Wednesday, September 28, 2016

8 Wisconsin Churches You Should See (and one you might not be able to)

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison, Wisconsin
Grace Episcopal Church, Madison

Hope Lutheran Church, Ladysmith, Wisconsin
Hope Lutheran Church, Ladysmith

Holcombe United Methodist Church, Wisconsin
Bell tower for Holcombe United Methodist Church, Holcombe

Entrance to Holcombe United Methodist Church, Wisconsin
And the building

Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, Ladysmith, Wisconsin
Sovereign Grace Baptist Church, Ladysmith

United Church of Christ, Ladysmith, Wisconsin
United Church of Christ, Ladysmith

Ladysmith Baptist church, Wisconsin
Ladysmith Baptist Church

Little Plum Lutheran church, Pepin, Wisconsin
Little Plum Lutheran Church, Pepin

Sabylund Lutheran church, Stockholm, Wisconsin
Sabylund Lutheran Church, Stockholm

Free Lutheran Church
Free Lutheran Church...I hope they're just getting a new sign

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

We Go to 3 Churches in Wisconsin

Three Congregations in Rusk County, Wisconsin

We were fortunate to have children seated nearby in all three worship services we attended last week. Not our children, of course. Other people’s children are so much more fun. I understand why Jesus wanted the children to come unto Him.

St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Flambeau, WI
We went to the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church for the Friday morning mass at 8:00 am. In the front row an adorable preschooler sat with his grandmother. During prayer time, I watched him working on his proper hand clasping and folding technique. Throughout the service, he turned around to look at the people behind him, particularly the man a couple of rows behind him. When the passing of the peace came, the boy ran to that man. After the service, the boy wanted to show everyone his puppy backpack.

First Church of Christ, Ladysmith, WI
We went to the 8:00 am Sunday service at the First Church of Christ in Ladysmith, where we had the privilege of sitting next to a two-year old who squirmed a bit, but did very well throughout the whole service. His parents gave him a couple of fine books, one very exciting book about firefighters and the other about Thomas the Tank Engine. He also enjoyed a small healthy snack.

At Abundant Life Assembly of God, also of Ladysmith, we went to the 10:30 am worship service, some children went to children’s church, but one girl, 9 or 10 years old, stayed in the service. The two women behind her (and in front of us) were talking during the sermon. The girl turned around and with a very serious face, hushed them. Respecting one’s elders is important, but I appreciated that hushing.

We’ve been in big churches where there aren’t any children in the services. Nurseries and childcare and Sunday School are all good things, but in small churches you’re more likely to see little kids in the worship service. I think it can be a good thing for kids to grow up being part of the worship service with adults.

Some people have asked us, now that we’ve visited many churches, “What’s better, a big church or a small church?”

We generally answer, “Yes.”

There are good things about both. There are people who long for the intimacy to be found in a small church and others who appreciate the range of programs and services that can be offered by a large church. We’ve grown in our appreciation of variety in the Christian church.

Abundant Life Assembly of God, Ladysmith, Wisconsin
One of the inspirations for this trip was a book on variety in the American church, a history book with the not so catchy title: The Churching of America, 1776 - 2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. The book contrasts the European Church and the American Church: most European churches were at one time state churches which looked much the same throughout a nation, whereas American churches were built on an entrepreneurial model -- many different kinds of churches appealing to different tastes and needs.

Stark and Finke argue that the relative strength of American churches can be attributed to that variety. A Gallup survey of the United States in 2013 showed that 39% of Americans regularly attend church as opposed to 12% of the population in the United Kingdom or 5% in Sweden.

One of the denominational differences the book points out is the approach to clergy. There are, of course, churches like Brethren fellowships that have no clergy at all. There are other denominations like the Episcopalians or Presbyterians that required extensive education for their clergy as well as a relatively high level of compensation. Historically, Methodists and Baptists required less education for their clergy and promised little in the way of compensation. This worked out in interesting ways. Since they required less, there were more Methodist and Baptist clergy (chiefly men) who could go out into the newly settled areas and frontiers of the United States, so many more Methodist and Baptist churches were planted. The Presbyterians and Episcopalians of the time might have argued their congregations were fewer but richer (in a variety of senses).

