LUCK — By almost any measure, West Denmark Lutheran Church is a small congregation. About 35 members gather to worship on a typical Sunday.

But on a sunny day this spring, its parish hall was bustling with a crowd ten times the size of the congregation. Diners hungry for a Danish pancake dinner lined up outside the white clapboard building before its doors even opened. As soon as they filled long cafeteria tables, others sat in rows of chairs waiting to take their spots. Young children to nonagenarians volunteered as cooks and dishwashers and servers, weaving between tables, frying pancakes and greeting customers with friendly chit-chat.

In Wisconsin, fundraising dinners at churches are commonplace — and ingrained in the culture. (Think Friday fish fries and parish festivals.) But to the members of West Denmark, the dinner was part of something bigger: their vision for their future.

It’s not just survival the members are after. Their goal is to remain relevant for years to come.

For many rural churches today, that’s a tall order. Congregations are aging, shrinking and saddled with old buildings that require expensive upkeep. With fewer people attending regular services and donating money, churches struggle to stay afloat. Those forces threaten to close an estimated 100,000 American churches in the next decade.

West Denmark, nestled in the woods of northwest Wisconsin, isn’t immune to those headwinds. But its leaders have leaned into events and programs that connect the church with the broader community, from a summer fiddle workshop to regular Nordic music concerts. And in response to a lack of child care in the area, they soon will open a Danish-style forest preschool, where children spend most of their days outdoors, learning through hands-on activities.

They know that in a village like Luck, churches provide a sense of belonging, and a space for entertainment and socialization that isn’t easily found elsewhere. They’re going beyond Sunday services, and trying to make themselves essential to the Polk County community and its surrounding area.

“We talk about this at every single council meeting. This is something we consider all the time,” said church council president Terry Speiker, a retired social worker. “It’s our job as a congregation to try to keep connected to the community.”

Pastor Linda Rozumalski walks underneath a model of traditional Danish sailing ship in the sanctuary of West Denmark Lutheran Church in Luck. The ship, built by a member of the congregation, points toward the cross, signifying church members' aim of a Christian life.

Pastor Linda Rozumalski walks underneath a model of traditional Danish sailing ship in the sanctuary of West Denmark Lutheran Church in Luck. The ship, built by a member of the congregation, points toward the cross, signifying church members’ aim of a Christian life.

The congregation traces its origin to 1873, when Danish settlers to the area gathered in each other’s homes for Lutheran services. Several current members are descendants of the Danes who oriented their lives around the church in its early days.

Proud of their roots, they are fierce advocates for West Denmark. If they had their way, the elegant white church on Little Butternut Lake would live another 151 years. But that won’t just happen on its own.

And West Denmark doesn’t function in a vacuum. It is one of about seven churches in 10 miles.

Congregations open to new people, ideas are more likely to survive

Luck is about 70 miles northeast of the Twin Cities. The community draws retirees and families seeking a quiet, peaceful life along the Big and Little Butternut lakes.

That doesn’t mean people want social isolation, and Pastor Linda Rozumalski understands that. The church has a reputation as a mainstay of the community, from hosting the dinner of Danish pancakes — or æbleskiver (pronounced ah-bleh-skee-ver) — to offering the parish hall for wedding receptions, 4-H club meetings, even a local farmer’s forum on food insecurity.

“People aren’t only hungry for food. They’re hungry for companionship, and fellowship, and art and music,” said Rozumalski, who joined the church nearly 25 years ago when her husband became pastor.

People have visited West Denmark for its Nordic music concerts, then joined the church because they liked it so much, Rozumalski said. But the main goal isn’t always adding new members.

“It’s about adding value to people’s lives, whether they come to church here or not,” she said.

Whether a church is involved in the broader community is a predictor of its success, said Steven Deller, a professor of applied economics and an expert in rural economic development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Congregations that are internally focused and closed off to new ideas and newcomers are “going to struggle,” Deller said.

“Is this the kind of community that the common response is, ‘Well, you’re not from here, so you don’t understand?'” Deller said. “That kind of attitude can be the kiss of death.”

But churches with a more open-minded culture, in which leaders are proactive in trying new things and welcoming new people, can become indispensable to a rural community, he said. And they are more likely to survive financially, as people who aren’t members take part in the church’s programs and donate in support.

“They’ve got a fighting chance,” he said.

Church members Bill Brumfield and Pat Pearson share a laugh while volunteering at the Danish pancake, or æbleskiver, dinner in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church, which is located about 70 miles northeast of the Twin Cities in Polk County.Church members Bill Brumfield and Pat Pearson share a laugh while volunteering at the Danish pancake, or æbleskiver, dinner in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church, which is located about 70 miles northeast of the Twin Cities in Polk County.

Church members Bill Brumfield and Pat Pearson share a laugh while volunteering at the Danish pancake, or æbleskiver, dinner in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church, which is located about 70 miles northeast of the Twin Cities in Polk County.

