981).

The Place

To experience the messages communicated by “place,” a physical description of an existing (and fairly typical) rural church is appropriate. A church is more than a building -- it is all of the history associated with the place and the congregation. The physical building of a church is often viewed as intrinsically linked to the process of worship and the display of faith. The memories and traditions associated with a place of worship can result in church members, especially lifelong members, becoming attached to the building itself. This attachment, although natural, is directly contradictory to the Christian view that “the word of God could be put anywhere” and “it was not the physical site that mattered, but the ‘spirit’ that dwelt” in the Bible (Stock, 1997, p. 322).

The original Kirkebo Church building was constructed in 1891 and located about three miles outside of a small farming community. In 1900, at a cost of $500 and resulting from a desire to be closer to the railroad, the church was pulled by horses across the fields to the west edge of town. The process of moving the church in this manner took several months. The church was settled and, in 1916, renovations including a basement were added. On the night of December 1, 1955, the church and all its contents burned to the ground. The decision was made to rebuild and a local architect was hired to design the church with input from the congregation.

The physical description of the rebuilt church utilizes a spatial pattern focusing on the exterior, entryway, main seating area, and fellowship hall. The exterior church structure design is clean and simple. The main part of the church is a long building with a modest bell tower. The front of the church faces east and has a pale brown brick façade with a ten foot lighted cross. The south side of the church has a small entryway and meeting room addition. The building has white siding with dark brown trim. The main entry doors are on the south side and are windowless metal doors painted dark brown.

The church grounds are designed for ease of care. A church member mows the small yard around the church. Landscaping consists of a few struggling cranberry, yew, and potentilla bushes surrounded by rock and located on the east and southeast sides. A volunteer maintains the four pink peony bushes on the southwest side and the two planters of hardy annual flowers that flank the entry doors. The parking lot is gravel (as is the road surrounding the church), so access during the spring thaw or after heavy summer rains is muddy. The church is surrounded on the west and south by a grass dike. The dike prevents flooding from the Red River that is a mile to the west. The grassy dike and a row of evergreen trees separate the church from a baseball diamond and farmers’ fields.

When you enter the church, you need to immediately find the light switch on your right, because the entryway has no natural lighting and has dark paneled walls. The entry has chocolate brown linoleum floors covered with commercial grade dark brown rugs. A snow shovel and salt are stored against the wall on the left. The entry also contains the thick pull rope for the church bell. There is a wooden stand that holds a visitor registry that contains few recent signatures.

The main seating area of the church includes eleven pews on each side, but members rarely sit in the front 6 pews. There is a row of folding chairs across the back wall of the church that is usually full on Sundays. The pews face the sanctuary which is on the east side. The altar in the sanctuary holds two candelabras and the Bible. Behind the altar, a stained glass window was removed and the wall was paneled in pale brown with a lighted cross. To the north of the altar is a choir loft that contains the organ and is otherwise mainly used for storage. The altar and aisle of the church have light brown commercial grade carpet and there is brown linoleum under the pews. The pulpit and the lectern are both simple in design and are made from pale oak. An American flag and “Christian” (red, white, and blue with a cross) flag flank each side of the sanctuary.

In the summer months, parishioners routinely donate flowers from their gardens to decorate the sanctuary and main area of the church. The walls are painted a celery green and are mostly undecorated except for a couple of seasonal religious banners made of felt and three pictures of a Caucasian, penitent Jesus kneeling in prayer. Clear glass windows adorned only with plain white window shades line the walls. The ceiling is vaulted and made of polished oak beams.

The majority of church social activities occur in the fellowship hall located to the west of the main seating area. The fellowship hall has 10 round tables surrounded by folding chairs. The lace tablecloths on the tables are covered with clear plastic tablecloth protectors. One corner contains a small library of religious books and videos which people borrow on the honor system. The linoleum floor has hopscotch and shuffleboard game patterns as part of the design, but the games are covered by tables. The room is bordered by storage cupboards on one side and four tiny Sunday school rooms on the other. A simple stained glass window half covered by a window shade highlights the west peak of the vaulted ceiling.

The People

A description of the church would not be complete without also providing a sense of the people who comprise the church membership. The Annual Report for Kirkebo Church (2001) indicates that the church has 137 confirmed members representing 72 households. The town adjacent to Kirkebo Church has a total population of 132, of which only 45 are confirmed members of the church, despite the fact that it is the only church in the area. Most of the membership comes from the rural area outside of town, and a few life-long members who commute from a nearby city. The Sunday school has 17 students between the ages of four and 14. On any given Sunday, there are usually about 40 – 50 members present at the worship service.

The church population is not a diverse group and does not reflect the current demographic make-up of the area. All of the members are Caucasian, despite the fact that there are Hispanic and Native American families in the community. Most of the members are of Norwegian descent. The active farmers in the congregation all live and work on 2nd, 3rd, or 4th generation family farms. There are no members from same-sex households, no international members, and no members without some connection to agriculture. The most common occupation is farming, followed by those members who are retired, and those who work in education. The make-up of the congregation reflects trends in other rural areas in which the church membership is comprised of the elderly, less affluent, and a shrinking core of farm families (Tevis, 1999).

The members of the church espouse a belief in the virtues of growing up on a farm, and that farming is a good way of life. Despite financial challenges, several members voiced the opinion that farming was good for families and children. Elder and Conger (2000) also found this worldview in their research involving Iowa farmers. They report: “The farmstead represented a place where children acquired sound values, where freedom meant responsibility, a place where the generations worked together” (Elder & Conger, 2000, p. 33).