Each of the three worship services we attended in Wisconsin this week were led by very different clergy. At St. Francis, worship was led by a deacon, Craig Voldberg (he mentioned a marriage retreat he would be attending with his wife) rather than a priest. There are several Catholic Churches in the area and there a couple of priests who rotate visits to the churches. Every other week St. Francis has a priest lead mass for their Saturday service. (St. Francis doesn’t have a service on Sunday morning). Voldberg said that St. Francis has a much greater attendance during the summer, and that those summer residents faithfully give even when they aren’t present, keeping the parish afloat.

At the Church of Christ, the sermon was delivered by an elder, Russ Kinney (We arrived at the church at the same time as he did, and someone called out, “Oh, Russ is here, we’ll have a sermon.”

Someone else added, “You have to be done by noon, the Packers are playing.” We learned that the church had been without a pastor since August. The previous pastor’s family health challenges forced them to leave, but a search committee was currently working through candidates.

At Abundant Life, Bryan Johnson, the lead pastor, preached and led the worship service. His wife, Pamala Johnson, is family life pastor.

The three churches also varied widely in the length of their worship services. The Catholic service was less than thirty minutes long, with a homily lasting less than ten minutes. The message, drawn from the Gospel reading in Luke 9, addressed who Jesus is, and how the answer to that question changes everything in our lives.

The Church of Christ service lasted a little over an hour, with a twenty minute sermon. Apparently, the congregation was working through the Gospel of John. Russ Kinney, the elder preaching, spoke on John 5 with a focus on the man by the pool who was healed by Jesus and the need we all have for healing and conversion.

And the Assembly of God service was closer to an hour and a half, with a forty minute sermon. Pastor Johnson was working through the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11, this week focusing on the lives of Barak and Samson from the book of Judges.

So each sermon we heard was approximately twice as long as the sermon we heard before. Someone living in the area concerned about such temporal things (particularly about Packers starting times) could choose accordingly.

It was also interesting to hear about the different ministries the churches were involved in, in the community. The Catholic Churches in the area were sponsoring a Hoedown, complete with barbeque and line dancers, open to the community to raise money for Our Lady of Sorrows School in Ladysmith.

The First Church of Christ was collecting items to auction for the upcoming Harvest of Talents. The proceeds of the sale would go towards the needy in the community of Ladysmith. (I put in one of my autographed Bill the Warthog books into the collection.)

At the Assembly of God church, Pastor Johnson mentioned money that had been raised for the Project Lifesaver in Rusk County. The money was used for signal bracelets for those who might become lost so they could be found.

A variety of churches caring for a variety of people. Even without the work of Stark and Finke, we could see that this is a very good thing.

St Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church
Service Length: 22 minutes
Sermon Length: 6 minutes
Visitor Treatment: everybody greeted everybody during the passing of the peace, and there was a book for guests to sign.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 8
Probable Ushers' Count: no ushers; there were 8 people
Snacks: none
Musicians: none
Songs: "We Gather Together"
Miles to Church: 3 miles
Church Website:

First Church of Christ
Service Length: 1 hour 5 minutes
Sermon Length: 20 minutes
Visitor Treatment: The couple entering when we did welcomed us and introduced us to several other people, who made sure we got coffee, signed the guest book, and met other people. The mother of the little boy sitting next to us introduced herself after the worship service was over (it turns out she knows the daughter of our hosts from New Jersey), introduced us to another person or two, and made sure we knew about the various adult Sunday School classes that meet between the first and second worship services of the morning.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 71
Probable Ushers' Count: 80
Snacks: coffee, maybe hot water for tea
Musicians: keyboard (woman)
acoustic guitar (woman)
bass guitar (man)
vocals (man and woman)
Songs: "I'll Fly Away"
"You are Good"
"Great are You, Lord"
"Awesome God"
"Trust and Obey"
Miles to Church: 20 miles
Church Website:

