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Planting churches in Wisconsin not for the faint of heart

APPLETON, Wis. (BP)–Someone once said Jesus’ parable of the soils was incomplete because it didn’t include the “frozen tundra” of northeastern Wisconsin, where there’s a cultural resistance to the Gospel, and where planting churches, according to Dennis Hansen, “is not for the faint of heart.”

Hansen is director of missions for the Bay Lakes Baptist Association, which covers the northeastern quarter of the state. In 10 years here, he has seen the number of Southern Baptist churches grow from five to 18, with plans for up to six new church starts this year.

“Every church in our association that has been here two years or more has sponsored at least one other work,” he said. And church planters with the highest probability of success are what he called “indigenous” – Christians raised and called to ministry in this culture, which is predominantly northern European, Roman Catholic and skeptical of anything “southern.”

He said this while sipping coffee at the Machine Shed, a thriving restaurant with a John Deere motif that went belly up when it was a Cracker Barrel.

Keep in mind, this is a land where 60,000 people religiously attend Packers games but almost no one goes to Sunday School. Where a polka band plays “Rock of Ages” for Sunday morning radio listeners between supper club commercials. Where a “creek” is what you get in your neck and a “crick” is what you don’t want to be up without a paddle. Where a drinking fountain is a “bubbler” and a traffic light is a “stop and go.”

“The customs, attitudes and vernacular of the people here are unique,” Hansen said. “If you come here thinking your southern church-planting model will work, you’ll go home discouraged in a very short time.”

So what does it take for successful church starts in northeastern Wisconsin? Hansen said the following are essential:

— A good pastor. “Seminary training is not mandatory, but being called by God is. Indigenous pastors – people from Wisconsin who understand its unique culture – tend to do the best.”

— A commitment to being Southern Baptist. “We used to dance around being Southern Baptist for fear of scaring people away. Not anymore. People here appreciate knowing who we are and what we believe.”

— Good curriculum. “You have to have good Southern Baptist literature at the start. LifeWay Christian Resources is a tremendous help in this regard. Their materials, from Sunday School quarterlies to Backyard Bible Club packets, communicate the Southern Baptist mindset – Cooperative Program, Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong and the like.”

— Good music. “Small churches don’t have lots of equipment and can’t afford music ministers. So using boom boxes and CDs is one way to help beef up the quality of a church’s music ministry.”

— Financial support. With an average membership of 60 and with most congregations led by bivocational pastors, Southern Baptist churches in northeastern Wisconsin need financial support from many sources: the North American Mission Board, the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention, a sponsoring church, support from other churches in other states and committed tithers within the church.

— A simple plan. “You can start a church with three people: one who leads worship, one who leads evangelism and one who takes the lead in equipping the saints for ministry.”

— Perseverance. “Don’t sweat the numbers. A big Southern Baptist congregation in Wisconsin is 250 people. If God is in it, and if people are faithful, it will succeed.”

A native of Kansas and a former director of evangelism in Iowa, Hansen has experienced the cultural differences that occur when one simply crosses a state line. His heart for ministering to people in Wisconsin led him to produce a booklet for new Southern Baptist workers in the state, “Communicating Christianity to Wisconsin.” It’s a valued guide for new pastors, and for volunteer workers in the state.

“The thing we have to remember,” Hansen said, “is that sharing the Gospel is our main focus. We must not let cultural differences keep us from sharing Christ.”

    About the Author

  • Rob Phillips