The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Home in the hills

Appalachian ministry is beautiful but tough for Ohio congregation trying to find its future

On a country road in Scioto County, a small cemetery rests on a hill, overlooking a lush Ohio valley. For members of St. John Lutheran, the cemetery symbolizes their congregation's will to live despite the challenges of a rural ministry.

After all, ancestors of the 129-year-old church in Franklin Furnace, Ohio, are buried there — parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles.

"If you go to church there on Sunday morning, probably 90 percent of the people have family buried in the cemetery across the road," said Rick Williams, 49, congregation president and lifelong member.

This southeast Ohio church in Appalachia is by no means ready to close its doors. It has 370 baptized members and an average Sunday attendance of 90. But everyone knows that the future looks dim unless it attracts more young people.

"This church is large enough to be effective and stay afloat and small enough to where we still know each other's concerns and try to meet each other's needs," said Audrey McGinnis, a 51-year-old high-school guidance counselor and longtime member. "However, we're not large enough to be effective in the same manner in 15 years from now. We need to do something."

Like many congregations, St. John is affected by changing demographics. Older members die, and too few young people replace them. Fifty years ago, families of seven weren't uncommon. Today family sizes are whittled down to three or four

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