Abundant Life Assembly of God
Service Length: 1 hour 16 minutes
Sermon Length: 41 minutes
Visitor Treatment: several people greeted us and introduced themselves before the worship service started, including the lead pastor.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none very nice personal email from Pastor Johnson
Our Rough Count: 34
Probable Ushers' Count: 40
Snacks: none that we saw, although there was coffee in the adult Sunday School class that met before the worship service
Musicians: keyboard (man)
vocals (woman)
Songs: "Your Love Never Fails" (prelude)
"Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" (and they did)
"Glorious One"
"Strong God"
"No Longer Slaves" (also played during communion at First Christian Church)
"All the Poor and Powerless"
Miles to Church: 2 miles
Miles from Start: 37,880
Total 2016 Miles: 37,594
Church Website:

Monday, September 26, 2016

6 Wild Wisconsin Facts

1. 17% of the state's area is water. Only Alaska, Michigan, and Florida contain more water than Wisconsin.

2. Wisconsin is called the Badger State mostly because early miners, who took shelter in the holes they'd dug, were called "Badgers." That's also a reason the state animal is the badger.

3. Overcharging and deforestation led to a shift towards dairy farming from other agricultural endeavors. The North Country area of the state, which was formerly an industrial area, has become a vacation destination.

4. The state motto is "Forward," and the state song is "On Wisconsin."

5. The state has no official nickname.

Saint Francis Catholic church
6. Settlers from New England established Congregational churches in the state during the mid 1800s, while German, Irish, and Norwegians started Lutheran and Catholic churches.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Church Ethnic Dinner in Wisconsin

St John's Lutheran Church, Ladysmith, Wisconsin
The sign in front of St. John’s Lutheran read “Ethnic Dinner Thursday September 22 4 - 6:30 PM” and we knew we’d be there. I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist a good “Ethnic Dinner.”

Two women sat at the ticket table inside the door, so we paid our $8.00 each for dinner tickets. I asked what the money was being raised for, and there was a bit of discussion before we were told it was for a new electronic sign for the road in front of the church.

Considering the fact that we were in Ladysmith, Wisconsin, we should not have been surprised that the ethnicity of the food being served was not Mexican, Italian, or Ethiopian. The exact ethnicity of the meal was never specified, but we’re thinking Polish. We were offered the following entrees and sides: kielbasa, pork, sauerkraut (with pork), dumplings, gravy, mashed potatoes, and carrots.

The servers were friendly and gracious. Though the meal was served cafeteria style, drinks were brought to the table, and milk was one of the options (others were water, coffee, or decaf). The other couple at the table told us they weren’t from the church, but they mentioned several things we should see in the area. The paper placemats and napkins both celebrated the centennial of St. John’s -- the church was was founded in 1916 and will be celebrating the anniversary next month..

On the way out we chatted again with the ticket sellers, a new crew that had rotated in. One woman told us more about the planned sign. “We’re right by the only stoplight in the county, so there’s a real opportunity for evangelism.” We were glad to contribute to the cause.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

So Many Illinois Churches

Arnold T Olson Chapel, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois
Arnold T. Olson Chapel
Trinity International University,

Calvary Church, Naperville, Illinois
Calvary Church, Naperville

St Malachey Catholic Church, Geneseo, Illinois
Saint Malachey, Geneseo

First Congregational Church, Geneseo, Illinois
First Congregational Church, Geneseo

Concordia Lutheran Church, Geneseo, Illinois
Concordia Lutheran Church, Geneseo

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Geneseo, Illinois
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Geneseo

First United Methodist Church, Dixon, Illinois
First United Methodist Church, Dixon

First Christian Church, Dixon, Illinois
First Christian Church, Dixon

First Baptist Church, Dixon, Illinois
First Baptist Church, Dixon

St Luke's Episcopal Church, Dixon, Illinois
Saint Luke's Church, Dixon

Broadway Covenant Church, Rockford, Illinois
Broadway Covenant Church, Rockford

Heartland Church, Rockford, Illinois
Heartland Church, Rockford

Gethsemane Christian Church, Rockford, Illinois
Gethsemane Christian Church, Rockford
church building for sale in Geneseo, Illinois
And an opportunity!
The former First Baptist Church of Geneseo

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

We go to church in Illinois (with a bonus seminary story!)

