In 1888, a small group of families began meeting at the home of Freerk Klaahsen in a small Iowa community. Many of the families had migrated from Germany to begin their new lives in the open country. Soon, the Klaahsen home became too small and the group began to worship at a school.
By 1894, 20 charter members officially organized the Zoar Presbyterian Church. It was named after a nearby ravine known as Zoar Creek. Two acres of land were purchased to build the first church and it grew rapidly afterwards.
Now, the church is celebrating its 125th anniversary, a milestone for many small churches. But church leaders say the close family ties within the congregation have been key to its longevity.
“There’s a frontier feel to the church here and there’s such a strong family feeling. It’s a mom and pop church with a lot of strong family connections that are generational,” said the Reverend John Pea, pastor. “We’ve been able to pass that down. God has blessed them.”
Pea says the older generation in the church is working closely with younger families to incorporate them into leadership positions.
“All births are painful, yet a little exciting at the same time,” he said. “I’m seeing how this generational family to family is handled in terms of how this church operates. They’re learning to share power with younger generations.”
The strong sense of family has kept the community together for more than a century. Church historians say four charter member families are still represented today and with each passing generation, a new one emerges.
Pea says the agricultural community is here to stay even as younger generations look to the future.
“People come from about 100 miles radius to Zoar,” he said. “That speaks volumes for the caring of the church in that people are willing to come that distance because they are enmeshed in the body of Christ.”
The Reverend Ian McMullen is transitional general presbyter for the Presbyteries of Prospect Hill and North Central Iowa. In a time when churches are seeing decline, McMullen says churches in communities like George, where Zoar Presbyterian Church is located, are thriving.
“As a general presbyter, I see a lot of churches on a regular basis. They are holding fast in a world that is declining,” he said. “They’ve got strong youth involvement and good community input. I think the community ministry and strong leadership are virtues that are lacking in many churches.”
Pea also credits consistent leadership over the years as a factor for the church’s commitment to ministry, saying his two predecessors each served the church for 17 years.
“The church has had consistency in pastoral leadership over long periods of time. Both pastors felt a strong missional kind of church reality that we need to be serving one another and serving our community and there’s a strong sense of that as well,” he said. “These are people who care about one another strongly.”
Pea adds that Zoar is also moving toward becoming a Matthew 25 church.
“We will be pushing that and the whole notion that God is here, and we are called to talk to our neighbors and find those lost sheep who need a home,” he said. “There is loneliness out there, even in small towns among single moms and single parents in general and we need to reach out to them as well.”
Pea adds that Zoar faces the same challenges and struggles as other churches.
“We care about one another intensely and we know about one another’s lives and share good news and bad news,” he said. “At the same time, as I see the world around me, loneliness is becoming a reality for people I’ve met and sometimes technology doesn’t meet that gap. Rural churches have an insight in how to embody a connection with one another in Christ.”
Pea says the church has a gift for solving problems in Christ: spending time eating, talking, and sharing with one another instead of rushing in and rushing out. McMullen agrees.
“Christianity is all about relationships,” he said. “Zoar is being incarnational and intentional and that’s why they’re a blessing in this community, not declining.”
The Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), agrees.
“This milestone at Zoar reminds us that the hand of God embraces small church ministries as effective tools for the transformation of people and whole communities,” he said. “Zoar still remains a witness in a community while celebrating her journey through the ages. Thanks be to God! Hallelujah!”