According to District Superintendent Dan Bickel, the Wisconsin District has sustained a partnership with Nicaragua that helped establish the field as well as sending medical, construction, pastoral training, youth, and education teams. They have set up a district office, given missionary and team support, sent medicines, hygiene kits, provided training, purchased land, and done construction. The district has invested more than $1.4 million and immeasurable volunteer service over the past fifteen years.
TURNING THE WALLS OF THE CHURCH INSIDE OUT
A culture of generosity drives many of the local churches as well. Red Cedar Church in Rice Lake, even while raising money for a new building, emphasized not just the building, but giving to others. “We want to instill the idea,” said Senior Pastor Heather Semple, “that we give because God has called us to give, not just because it is linked to certain projects.”
Instead of limiting to special offerings, they budget large, based on what they believe God has called them to do. When they provide support for various efforts in the community, they can tell their people, “Because you have been generous, this is what we are able to do.”
“We want to give our people the tools to live a full life and be so active in the community that they serve without strings attached, so maybe others will want to trust the Jesus we serve.”
They conduct mission trips to their own county, repairing homes, taking care of people, and unleashing the church to do all sorts of acts of kindness. “In other words,” says Pastor Semple, “we want to be the church.”
At a Hispanic church nearby they work with immigrants. They are also starting to help an Islamic Somalian group with tangible, physical needs. Superintendent Bickel said, “That church is connecting with its community and turning the walls of the church inside out.”
At Red Cedar, 134 people received Christ on Easter Sunday and 98 were baptized the following Sunday. On May 3, 2015, the congregation moved into its new building and attendance jumped from 1,000 to 1,400.
TRANSFORMING THE CITY
Nearly 300 miles southeast of Red Cedar is Transformation City – an ambitious name for a church, especially one that is located in an under-resourced urban community. Yet transformation is exactly what Pastor Jason Butler, his staff, and his congregation are doing.
When Jason and his wife Alya arrived in Milwaukee in 2007, the church plant was a “parachute drop,” with no staff, no core group, and no facilities. They began with a vision to become a community of faith that worshiped, reached people for Christ, discipled believers, and developed leaders, but also ministered to the tangible needs of the community.
Today, in addition to the 250 persons who worship each weekend, they also pour themselves out for the needs of the community. They founded “Inhabit,” an organization that rehabilitates distressed houses and recruits Christians to live in the community, not with a “drawbridge mentality,” coming and going, but being neighbors and becoming part of the community.
People who need jobs are connected with employers. They help young people take responsibility for planting and tending gardens on vacant lots and selling the crops. This adds dignity to young lives.
Young girls in the community are being exploited for sex. The congregation founded “Exploit No More.” In cooperation with twenty other churches and law enforcement, they will open a safe house to minister to girls who have been rescued from this exploitation. The first of its kind in Wisconsin, they hope to have it ready by early 2016.
The church encounters many sixth and seventh graders with reading difficulties. So they provide weekly after-school tutoring, including a hot meal, as well as exposure to Bible stories and teachings.
Transformation City now has seven staff persons, including an African-American woman who has been part of the church almost from the beginning. As an associate pastor, she helps build bridges to the multi-ethnic community.
THE “167 PRINCIPLE”
Eighty miles to the west is a new suburban church near Madison. “Dane County is known for chewing up and spitting out new church plants,” said Brent Bickel, pastor of North Ridge Church in Waunakee.
So why is North Ridge thriving? “We started differently,” Brent said. They moved to the Madison area early in 2011 and focused on prayer and becoming immersed in the community. After much research and building relationships, God guided them to Waunakee to concentrate their efforts.
They began a midweek kids’ ministry, called North Ridge Kids, which ran for ten weeks in the fall of 2011, teaching principles for life and the truth about God. They averaged 20-30 kids per week. They began holding monthly services in January 2012, conducted the kids program again in the spring, and officially launched the church in September 2012 in a community center.
Originally a history teacher, Brent taught in a school system in North Carolina before God called him into full-time ministry. After serving on staff at a church in North Dakota, he felt a “directive from God” to plant a church. They hit a high attendance of 246 on Easter and have been averaging 180.
A key principle of North Ridge Church is its emphasis on “167.” Brent explains that of the 168 hours in a week, one is spent in church worship on Sunday morning. But being the church is all about how we spend the other 167 hours outside the church walls. He points out, “We focus heavily on the relevance of God to everyday life. Since we are a church plant, we have been able to ingrain that in the DNA of the church.”