Geneseo Evangelical Free Church, Illinois near the library
To indicate how close we’ve been to Pastor Steve Palm of Geneseo Evangelical Free Church, I’ll note that he came with us on our honeymoon.

Well, actually, it was  just the first couple of minutes of our honeymoon. Steve was one of my dorm mates in seminary and a groomsman in our wedding. My car (a Plymouth Duster) had been decorated (vandalized), and the back seat stuffed with crumpled newspaper and a hanging rack of clothes. As Mindy and I drove away after our wedding reception, we didn’t know that Steve had hidden beneath those crumpled newspapers. About half a block away from the church, I asked Mindy, “Where should we go first?”

Mindy asked, “Where do you want to go?”

And a voice from the back seat called out, “I don’t know, where do you want to go?” The car might have swerved a little.

So where we went was back to the church to throw Steve out. We all recovered and nobody was injured.

After seminary, Steve spent most of his years on the East Coast, and we were on the West Coast, and during the next thirty years we only got together one time. Through those years, Steve served churches in his native New York, in Florida, and now in Illinois. This visit was a happy reunion.

He’s been in Geneseo now for two years, and I spoke to a woman named Judy after a service and she said, “We love him! He’s such a wonderful fit here. I love him.”

Geneseo is a small farm town, hours from Chicago. Mindy overheard women discussing men who would miss worship that morning due to the local tractor show. (John Deere headquarters are not far away.) One would think a transition like this would be difficult for a native of Long Island who’s never shaken his Eastern accent, but Steve and the Ev Free Church of Geneseo have something much more important than geography in common; they share a love of God’s Word.

When I asked Steve about the church’s strengths, he immediately mentioned the wealth of good teachers in the church. Mindy and I (along with Steve’s wife, Cindy) attended an adult Sunday School class, and appreciated the lesson taught by Carl, one of several Adult Bible Fellowship (Sunday School) teachers whom Steve praised as quite able.

During snack time before Adult Bible Fellowship, we talked with Linda, Jeff, and Shelly. When I asked what they liked about the church, they all spoke of Steve’s preaching. Linda and Jeff talked about another church they’d attended, where the speaker might focus on a book he had just read or his own thoughts. They appreciated that Steve always spoke from the Scriptures. Linda mentioned that Steve always “threw in some Greek or Hebrew in a sermon.” Shelly said she also appreciated the fellowship found in the church, especially in the Sunday School classes and small groups.

We found the people in the church to be quite friendly, greeting us warmly even when they didn’t know we were friends of Steve and Cindy’s. (If they did know Steve, they wanted to know if the stories he told from seminary days were true. I’m not sure if it was a help or hinderance to Steve’s ministry to confirm the validity of his stories.)

We talked with Debby, the church’s Children’s Ministry Coordinator, who’s also part of the team working redesign the church interior. She was concerned that the room for fellowship and coffee was nearly invisible to people walking from the entrance to the sanctuary or children’s classrooms. She told us,  “People who attended the church for some time were unaware of the snacks available between services.” (And about those snacks. Way back in February in Kansas, we’d heard from a young man that we must try the breakfast pizza from the service station, Casey’s. Frankly, the very idea of service station pizza, let alone “breakfast pizza” frightened us. At GEFC, someone brought Casey’s breakfast pizza, with egg and bacon toppings, for snack time, and it was quite good.)

Debby said they want to tear down walls to reconfigure the lobby area of the church so people will feel more free to stay with their coffee and chat. (I’m not a coffee drinker -- Mindy is -- but this year I’ve come to see more and more the value of providing those opportunities for community before and after Sunday morning services.)

Geneseo has  “traditional” and “contemporary” worship services, but aside from a couple more hymns than choruses in one service than the other, the services were not very different. (There might usually be a greater difference, but Nate, the worship leader, was away on his honeymoon and the music was led by Nate’s father.)

