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Photo: Cole Boender
Photo by Cole Boender

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Photo: Cole Boender
Photo by Cole Boender

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Photo: Cole Boender
Photo by Cole Boender

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Photo: Cole Boender
Photo by Cole Boender

More than a dozen people from the Water and Woods ministry at Rolling Acres Christian Reformed Church in Mason City, Iowa, headed to nearby Clear Lake on Sunday, Feb. 12, to share the gospel at the annual Yellow Bass Bonanza.

As Iowa’s largest ice-fishing tournament, the Yellow Bass Bonanza drew some 300 ice-fishing teams who competed to bring in the biggest bass and caught hundreds of fish in the process.

Before 600 or so ice fishers went out to the frozen lake that morning to compete for prizes, Phil Boender, pastor of Rolling Acres, had the chance to offer an opening prayer.

“It was a great opportunity to pray and connect with people who might not otherwise go to church,” said Boender.

Wearing vests and sweatshirts with their “Water & Woods” logo on them, members of the ministry also set up a table to publicize their work, to hand out devotional literature, and to talk about the gospel. Next year, they might even field a team to join the competition.

“We are trying to connect with people who love the outdoors, and we are also finding ways in our own church to build leaders who want to be part of this ministry,” said Boender.

After the bonanza, Rolling Acres was able to get 500 or so fish which they scaled and will fry for church members just before Mother’s Day.

Making Connections

Because of many changes in the way people perceive the church today, the church doesn’t have authority in their life like it used to, said Joel De Boer, a pastor at Bridge of Hope CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa, who has been coaching Rolling Acres toward expanding its outdoor ministry as part of the CRCNA’s Connections Project.

“Unless you have relational connections with people, there is no right to speak into their lives. They won’t even darken the door of your church. Because of that fact, the church has really got to be going out and developing community and relationships.”

Rolling Acres is doing this in several ways.

Showing up at the ice-fishing event is one part of their strategy. Members have also gone hunting and fishing and camping together and brought others along.

In addition, they have established a relationship with a local Department of Natural Resources officer and hold hunter safety classes for youth, and they have connected with a local landowner in northern Iowa who plans to begin a Christian camp on several hundred acres.

At church, they invite people monthly to come for sessions on fly fishing, ice fishing, deer hunting, and other topics, often led by different people from the community, said De Boer. During these monthly sessions, the Water and Woods group also leads with a time of devotions. This provides a bit of a spiritual element but isn’t the main focus of the event.

Instead, the focus is on building relationships and connecting around shared interests. A few times a year, the group members take relationship-building even farther by going on a trip together.

“They get people from all over the county who drive in to attend the sessions and also participate in events,” said De Boer. “At the event they build in more religious conversations about what’s happening in the church, or they share lessons from the Bible around the campfire.”

Supporting Rural Churches

Serving in rural churches across Iowa, the Dakotas, and Minnesota can be lonely, and often members of these churches struggle to find ways to connect with their communities and even with the denomination itself. De Boer is helping to address these concerns through the Connections Project.

Jack Gray, interim pastor of Prinsburg CRC in Prinsburg, Minn., and a handful of other pastors are also doing this with the help of a series of Sustaining Pastoral Excellence (SPE) grants.

“Our group has been meeting for 14 years and asking how we can do ministry better in a rural setting,” he said. “There are significant challenges that we have been facing. But our fastest growing churches are those that are finding ways to be in their communities and getting to know the people.”

For their group, this means, he said, getting involved in the local schools, finding ways to connect with businesses, and, like Rolling Acres CRC in Mason City, Iowa, opening themselves to join with people in outdoor activities.

Another element: Many pastors today need to be bivocational, which gives them opportunities to share the gospel in the way they live out their faith in the workplace.

“We find that we need to extend ourselves and become part of a circle of friendship,” said Gray.

One of the projects the group took on, said Gray, was to compile a document titled “Eight Ways Rural Churches Can Improve This World.”

They made the document available at CRC Day of Encouragement events that ran for several years at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, drawing people together for a day of prayer, speakers, and workshops on various ministry topics.

At the heart of the document is the conviction that core values evident in the rural lifestyle can serve to help the church survive a time of challenges. “Rural congregations,” says the document, “can celebrate the reality that they live in an environment in which God’s providential grace flourishes.”

The document also says: “The rural church can improve the world by celebrating who we are. God does not want us to mope about the past but to embrace with joy what he is doing with us today. If the church has retired persons, point them to how they can serve now. We are an immigrant denomination. How can we reach immigrants in our region? What ways can we help the poor?”

As part of their most recent SPE grant, the group has been building relationships with area Reformed Church in America congregations, seeking to discover how these churches are addressing concerns in rural ministry.

In addition, three of the group members were delegates to Synod 2018, and each was asked to reflect on how the decisions of synod, especially on the issue of restructuring denominational work, might affect rural churches.

“Each came with a solid report, and that led to an in-depth discussion about the tenor of synod and the people we serve,” said Gray.

Members of their group will meet after Synod 2019 to the same thing -- to help members of rural churches better understand how the actions of synod affect the people in the pews.

Gray added, “Overall, the most important dimension of receiving these grants is encouragement -- in knowing we are not alone.”

Taking the Word Out of the Pews

Rolling Acres began its Water and Woods ministry a few years ago with the help of a Sustaining Congregational Excellence grant. (Note that the SCE program ended in June 2018, but similar kinds of ministry-innovation grants are now available through the CRC’s Ignite program.) The grant allowed them to start a core group of members who charted out the ministry to link with people who don’t generally go to church.

“We were indeed blessed to receive this grant. Being able to do this wasn’t in our budget,” said Boender. “It allowed us to think through what we needed to do.

“One thing has led to another as we’re discovering and enjoying God’s great outdoors together.”

Over time, they came to see that they wanted to find ways to “show people God’s [amazing work] in creation. We are watching to see what God is beginning to develop, and we’ll follow his lead with it,” said Boender.

They are looking forward to offering classes on how to cook outdoors in iron skillets. In addition, the group is aiming to continue taking youth from their Cadet Club fishing in Clear Lake.

It is important to note, said Boender, that this ministry is focused mainly on men. At the same time, although this ministry is not for everyone in the church, said Boender, “everyone is for our ministry.”

On a personal note, he said, this ministry has helped Boender connect more closely with his son, Cole, a recent graduate of Trinity Christian College.

This week they went ice fishing together and enjoyed the being outdoors and, of course, fishing in the frigid water.

Cole said he appreciates the opportunity to go fishing and hunting with his father, as well as to build friendships. He met a fellow Trinity College graduate on one outing, and they started fishing together. Above all, he said, Water and Woods gives him a chance to get to know others and at the same time enjoy God’s creation.

“Water and Woods offers an intentional opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and creation while connecting with others in their faith journey wherever that may be. You could say it is about bringing the pew to the canoe.”

Joel A. De Boer has been in ministry 30 years, mainly in rural settings. He will present a workshop titled “Rural Folks Do Neighborhood Ministry Too” at Inspire 2019, taking place Aug. 1-3 at the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts in Windsor, Ont.