MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — As early as age 4, little guys at the Church of Christ in Marshalltown practice standing in front of the congregation.
While teens and adult men preside over the Lord’s Supper, the young boys carry communion tray lids to the back of the auditorium.
“From the time they’re basically old enough to get from the front to the back, they’re right up there helping out,” said Darlene Battles, wife of elder Bret Battles and mother of Matthew, 15, and Annie, 13.
The 70-member church believes strongly in involving young people in God’s work — from planning youth rallies to serving as official greeters at assemblies.
Nick Lacina, 20, started leading singing in the fourth grade. As he recalls, he was too young for the experience to rattle him.
“I was just really happy,” he said. “I loved to sing.”
An emphasis on youth and families characterizes this central Iowa church, which traces its roots back 110 years in this manufacturing and farming community of 27,000 people.
“They’re real family-oriented,” said Larry Stock, a member and former elder of the Central Church of Christ in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, whose wife, May, grew up in the Marshalltown church. “They are a tight, close-knit group that really supports one another and goes the extra mile.”
For 30-plus years, the Marshalltown church has sponsored a weekend youth rally in the fall — organized by the teens themselves. Boys from all over Iowa sleep at the church. Girls stay in members’ homes.
For the last youth rally, the teens settled on the theme “There’s God for that” — a twist on the Apple Inc. slogan “There’s an app for that.”
“We just did what we thought applies to our lives today,” said Katie Bjelland, 17, suggesting the teens appreciate the youth rally more because of their direct involvement.
“Because we plan it, it has a different feel, a different energy,” Lacina agreed. “It just feels more youth-centered.”
The congregation, about 50 miles northeast of Des Moines, is one of a few churches in this Midwestern state with a thriving youth group.
“For our size, I think we’re blessed with a very growing group of young couples and everything from infants to teenagers,” elder Jerry Lease said. “I’ve visited some congregations where, if there were 25 people there, that was stretching it, and probably all of them were in retirement.”
The Marshalltown church has done a better job than most of keeping young people in the fold, said Dale Burleson, president of the board for Midwest Bible Camp near Brighton, Iowa.
“As you look at different congregations, you look to see how well the kids remain faithful as they grow into adults,” said Burleson, minister for the Avenue of the Saints Church of Christ in Clear Lake, Iowa. “That congregation has done very well in that area.
“I think that’s a part of their emphasis on making sure their kids are growing,” he added. “I can’t think of very many cases where kids from that area have fallen away.”
FROM STRANGERS TO FAMILY
As church business cards declare, the congregation sees itself as a place “where strangers become friends and friends become family.”
That’s not just a motto, said Marshalltown teens.
Curt Roseland, 14, said he had no idea who the elders were at his previous church.
“But here, I introduce our elders as ‘Papa Ray’ or an elder’s wife as ‘Grandma Judy’ to all my friends,” Roseland said, referring to elder Ray Bjelland and Judy Lease, Jerry’s wife. “We all sit there and talk after church. It really does feel like a family.
“Throughout the week, whenever I’m faced with temptations or trials, I feel like I’m accountable to my family here,” he added. “I also feel like I have them to talk to. I could go to anybody here in the church.”
Curt’s sister, Lori Roseland, 17, said: “Sometimes we kids will sit and talk to each other, but a lot of times you’ll look around and see a group of, you know, an elder, a middle-aged person and then a kid. So everybody’s friends with everybody; we don’t have cliques.”
The church sponsors an annual community giveaway where residents receive free clothing, shoes, furniture and other household goods. At a yearly “Trunk ’n Treat” event, members distribute Halloween candy to children.
Shawn Wallace, 37, said a neighbor invited her to the church a few years ago. Wallace, who had problems with drugs and alcohol, said she found a welcoming environment, studied the Bible and was baptized.
“I can confide in anyone here, and I know it would never go any farther,” she said.
The camaraderie extends to an annual Bible Bowl between the congregation’s younger and older members — conducted in preparation for the Heart of America Leadership Training for Christ (LTC) event in Kansas City, Mo.
Asked who typically wins the Bible Bowl, elder Gary Sleege said, “It kind of bounces back and forth.”
On the Old Testament, the adults tend to do better, he said. But the teens excel on the New Testament and claimed victory last year.
“Just by a couple of points!” Sleege’s wife, Dorothy, said with a chuckle. Besides matching wits on the Bible, she works with the girls on LTC sewing projects.
Last year, a contingent of 33 people from the Marshalltown church — about half those present on a typical Sunday — made the four-hour drive to Kansas City.
“Not only does it help our kids in leadership, but it does so much to help us grow as a congregation,” Darlene Battles said of LTC. “Our eldership — even those that don’t have kids — make that trip and serve as supportive role models.”
TIGHT-KNIT CIRCLE OF FELLOWSHIP
Long stretches of highway separate Iowa’s 64 Churches of Christ, which boast fewer than 2,900 total members, according to the 2012 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States.
Fifty-eight of Iowa’s 99 counties have no Church of Christ, according to the national directory published by 21st Century Christian.
About 27 percent of the Hawkeye State’s 3.1 million residents live in a county with no Church of Christ. Only Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have higher percentages of such residents.
“There is so much work to be done, so many special people and such a sense of brotherhood across the entire state due to our small numbers,” said Amy Prescott, a graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Ark., and the daughter of longtime Marshalltown preacher Paul Prescott.
The relatively small circle of church members in Iowa makes opportunities to connect with fellow Christians throughout the state all the more important, Paul Prescott said.
“Here, people hunger for Christian fellowship,” he said.
The Marshalltown church supports endeavors such as “Pray Over Iowa,” an annual gathering that brings together the state’s congregations, and Midwest Bible Camp, which serves Christian young people from Iowa and three other states.
Nick Lacina began going to camp even before he started leading singing. For Lacina, Midwest Bible Camp means fun and games, “deep talks” with fellow Christians and late-night praise songs at campfire devotionals, he said.
“There’s no other place in this world that I can feel more spiritually high,” said Lacina, whose father, Kyle Lacina, one of the
Marshalltown church’s five elders, was baptized at the camp as a young adult. “I don’t know if it’s that I’m just completely surrounded by people that share the same faith or if it’s the everyday worship,” the son added, “but I always leave there feeling spiritually rejuvenated and ready to take on the world.”
His senior year of high school, Lacina was diagnosed with leukemia.
He has undergone three years of treatment — with the church supporting him and his family with meals, cards, hugs and prayers.
Lots of prayers.
“It just showed us how much love we have through this church,” he said. “We know that we’ll always have friends and family here to love, and if anything like my situation would happen to anybody else in the church, I would jump on the chance to help them right away the same way they did me.”