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‘Leaving is just not an option’

From small-town Germany to small-town America, Gerd Fecht sees value and community in rural churches

Gerd Fecht’s road to ministry in tiny St. Louis, Okla., began in another small town nearly 5,000 miles away — named, oddly enough, Saarlouis

Fecht was born in the German hamlet, just east of France, in 1941. Three years later, his father died in Poland during the battles of World War II. His family lived in East Germany and barely escaped westward before the rise of the Berlin Wall. In Frankfurt, they attended a 1952 gospel meeting under a tent, led by missionary Otis Gatewood. Fecht, his grandparents, great aunt and sister were baptized.

At age 14, Fecht moved to Oklahoma City to live with foster parents Tom and Ada Beam. He graduated from Harding Academy in Searcy, Ark., and attended college at Harding University and Oklahoma Christian University. While completing his degree, he preached for Churches of Christ in Russell, Ark., and McLoud, Okla.

In small-town America, Churches of Christ struggle to remain alive and vibrant in shrinking, rural communities. Find more Rural Redemtion features under the “Series” tab.In 1966 Fecht and his wife, Lucky, moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, and served as missionaries for nine years. Returning to Oklahoma, they worked with a small, inner-city church for nine years and got involved with a small congregation in the town of St. Louis, about 70 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The couple is completing 32 years of service to the church, which has about 15 members. The Fechts have four grown children and seven grandchildren.
Tell us about the St. Louis Church of Christ.

Most people don’t even know there is a St. Louis, Okla. 

As you drive into town a sign greets you that reads, “Welcome to St. Louis, OK, a town of 179 friendly people, one pyromaniac and one busybody.” St. Louis originally began in 1906 as a community called Simpsonville and was sometime later renamed. In the 1920s it was an oil boom town. 

The church seemed to have its start in the early 1930s and has seen many preachers come and go. With the community being no larger than it is, the locals know just about everyone.  
What keeps you going to this congregation? 

The baptisms, weddings and funerals of Christians and non-Christians alike have created bonds that keep us going back. My wife and I go to St. Louis weekly because of the opportunities for fellowship with brethren, people in St. Louis and surrounding congregations.
Regardless of how few members there are, do something. Don’t stop. Don’t give up.” — Gerd Fecht
Over the years it has become a smaller church. However, the people we have come to know in the community, as well as many relatives of our members, have created a precious bond through Christ. Leaving is just not an option — too many tears, prayers, struggles and experiences. 
What changes have you seen in this church over the years?

When we first started going to St. Louis, there were many more members. There was a local school, which meant families with children. 

Since the closing of the school — as well as some denominational churches — and with the only gas-grocery store having closed several years ago, families had to move to other communities. 

Some of our members used to make a 180-mile round trip to work at Tinker Air Force Base, which became a burden. Eventually, they moved closer to the base. The congregation also naturally lost many of its faithful older brethren who were there from the beginning.
Does this church see itself as having a special mission?

Yes, and very much so! 

The St. Louis church is truly blessed with a nice building, many generous givers and dedicated, mission-minded brethren. The congregation supports works locally, sends monthly support to foreign works, gives when funds are needed for relief efforts and assists with mission trips. 

The St. Louis members see themselves as a congregation that, through these efforts, is preaching the Gospel worldwide. 
Are small, rural churches likely to disappear? 

I asked my colleagues in small congregations along with some members to reflect on this. The consensus seems to be that it is inevitable that only a few of these congregations will survive for a few more years. Few people move to smaller communities, which often do not have schools, grocery stores or jobs. 

The brethren that do attend are by no means discouraged by the small attendance. There is no lack of zeal in seeing to the needs of the community. That’s encouraging to all of us who travel to be with them. 
Can they be maintained?

There are some things that could be done to build on what is present. 

Larger congregations in the immediate vicinity can take on a smaller congregation as a type of mission work, thereby grooming their young people to participate in various activities, such as leading songs and prayers, conducting Vacation Bible School, canvassing the area with literature. Small churches can invite mission-minded groups of seniors, such as the Sojourners, to help hand out literature and set up Bible studies.

Small churches also may host an occasional seminar and invite neighboring congregations. 

All of these efforts make a community, regardless of size, aware of the church’s presence.
What should churches do if these efforts aren’t enough? 

Quite often, smaller congregations are left with too few to meet, and at some point the members need to be encouraged to place membership elsewhere. 

Also, no plans typically are in place for the church to dispose of its facilities, which often need substantial repairs. There are many options — even repairing them through volunteers and then selling or gifting the property so that the proceeds can go for scholarships so that young men can preach. Smaller congregations need to be encouraged to at least have a plan.
In 30-plus years of service, what else have you learned about small, rural churches? 

Smaller congregations can be valuable in training young ministers. They are perfect environments to visit people who have fallen away — or relatives of theirs — mentor young couples, knock on doors, visit the sick and be an encouragement to older brethren.  

They also provide excellent opportunities for vocational ministers, like myself, to serve without burdening the congregation financially. Most smaller congregations have limited funds and few men to lead prayers and singing, giving an excellent opportunity for those retired to serve in some capacity.

Some years ago we started a quarterly singing program, alternating with three other congregations. This brought all of us closer together. We send out a bi-monthly bulletin to all the members and many people in the community — another teaching tool. 

The important thing to remember, regardless of how few members there are: Do something. Don’t stop. Don’t give up. The Lord will bless your efforts.

Filed under: Dialogue

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