Three years ago, the founders of a new evangelical church in Madison agreed to let the State Journal track their attempt to build a congregation here.
The journalistic motivation for the project was to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges and rewards of a “church plant.” That’s the term in religious circles for seeding, from scratch, a new worship community, usually one organized around a specific gospel-related mission.
Church plants often begin modestly, and the work is tough. One recent study found that about 20 percent of church plants fail in the first three years.
Alas, that turned out to be the fate of the church shadowed by this newspaper.
Madison Alliance Church began in September of 2011 with a once-a-month service at The Comedy Club on State. It was a unique setting, but church plants often start in unusual places, from coffee shops to storefronts.
The church’s leader, the Rev. Ben Stewart, just 30 at the time, told me back then that he hoped to reach out to people not currently attending a church, as well as those “who’ve been burned by religion.”
The church would focus strongly on social justice, Stewart said, with the specific mission being outreach to Madison’s homeless and poor populations. It would be an urban ministry in the heart of the city.
Things started promisingly. Stewart and his colleague, Jesse Rhodes, had something most church start-ups do not: a sizable, first-year budget of $200,000. Stewart and Rhodes were responsible for generating $25,000 of it during the first year, with the rest coming from donations from other churches in the denomination, called the Christian and Missionary Alliance.
When I visited a service in late 2011, about 40 people had gathered at the Comedy Club to hear Stewart preach. Rhodes, on electric guitar, led the contemporary Christian band.
About half of the attendees were homeless people, the rest mostly UW-Madison students. Stewart found the mix energizing, but in a comment that would prove prophetic said, “Financially, we cannot exist as a church with only college students and the homeless. We will need to be very intentional about reaching out to all demographics.”
When I next wrote about the church, in August of 2012, services had become weekly and had moved to rental space at Overture Center, the city’s performing arts center. The church hadn’t grown much, but there were more young professionals in attendance. A core group of about 12 people were giving 10 percent of their incomes to help fund the church.
Prior to the service that particular day, church volunteers had served free breakfast tacos and fruit to about 65 homeless and low-income people at an outdoor plaza near the state Capitol, part of a monthly church initiative called “Food For All.” Members were walking the social justice talk.
Then, just a few weeks later, a surprise announcement jolted the congregation. Stewart was leaving Madison for the denomination’s headquarters in Colorado, where he would be leading a team that plans and oversees mission trips. Day-to-day decisions in Madison fell to Rhodes, his second-in-command.
“Jesse gave it a noble effort, but when you have your lead pastor depart, that kind of takes the wind out of the sails,” said the Rev. Jeff Brown, superintendent of the denomination’s Western Great Lakes District, based in Appleton.
Madison Alliance Church continued to meet at Overture Center until June of 2013, when services moved to Rhodes’ garage for a while. Ultimately, the district pulled the plug.
“It just eventually ran out of gas,” Brown said. “It saddened us. We wanted a presence in the community.”
Stewart remains in a leadership position with the national denomination. He confirmed the Madison church’s demise in an email but did not respond to additional opportunities to reflect on his time here.
Rhodes no longer lives in Wisconsin and has left the employment of the denomination, Brown said. He could not be reached for comment.
Brown takes a philosophical view of the attempt to start an Alliance church here.
“It seems odd at face value to say this, but we really don’t want a 100-percent success rate with church planting,” he said. “If you wait for things to line up perfectly, you’ll miss opportunities.”
Brown said the Madison church did a wonderful job serving the poor, which was the passion that really drove its creation. The challenge turned out to be attracting a broad demographic that could financially sustain that work.
Still, no church plant is ever a failure, he said. Individual lives are touched along the way.