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Shrinking Town Growing Church

Shrinking Town, Growing Church

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Situated on the north bank of the Des Moines River, Eldon, Iowa, is a small town that is getting smaller: every U.S. census since 1930 has registered a decrease in population. The latest tally shows just over 700 residents, about half the number who lived there 90 years ago; 46 percent of the residents are over 45 years old.

The population peaked at over 2,000 in the 1920s, when Assemblies of God minister Elmer Simbro decided the town on a main rail line needed a Pentecostal witness. The local AG church formed five years before Grant Wood painted his famous American Gothic, based on the grim-looking rural couple standing in front of a house in the town.

In 1968, the last Rock Island Railroad passenger train stopped at the depot in Eldon. When John A. Cooper and his wife, Mary, moved to town to assume the pastorate of the Eldon Assembly of God in 1973, along with their preschool children, the church had fewer than 20 attendees. The Coopers pastored the church for three years, then moved away, but returned in 1979 — when their children were 8, 7, and 2. John and Mary Cooper have been pastoring the church continuously for 41 years, the current longest serving tenure in the Iowa Ministry Network.

Less than 1 percent of graduating high school seniors stay in Eldon. Nevertheless, kids still live in the area. The consolidated school district has 815 children enrolled in kindergarten through high school.

“Even though we are an older congregation, we believe kids need a church that loves them while they are growing up,” says John Cooper, 73.

Suzanne Minor is among the many students raised in Eldon who left after graduation. However, she and her husband, John, later moved back to raise their children in a quiet, close-knit community. They offered their home to the church as a place for youth to meet. Even though average attendance at the church is in the 50s, about 15 kids call Eldon Assembly their home.

At the turn of the century, the church had kids and a small youth ministry, but, outside of a home setting, no place for them to meet. The congregation, though consisting mostly of older adults, decided to build a gym and family life center that could be used by the church as well as the community. Esther Crow, who had been in the church since her girlhood in the 1940s, began praying for babies to fill a nursery.

Esther and her husband, Larry, who also has been in the church since the 1940s, felt that if they wanted to reach children and young families in the town, the nursery needed updating, including a sink for easy cleanup.

“I told her there was no access to plumbing,” Larry remembers. “We would have to flip the entire church around for her to have the nursery and preschool classrooms she dreamed up.”

Congregants, the majority of whom are grandparents whose grandchildren live elsewhere, decided they could restructure the setup of the church to make it more family-friendly. Once that process began, adherents tore into walls, redid wiring, and modernized the entire facility. Women of the church scoured Pinterest for ideas to make the children’s area a creative place to play and learn.

The full project, including the Family Life Center, cost $120,000, paid off within six months of completion. The Family Life Center includes a custom wrought-iron circular stairway that leads to an upstairs loft for a game room above the gym.

After completion of the Family Life Center, elementary children of the town raised money to buy playground equipment designed after Noah’s Ark for the church.

“The building project just happened in a roundabout way because God had a plan,” says church member Veryl Shaw. “Now our building says to the community that we care about their families.”

In a farming community such as Eldon, the longevity of the Coopers serving as pastors — along with the commitment of the church to be ready for ministry to the children and youth of their town — has given the church influence in this small town, which has no grocery stores or restaurants.

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