Feature: More than a Sunday

You have to want to go to St. John’s Lutheran Church and School in Platte County, Neb., to find it. Like many rural ministries, you’re just not likely to happen across it otherwise. Twelve miles north of Columbus, Neb., it lies on a central Nebraska country road, which is paved, but only for the mile stretch adjoining the church and school.

And yet the ministries there flourish—as the seed that falls on good ground in Christ’s parable of the sower, it yields a harvest more than was sown. The number of communicants has grown over the past ten years, and Pastor Brad Birtell ’88 believes they’ve also grown spiritually stronger as a church body. The small school at St. John’s, rebuilt in 1989, is healthy. The congregation, looking for new ways to serve, is considering a pre-school.

“We are excited about what God is going to do next in the lives of our people and how He is going to work in and through the congregation,” says Birtell. “What I like about it here is that our focus is not on ourselves. We’re looking out and constantly asking: ‘How can we make the Kingdom of God bigger than it is today?’”

Concordia, in particular, has benefited from the efforts of this congregation to support Lutheran, Christ-centered education. Eight students, roughly a quarter of all graduates from St. John’s over the past four years, are now enrolled at Concordia. In fact, few congregations in the nation have more students at Concordia than St. John’s. The outlook for next year is also encouraging: five of the six high school seniors in St. John’s youth group have committed to enrolling at Concordia.

It hasn’t been a one-way street.

All of the church workers at St. John’s, a pastor and three teachers, are Concordia graduates. Rural ministry, explains Birtell, means being able to move quickly once a challenge has been identified and keeping focused on what is important. “We are equippers. We equip our kids to serve, whether it’s in church work or as a layperson. I think that’s how we see ourself—as a launching point for the harvest.”

When asked what makes it work at St. John’s, Birtell stressed teamwork and the links between St. John’s three teachers, pastor and congregation.

We are not St. John’s Church, St. John’s School,” says Birtell. “There’s just St. John’s. That’s it.”

The relationships possible at St. John’s also stand out. Birtell sees this as a key to ministry in a rural parish. Especially in rural parishes, it’s all about relationships,” says Birtell. It’s not hard to know someone well at St. John’s. It’s much harder to hide. Students typically have the same teacher for three or more consecutive years, and no classroom has more than 15 students. Birtell is not only the lone pastor, he’s also the confirmation teacher, youth minister, and, from third grade on, the basketball coach.

Passing along as many students as they do to Concordia fits naturally with the ministries of St. John’s and the relationships built there. Concordia provides a Christian environment,” says Birtell. “Hands down, that’s what we want and hope for our kids. We want them to truly know the joy of serving Christ. We want them to stay connected.”