A 40-MILE STRETCH OF HIGHWAY
The River in Minong, Wisconsin, is another unconventional church plant. They held services for nine months before calling a pastor. Pastor Ben Kidder arrived and now, eight years later, the church averages 200 in worship.
They meet in a sanctuary that feels crowded with 100 people in it. While the town of Minong has a population of about 500, the people come from all over the county, which Kidder says has 4,000 unreached people. His target is a “40- mile stretch of highway.”
So what draws people to this small-town church in the North Woods of Wisconsin? Pastor Kidder believes the people are hungry for Bible teaching and worship that feels alive.
Beginning with a core group of 8-12 people from Hayward Wesleyan Church, just over 20 miles away, the original intent was not to begin a separate church. They held Bible studies, but decided to conduct a Christmas Eve service in 2006. One hundred people came and they saw the potential.
People come from a variety of denominational backgrounds, as well as no church background. “If an unchurched person in the community dies, we’ll hold their funeral,” he said, as a ministry to the grieving survivors.
Their facilities are taxed – they conduct three worship services and also need more parking space, but their focus is on developing the people. The first additional staff member oversees students ministries and discipleship ministries. A retired couple in the church who were professional therapists provide free Christian counseling.
Pastor Kidder gives great credit to Rev. Mark Wilson, the pastor of Hayward Wesleyan Church. “The mother church set us up for success,” Kidder says. “They provided money, helped us with the building, and released gifted lay people.”
GETTING OFF THE PLATEAU
Also in upstate Wisconsin, Spooner Wesleyan Church found growth had stalled. Superintendent Bickel had talked to the church leaders about the life cycle of a church and the danger of going into a decline.
Pastor Ron Gormong has been at Spooner for 27 years. He is only the second senior pastor to lead the church in nearly fifty years. In the 1990s, the church was growing and in 2003 they built a new sanctuary. Church attendance exceeded 400, but after a few years, it plateaued.
“The culture was shifting,” said Pastor Gormong. “We were well-positioned to serve a 90s culture, but that was not working well in the mid-2000s.” The church gave him a sabbatical in 2008, which he used to gain a greater understanding of postmodernism and other cultural issues, and he realized the church needed to refocus. “While the gospel does not change,” he said, “our methods do, if we want to reach generations yet to come.”
He formed a team consisting of a variety of ages and viewpoints. They spent over a year re-envisioning the church, devised a new vision statement and developed new strategies to make it a reality.
Their worship style was “all over the map,” so, among other changes, they settled on a contemporary style that fits their culture. It is band-driven, has attracted several young families, and the congregation is growing again. “Constructive, vision-driven change is harder than it looks, takes longer than you think, and is never over, but the change for us has been healthy.”
Spooner’s spiritual vitality is also seen in its generosity. When the Philippines typhoon disaster hit recently, it was announced that all the tithes and offerings on one Sunday would go to help the victims. They ended up contributing over $14,000!
ANOTHER KIND OF GENEROSITY
Hayward Wesleyan Church, situated in a town of 2,100 people, experienced exponential growth for several years, reaching more than 600 attendees. Since then, the church has been investing its people to bless others.
When they planted the church in Minong, Hayward gave away people and money to help The River Church get a strong start.
The Spider Lake Church, 13 miles to the northeast, was struggling to remain open. Hayward sent one of its gifted lay leaders, who became the pastor. That church now averages 150.
Andrea Wittwer came to Christ through the ministry of Hayward Wesleyan, felt a call to ministry, trained for ministry through the FLAME program, and now drives an hour west each weekend to minister at the Woodland Wesleyan Church in Danbury, Wisc.
Tim Young was on staff at Hayward, but Stone Lake Wesleyan, 13 miles south, was struggling. Tim felt called to be their pastor, but Stone Lake could only afford to hire him half- time. Hayward invested in that ministry to enable him to be a full-time pastor. That church is growing again.
Tim Hagburg, also from Hayward Wesleyan Church, now pastors First Congregational Church in Hayward. Under his leadership, with Mark Wilson’s warm encouragement, God has breathed new life into this historic congregation.
The Shack, a Native American fellowship on the LCO reservation (Ojibwe nation), is another outreach ministry of Hayward, with several from the congregation ministering there regularly.
Hayward has been an inspiration to many other churches in small towns. Hayward’s Pastor Mark Wilson, author of the book, Purple Fish, says, “If you draw a big circle of 25 miles radius around our church, there are 20,000 people, of which only 4,000 attend church. Every town has plenty of fish in its sea.”