Erik Carlson, a pastor in coastal Michigan, took it one step further when he was in rural Dawson, Minnesota. In a 2018 essay for the Collegeville Institute, he wrote that faced with declining membership, his church had to confront the question: Why are we here? The answer was to accept change, and begin thinking of itself as a regional church with a “welcoming posture.”

“Our church has become a landing spot for people whose churches have closed,” he wrote. “We have been a middle ground for couples coming from different denominational backgrounds. People who are new to our region feel welcomed as contributors since we’ve become flexible and invitational.”

Some longtime members lamented not having the little country church of old, and not recognizing newcomers. But Carlson wrote that Christians in rural areas needed to focus on what unites them, not divides them.

These “open-valved” churches also can make living in a community more appealing overall, Deller said. Rural towns with a high quality of life have things to do: farmers markets, arts festivals, volunteer organizations. They offer places to network and exchange ideas with others. Churches can contribute to that mix.

“Churches sometimes can be like an anchor institution for a lot of communities. They can be the ones to be that conduit, or sparkplug, to provide that dynamic that makes a community really livable,” Deller said.

More: Wisconsin’s oldest Methodist congregation closes due to high bills, low turnout. It’s a familiar story nationwide.

There’s a broad shift away from mainstream religions

The challenge to rural churches coincides with a broad movement away from regular church attendance across the country. Just three in 10 Americans now say they attend religious services every week or almost every week, according to a Gallup Poll released earlier this year. Nearly every faith has seen a decline. Other Gallup data showed a general decline over the last decade in the importance of religion in the lives of respondents.

Mainline Protestant groups like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which includes West Denmark, have been on a steep downward slide for longer than that.

In 1990, about 36% of the Polk County population was mainline Protestant, according to the U.S. Religion Census. In 2020, it was about 18%.

Even as the Polk County population remained steady in recent years — it increased 2% from 2010 to 2020 — ELCA membership in the county declined by nearly 20% in the same time frame.

The trend is not unique to northwest Wisconsin. Nationally, the ELCA’s numbers are dire. Since the denomination was formed by a merger in 1988, it has lost more than 2 million members, or more than 40% of its original membership.

One academic, using denomination data, warned that ELCA Sunday worshippers would dwindle to just 16,000 nationwide by 2041. Another, citing the rise of evangelicalism, said in 2017 that mainline Protestantism had “23 Easters left” before trend lines crossed zero.

Church closures bring tough decisions, mixed emotions

In the decades since immigrants settled across the Midwest, the role of a church as the center of people’s social lives has shifted, said Maddy Johnson, program manager for the Church Properties Initiative at Notre Dame’s Fitzgerald Institute for Real Estate. Johnson has discovered bowling alleys in church basements that look like time capsules from the 1950s.

They still can be hubs for community health and education, hosts for vaccination clinics, blood drives and polling places, and sites of food pantries or meal programs.

A church structure that’s “potentially largely empty on Sunday might actually be really vibrant throughout the week, even pulling volunteers who aren’t affiliated with the church, not to mention people who benefit from those services,” Johnson said.

West Denmark Lutheran Church is going beyond Sunday services and trying to make themselves essential to the Polk County community and its surrounding area.West Denmark Lutheran Church is going beyond Sunday services and trying to make themselves essential to the Polk County community and its surrounding area.

West Denmark Lutheran Church is going beyond Sunday services and trying to make themselves essential to the Polk County community and its surrounding area.

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When a church does get to the point of closure, a congregation can face tough decisions and mixed emotions.

It can be a relief to shed the albatross of a time- and budget-sucking building, Johnson said. But who buys the property matters. A congregation could be unaware of its true value and sell it for too little to a developer. Or it could sell for a higher price, cutting out a prospective nonprofit buyer who might have carried on a piece of the church’s mission.

“There’s just a lot of opportunity for missteps,” she said.

Then there’s the question of the lingering symbolism a church carries. Is a church-turned-brewery disrespectful, or innovative? Johnson hears a lot of both opinions. But people generally agree that a public space the community can use is better than, say, privately owned condos.

Leaders see need to get people in the door

West Denmark leaders know their congregation ultimately will only survive if it maintains a high profile.

It’s one reason why Mark Pedersen, of nearby Barron, organizes the concerts and the fiddle school at West Denmark, which trains 60 musicians each year and draws some big names in the field.

“It brings people into the church,” he said. “You’re not going to get people (to join) if they never step in the door.”

And this May, they did, pulled in by Scandinavian treats and the chance to celebrate a cultural heritage.

Freshly fried æbleskiver rest in a cast-iron pan in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church.Freshly fried æbleskiver rest in a cast-iron pan in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church.

Freshly fried æbleskiver rest in a cast-iron pan in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church.

Among the customers eager for pancakes, fruit soup and spiced sausage: Bonnie Fredrickson of Amery and Esther Thompson of Deer Park — each a more-than-30-minute drive from the church. They aren’t members but have made the trek for the last 30-plus years to be transported back in time through food.

