140 years old with new horizons

Kongsvinger Lutheran Church of rural Oslo extends it outreach

Kongsvinger Lutheran Church Oslo, Minn.

Photo courtesy of Don Mathsen
Kongsvinger Lutheran Church in Oslo, Minn., as it looks today.

Kongsvinger Lutheran Church

On Nov. 21, 2020, the Kongsvinger Lutheran Church of rural Oslo, Minn., turned 140 years old.

Standing alone on the prairie between the communities of East Grand Forks, Alvarado, and Oslo, the congregation looks back at the many changes that have taken place over the years. At the same time, it is experiencing one of the most unusual times in all of its history as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital technology that enables discipleship education and worship with a global audience.

Many country churches in the Upper Midwest were formed by pioneer families who had migrated together and shared the same spiritual and cultural identities. On Nov. 21, 1880, 26 pioneer families and individuals signed the Kongsvinger charter for Kongsvinger Lutheran. Many came from the border region of eastern Norway and western Sweden known as Finnskogen, an area to which families from the Savonia region of Finland migrated beginning in the late 16th century.

Through the years, the church has served as a spiritual and social center for families within a 5-mile radius, with most of the congregation membership descendant from founding families. In 2007, a congregational survey demonstrated that without new membership, the Kongsvinger church would, like many other small country churches, die out in 15 to 20 years. Many of the younger generation were departing the area or had left the congregation. The survey posed the question, “Was the small rural church still needed?”

At its founding, Kongsvinger was affiliated with the Haugean Movement in Norway, with its emphasis on personal piety and lay leadership. Over the years, the congregation has gone through the progression of mergers of Norwegian Lutheran churches in America. This led to a number of different local parish affiliations with other Lutheran churches throughout the area. In 1989, the congregation, without other local parish relationships, affiliated with the American Association of Lutheran Churches, a conservative Lutheran body whose first presiding pastor was the Rev. Duane Lindberg, a native of rural East Grand Forks and a Universtiy of North Dakota graduate. This affiliation continues to the present.

Kongsvinger’s first pastor was the Rev. Bersven Anderson, the pioneer Norwegian-American pastor of 12 newly-formed Haugean Lutheran churches in the Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota and later founding pastor of a church in Bardo, Alberta, Canada.

Kongsvinger’s longest serving pastor over its 140-year history was Pastor Harvey Hoiberg, who served the congregation for 17 years from 1997 to 2014.

In 2014, Pastor Chris Rosebrough was called to be the 23rd pastor of Kongsvinger. Having formed Pirate Christian Radio, an online Christian network and discernment ministry, Pastor Rosebrough was soon sought out by some of his radio audience to provide a congregational setting in which they could receive counseling and instruction in the historic Christian doctrines of the early church and the Reformation.

To meet this demand, Kongsvinger hosted the formation of its Aletheia Outreach program that began offering two Saturday online worship services at times suitable for audiences in North America, Western Europe, and Australia and the Far East. Later online mid-week adult catechism classes were launched for anyone who desired more in-depth Biblical instruction.

The concept of an “online church” was initially met with skepticism by many pastors and laymen as a distraction from how a congregation should function. However, the five years of experience prior to 2020 allowed Pastor Rosebrough and Kongsvinger to move into the pandemic shutdown era without missing any Sundays or educational activities. The result was that participation blossomed.

For several decades, the Kongsvinger congregation consisted of 40-50 active members, about 20 family units. Since mid-March 2020, over 300 individual IP addresses have registered to attend one or more Kongsvinger services. Since July, about 80 family units faithfully attend one or more worship, devotional, and educational sessions each week. These include three catechism classes on Thursday, men’s and women’s Bible studies on Saturday morning, two international Aletheia worship services on Saturday afternoon, and the Sunday morning Service and Bible study from Kongsvinger.

In 1880, Norwegian and Swedish were the languages of the church, Today, it is again possible to hear participants converse in Norwegian and Swedish. Regular participants come from all over the world, and in the United States, the congretation is joined by people from, but not limited to, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Connecticut. International participation includes people from Africa, Australia, Barbados, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, South Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In several cases, new local churches are being formed in some of these countries as outgrowths of the Aletheia program.

As Kongsvinger commemorates 140 years of history, the church is no longer constrained by the demographics of a rural community; this small rural church appears to have found a new role. No longer a “family chapel” for descendants of the pioneers, it has truly become a church with an outreach to the entire world.

For information on how to attend Kongsvinger via livestream, visit www.kongsvingerchurch.org or www.facebook.com/Kongsvinger.AALC.USA, or email the church at kongsvinger@kongsvingerchurch.org.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Don Mathsen

Don Mathsen is a third and fourth generation descendant of pioneer families who were charter members of the Kongsvinger Lutheran Church. As enthusiasts of Scandinavian history and culture, Don and his wife, Marilyn, have nurtured family connections and traveled in numerous regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland over the past 20 years.