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Children fuel rural church's growth

Youth director Joan Burquest holds up a "We love Esther Church" sign made by Vacation Bible School students one summer "That's kind of how we all feel," she said. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 3
As Esther Lutheran Church celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend, its members say their congregation is growing largely because it embraces children and youth. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 3
Interim Pastor Tom Kolden walks through the cemetery past historic markers. In a poignant juxtaposition, the church has placed the children's play area near the headstones. It encourages playing in and around the cemetery as a way to remember those who have gone before. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)3 / 3

Surrounded by farm fields and headstones, Esther Lutheran Church might seem an unlikely candidate for growth.

But as the church celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend, it says its children outnumber its elders, and it has added onto its building twice in the past two decades.

Esther Lutheran sits three miles north of the tiny hamlet of Rose City. A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, it's in the minority in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod, which shows 153 congregations declining in population, 48 growing and 26 stable.

Esther Lutheran feels vibrant, but it hasn't always been that way.

When lifelong member Jim Arvidson and his wife got married in 1971, they were the only young people in the church, he recalled.

"So of course they were pressuring us to have kids," he said with a laugh.

They had three kids and other families had more, and by the 1980s, the church had started growing again. It has 297 baptized members, and about 90 of them have not been confirmed, said Luella Thom.

The church now has 30 children, "give or take," in Sunday school, from age 3 to sixth grade, and another 20 in the older youth programs, said Sunday School Superintendent Karin Wagner.

"That's just awesome for my wife and I to see that," Arvidson said. "That's really great."

One reason for the growth is family size. A couple families have five kids each, while others have three or four.

And the congregation embraces kids.

"Everyone was so friendly," said Wagner, a member for seven years and a mom of five. "I never felt like I had to take them out."

Added Margaret Wehking, who joined the church in 1973 with husband Delmar, "It's fun to see them grow and change."

Esther Lutheran is now looking for a new pastor, and being child-friendly is a must, its members say.

"If you can't bring the kids to church, you can't get mom and dad to church," said Eugene Arvidson, a cousin to Jim Arvidson.

Its cemetery surrounds the church on three sides, and children are encouraged to play among the headstones. The church has put picnic tables and a jungle gym near the graves. Kids play hide-and-seek there during Vacation Bible School and have Bible study in the shade of large stones.

"It's a reminder of the faithful who have gone before," said interim Pastor Tom Kolden.

Another reason for its growth is that families have moved back to the area. Some have returned to family farms while working at careers in Alexandria, Wadena or Parkers Prairie.

Yet another reason, members say, is that they cherish all their members, even sending care packages during finals week to those who move away for college.

"Just because you go to college, we don't forget about you," Wehking said. "This is your home church and we love you."

They're also busy. Members clean four miles of county highway. There are hay rides for the youth and shared meals for everybody. There's a children's sermon with treats. Members go Christmas caroling, and bring a traveling Christmas program to area nursing homes, and many pitch in to decorate the Christmas tree that is so tall, they decorate the top from the balcony. This month, the youth group is heading to Houston, Texas, for a massive Lutheran youth gathering. They raised $25,000 for the trip.

Swedish immigrants founded the congregation in 1893, and built the church in 1897. Struck by lightning, it burned to the ground in 1920, and was rebuilt in 1922. Services were held in Swedish, then Swedish and English, and then became all English by the 1930s and early 1940s.

Today, there's plenty of German ancestry among its ranks, but it has hung onto one old Swedish custom: Swedish egg coffee — with the shell. On special occasions, they also make their own ice cream and custard. (Their custard recipe is found among the three cookbooks they've published over the years.)

The addition of a narthex in 1996 provided a place for members to visit following church services, and another addition in 2012 added offices, a meeting room, a youth room and a bigger kitchen. And, they said, they didn't borrow a dime for the work. Aided by a generous memorial, members pledged to cover the rest.

"In this church, there's a can-do attitude," Eugene Arvidson said.

Its worship services are a mix of new and old. There are new hymnals and drums, maracas and tambourines, but it also has a pipe organ and has affixed favorite old hymns to the backs of the new hymnals.

Jim Arvidson said that years ago, church-going and faith were pretty serious.

"Somber," Kolden added.

"Now I think our faith is stronger than ever," Arvidson said said. "They're excited about it."

They said they welcome everyone to their 125th anniversary celebration.

"We would like to fill the church," Wagner said.

If you go

WHAT: Esther Lutheran Church's 125th Anniversary Celebration

WHERE: 11019 625th Ave., Parkers Prairie

WHEN: Saturday, June 23, at 4 p.m., with Heaven Bound Trio, a catered supper and the Quad Squad. Sunday, June 24, with a 10 a.m. worship service, followed by a catered dinner, service of celebration and anniversary cake.