“We ate fruit soup when I was a kid,” said Thompson, who has Norwegian and Swedish roots.

And there are the volunteers who chip in year after year. Sarah Petersen, of St. Paul, Minnesota, told her cousins, Carrie and Christa Petersen, of Luck, to “save a burner for me,” and drove up for the weekend. Together, the three likely have made thousands of æbleskiver over 25 years, pouring batter into round divots in specially made frying pans, then delicately turning them over with skewers.

“We are a pretty special church, so it’s fun when other people can see all the things we do,” Christa Petersen said.

Still, as it charts a path forward, the church faces challenging fiscal realities. The parish hall, which hosts so many of West Denmark’s functions, was built about a century ago for folk dances, gymnastics classes and lectures. Updates are needed to allow more rentals, and bring in more revenue, from a new dining room floor and fire escape to a remodeled stage area with a new speaker system.

Members are applying for a grant through the Nordic Churches Project, a program through a nonprofit called Partners for Sacred Places. The program trains leaders of Nordic churches in the Upper Midwest to find new ways to use their buildings, engage with the broader community, and preserve their cultural heritage.

The idea is in keeping with the history of Nordic churches. From 1820 to 1920, more than 2 million immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland settled in the Midwest, said Emily Sajdak, senior project manager of the Nordic Churches Project. “Their settlements really made a significant contribution to both the physical and the cultural landscape,” she said.

Members play to their strengths to sustain church

Notably, half the donations to West Denmark come from “friends and supporters” — that is, people who aren’t members and don’t attend services regularly, but feel connected to the church or its heritage. A sizable group of people returns each summer for West Denmark’s “family camp,” where they reunite with old friends, hear speakers and participate in outdoor activities.

That support is a big factor in West Denmark staying afloat. It’s not something every struggling church can count on.

Henrik Strandskov directs guests to the downstairs dining area at West Denmark Lutheran Church.Henrik Strandskov directs guests to the downstairs dining area at West Denmark Lutheran Church.

Henrik Strandskov directs guests to the downstairs dining area at West Denmark Lutheran Church.

Another major windfall: donations from a now-deceased wealthy man who lived in a cabin on the church property during the Great Depression with his single mother and several siblings.

Beyond that, members know how to leverage their strengths. The nature school for preschool-age children, a response to a shortage of child care in the area that’s set to open in the fall, is led by retired early education specialists.

More: Three West Allis Catholic churches to merge in latest case of local parishes restructuring

More: In another sign of membership trends, St. Bernard in Wauwatosa will close, merge with Christ King

At West Denmark, will the traditions and values pass down to future generations? Some older members grew up hearing their parents or grandparents speak Danish at home. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Judy Grumstrup posed the question to other longtime West Denmark allies who gathered at the æbleskiver dinner.

“Are your kids going to go here? Are they going to do all this?” she asked. No one had an easy answer.

Even with all they do to engage people, the perception is that young people aren’t as interested as their predecessors in being involved in church communities — at least not this kind of church community.

“If you can’t attract a few young people, then you’re in a little bit of trouble,” said Paul Petersen, 67, a West Denmark member since childhood.

But Petersen has been around long enough to have faith in the future of West Denmark. He and his two brothers rebuilt West Denmark in the 1980s after it burned down. (The church that burned was itself a rebuild — in 1937, a lightning strike destroyed the original 1899 building.)

“Fifty years ago, my dad said we won’t survive very much longer,” he said. “I can hear people saying the same thing my dad said 50 years ago.”

But West Denmark has survived this long, he said, “and we’re doing actually pretty good.”

Volunteers sell baked goods at the Danish pancake dinner in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church. The challenge to rural churches coincides with a broad movement away from regular church attendance across the country.Volunteers sell baked goods at the Danish pancake dinner in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church. The challenge to rural churches coincides with a broad movement away from regular church attendance across the country.

Volunteers sell baked goods at the Danish pancake dinner in May at West Denmark Lutheran Church. The challenge to rural churches coincides with a broad movement away from regular church attendance across the country.

For Mark Pedersen, who coordinates the music concerts and the fiddle school, keeping the church active and vibrant is a personal mission. One of his great-grandfathers, a Danish immigrant, was ordained as a pastor at the West Denmark seminary in the late 1800s and became the church’s minister. Another did the original chapel’s wood carvings. His mother grew up across the street.

He got emotional thinking of what would happen if he and others didn’t try to preserve that heritage. He said he could imagine the property sold, the buildings leveled, and summer homes constructed on the shore of Little Butternut Lake.

Then he gazed around the bustling parish hall, where red tablecloths and T-shirts and aprons nodded to the Danish flag. He saw families happily eating and volunteers serving desserts. He saw a community in action.

“There’s too much history here to have it disappear,” he said.

Sophie Carson is a general assignment reporter who reports on religion and faith, immigrants and refugees and more. Contact her at [email protected] or 920-323-5758.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: As rural churches wane, this Wisconsin congregation has a model vision

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