The Noble Hero Worships Here

1921. The church today is indebted to the efforts of these early pioneers. Many is the time these men thought their work was fruitless, but the Lord blessed their efforts and there was a rich harvest (Kirkebo, 1981).

Discussion

The interface between the mythic discourse and the culture of the church is apparent in application of the specific myths. Analysis of the noble hero and Christian myths is combined because both involve an element of “reverence” of the farmer as a noble being blessed by God. The church décor, the location of the church, and the climate of the church can be explored in terms of the “noble hero” and “God looks favorably on farmers” myths.

The church design and décor can be described in one word: modest. As fitting for a noble hero, modesty and humility are valued and anything hinting of pride is inappropriate. The noble hero myth embraces humility--it is not acceptable to think too highly of yourself. One example of humility at Kirkebo is the fact that no one sits in the front half of the church and there is a weekly race to claim the worst chairs against the back wall. Along with simplicity, the décor also reflects the colors found in farming: greens, browns, and natural woods. An extensive use of wheat motifs in the decorating is also a testament to the value of the farming profession (beyondthe Biblical injunction of wheat as the bread of life).

The location of the church is also linked to the nobility and sanctity of farming. You can stand outside the church and with just a few steps walk into farmers’ fields on two sides. Kirkebo is also a short distance from the local grain elevator. The church is surrounded by sky, fields, and trees. The sound of farm equipment running can be heard in the church during the busy planting and harvesting seasons. Additionally, the farmland around the church is fertile soil. Church documents support the belief that these farmers were blessed with rich farmland. Church members speculated in 1921: “If someone were to ask why our Lord destined it so that his rich farming country was to be settled mostly by Scandinavian people, we would be at a loss for an answer, but such was the case” (Kirkebo, 1981).

Additionally, in terms of the noble hero/Christian myth, the climate of Kirkebo communicates culturally. The vast majority of the congregation has a direct relationship or link to agriculture. The schedule of services, social events, and meetings are usually dictated by the farm cycle. As one council member shared, strangers and non-Scandinavians, by blood or by marriage, would definitely feel conspicuous.

The utilitarian or earth as machine myth can also be applied. Every aspect of the church is chosen with function and economy in mind. The church building and its contents, like the surrounding farmland, are viewed as “tools” that, with proper care, “should be used to perform required tasks” (Peterson, 1991, p.31). Throughout the church, the décor is selected for durability and longevity (e.g., heavy-grade commercial floor coverings, plastic table protectors, plastic dishes). Everything should be easy to maintain (e.g., the minimalist landscaping) and, if possible, serve dual purposes (e.g., the choir loft/storage area). To get maximum use from the church, the fellowship hall is rented out for fundraisers, social events, community groups and even aerobics. The church is often viewed in functional terms rather than spiritual. The myths of the noble hero, Christianity, and utilitarianism are all found in the physical “place” of the church.

All are Welcome to Worship Here: Developing a Welcoming Place

1931. Here stands our beautiful and dear Kirkebo Church consecrated and in a protected place with its name from Sogn in Norway lovely and inviting and with its sonorous church bell that is heard all over the beautiful Red River Valley and calls so earnestly to the old and young to make use of the day of grace, to come to hear God’s Word (Kirkebo, 1981).

The members of Kirkebo have created a place that is familiar and comfortable based on their traditions and culture, but there are implications for the future of this place they are committed to. Peterson and Horton (1995) state, a “myth’s ability to create an illusion of stability makes it especially enticing to people who fear the risk of extinction” (p. 148). As the membership of Kirkebo and other rural churches steadily decrease, there is a need to move beyond the routine (e.g., the comfortable myths) to become more welcoming and inclusive. Kirkebo has become a victim of its own beliefs by clinging to myth at a time when its membership must be propelled to a different view in order for the church to survive.

The members of many rural churches like Kirkebo are willing to adapt in order to survive. A frequent church council topic at Kirkebo is how to attract new members. What is perhaps needed is the adoption of new approaches in how place is utilized to welcome diversity. For example, although the members are more comfortable with modesty, it is acceptable to have pride in your church and “sell” it to potential new members and strangers in the community. Additionally, utility should not be the benchmark in the physical space and activities. Members should be willing to spend money on items and events to make the church more aesthetically pleasing, comfortable, and appealing. There can be more diversity in the decorating, worship style, and food service choices. Overall, members need to consciously acknowledge and seek to create a place that is welcoming for those who are non-agriculture, non-Scandinavian, and non-Lutheran.

The identification and analysis of mythic discourse illustrates the contradictions inherent in many rural churches. A church is intended to foster a culture where all are welcome and can embrace and enrich their faith. Ironically, it is the very culture of many rural churches that is not welcoming and will result in their own demise. Rushing (1983) questions whether myths such as the frontier myth can survive the changing times. In the case of rural churches, however, it is more a question of whether the church can survive the myth.
It is vital to identify the myths that are driving the culture of a church by looking and listening to the place and the people. This self-awareness should be used to encourage the membership to adapt and change in order to move beyond the consciously and unconsciously self-imposed boundaries that are preventing healthy growth. Kirkebo Lutheran Church had 343 members in 1971, and today there are less than half of that. The population of the community has remained relatively stable, but the culture of the community has changed. This community, as with many others, has a growing minority population. As Tevis (1999) argues, potential members are at the doorstep and the “rural church cannot afford to be cozy” (p. 62). Survival of the church mandates a new discourse that embraces the old ways, but acknowledges that traditions can (and must) evolve.

We are thankful to God for sustaining our congregation these one hundred years…It is well for each one of us, old and young, to remember that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, that today is the day of salvation for everyone in the Kirkebo congregation (Kirkebo, 1981).


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