We appreciated the time of open prayer in both services. Steve introduced the time by mentioning the previous day’s bombings in New York and mentioning the importance of the church being led by God’s Spirit rather than fear. A time was opened for congregational prayer. One woman prayed, “Father, help us to love our enemies, being as Jesus said, ‘wise as serpents and as harmless of doves.’”

The message , “Confronting Sin in Someone you Respect,” was the first in a series on “Hard Conversations.” As we’ve visited bars this year, a chief concern is that churches will be “judgmental.” This is a completely valid concern, and we know it was Jesus’ concern as well.

On the other hand, we’ve been to (for instance) an AA meeting where people have tell their story of being rescued when people “intervened” in their lives. I thought Steve addressed the tension well when he said, “There is a theological term for those who enjoy confronting people with their sin. That term is ‘jerk.’”

Steve used the story of 2 Samuel 12: 1 - 15, when the prophet Nathan confronted King David about the king’s sin in sleeping with a soldier’s wife and then orchestrating that soldier’s death in battle. In our culture, we might describe what Nathan did as “speaking truth to power,” but Steve pointed out that initially, Nathan tried a more gentle approach with David with the use of a parable. When that didn’t work, he pointed out David’s sin to him directly.

Steve referred to Proverbs 27:17, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend,” and mentioned that the church had conferences for both women and men coming that would focus on that theme. In the church, we do need each other’s help to deal with our failings, but Steve rightly pointed out the need to do so with love and grace. He mentioned a friend of his who was abusing alcohol and had a greatly strained marriage. Because Steve and others intervened, his friend is sober and his marriage is strong.

He ended the message with the “Paul Harvey, the rest of the story” version of the David/Nathan interaction. Steve pointed out that Nathan was able to go on as a friend and advisor to David. Tellingly, David would later name a son after Nathan.

Those friendships centered on truth and grace are important. I’m glad that we have such a friendship with Steve that continues.

Bonus seminary-related story!
While in Illinois, we were able to see another seminary friend, Brad Gundlach. I was able to participate in a quite different kind of church event. On Monday nights, Brad gets together with various folks from his church, St. Mark’s Lutheran in Lindenhurst, for ping pong. They’ve been playing for years, and on the night I visited, we played with David (the host), Peter, and Norb. Norb is in his early 90’s and can still beat most comers, able to return a volley to any corner of the table at will. Sometimes the pastor of the church shows up, and Brad’s son, Nathan, was a regular member of the Ping Pong Fraternity until he left for college recently.

Brad spoke of his appreciation for having his son being exposed to these good older men in the church, and he enjoyed the opportunities to play with and against his son, in such a safe and friendly atmosphere. (And just so you know, Norb had no problem whipping me in a game.)

Statistics (Traditional service/Contemporary service)
Service Length: 1 hour 1 minute/ 1 hour 8 minutes
Sermon Length: 34 minutes / 41 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Guests were welcomed at the beginning of the service and encouraged (as everyone at the worship service was) to fill out the Connection card in the bulletin. First time visitors were to drop their cards at the Welcome/Information desk (and be given a gift). We were greeted by several people at each service and during the fellowship time before and after the Sunday School hour.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none (we were staying with the pastor and family, though, and they cared for us until we left on Monday)
Our Rough Count: 105 / 110
Probable Ushers' Count: 125 / 130
Snacks: coffee and decaf, hot water for tea or hot chocolate; breakfast casserole, fruit, yogurt, donuts, various other pastries, and Casey’s breakfast pizza
Musicians: violin (man), electric piano (man), vocal (3 women) / vocal (2 women), electric piano (man), acoustic guitar (woman), electric guitar (man)
Songs: Traditional Service
“Love Lifted Me”
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
“10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”
“How Great Thou Art/How Great is our God”
Contemporary Service
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”
“10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)”
“How Great Thou Art/How Great is our God”
Miles to church: 2
Miles from start: 37,347
Total 2016 Miles: 37,051

Church website: