I f you haven’t been to northwest Iowa lately, you might imagine that most of our small towns are similar. There’s a single stoplight, a stark concrete grain elevator, a Pizza Ranch, and a Casey’s gas station. You’d assume that most people look the same, talk the same, and eat the same lime jello. Drive 12 miles down the blacktop, and you’ll find another town just like the first. Wash, rinse, repeat. Seen one, seen them all.
If that’s your read on northwest Iowa, you probably haven’t been to Storm Lake.
Loving the people of Storm Lake
A small city of about 15,000, Storm Lake is one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the Midwest. Drawn by employment opportunities in the town’s meat-processing plants, people from around 30 nations reside in Storm Lake. Nearly that many languages are spoken in the town’s homes. People have journeyed from Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America to start new lives here in northwest Iowa; it’s as if Pentecost is playing out on the prairie!
What makes Storm Lake different also makes it fertile ground for an embodied gospel. Storm Lake is a city of immigrants; the men and women who have come to work here are sojourners. They are far from home, far from supportive family systems. They long for connection and relationships.
For this reason, the Regional Synod of the Heartland has taken a keen interest in loving the people of Storm Lake (Synods are part of the organizational structure of the Reformed Church in America. To learn more, visit https://www.rca.org/how-we-work/regional-synod). Early in 2019, the synod invested in the purchase of a home in the city to serve as a ministry center for Ricky and Tery Sanchez, a Latino church-planting couple who sensed God’s call to serve in Storm Lake.
Solid Rock Ministries
In addition to the region’s support for the Sanchez family, it was clear that one congregation needed to take a special role in shepherding, supporting, and starting the work in Storm Lake.
It has been a joy to watch the men, women, and children of First Reformed Church in Orange City live into that role. After a good deal of time in prayer and shared learning with the Sanchez family, First Reformed embraced the role of “sending church” for the ministry. Together, we have established a missional community called Solid Rock Ministries.
First Reformed learns much as a sending church
As sending church, our congregation has assumed several important responsibilities intended to assist in the growth and flourishing of Solid Rock.
Most importantly, First Reformed has lived into a bilateral relationship of spiritual discovery with the growing community of faith in Storm Lake. Ricky and Tery were enfolded into leadership staff in Orange City for an initial season of deepening trust and shared vision. This led us to a number of important learnings about God’s work among the nations. The perspectives of people in First Reformed’s pews toward questions of immigration, citizenship, and cultural agility have been renewed.
Serving as a sending church also involves arm-in-arm onsite partnership. Our church has led a vacation Bible school in Storm Lake and distributed food over the holidays. We have undertaken a number of construction projects at the ministry house, and skilled technology specialists from First Reformed have created logos and other online materials for Solid Rock. Three of our members sit on the advisory board for the Storm Lake ministry, and our quarterly church magazine, the Milestone, features updates from Ricky.
Finally, serving in a sending role implies financial support for the sent congregation. In order to launch the initial work in Storm Lake, First Reformed Church directed a memorial gift toward Solid Rock’s ministry. We have made the Sanchez family’s ongoing work a key component of our mission budget. And as an investment in the future, First Reformed Church held a fundraising dinner, Fiesta Roca Fuerte, as part of a campaign to purchase four acres of adjoining property for Solid Rock’s outreach endeavors.
In many ways, serving as a sending body has revitalized First Reformed Church. This assignment has reminded us of our roots: nearly 150 years ago, we were the sent congregation.
Along the way, we have felt the impulse of the Acts church. We have surveyed the horizon and beheld a diverse and multicultural world. We have joined the Spirit in the important gospel work of entering into these new places. We have come to appreciate origin stories and have witnessed new forms of Christian expression. We have praised God as nearly a dozen people have come to saving faith in Jesus at Solid Rock in 2019.
It is our conviction that healthy systems give birth to new life, and as First Reformed Church continues in ministry to Orange City, we hope our church can be an ongoing catalyst and partner with the new things God is doing in our region and around the world.
Tim Breen serves as lead pastor of First Reformed Church of Orange City, Iowa, and is past president of the Regional Synod of the Heartland.