I am writing this series of blog postings to help chronicle the starting of a new contemporary Lutheran mission. My congregation represents a 3 year old mission plant that has been very successful in the spreading the Good News in a fast-growing suburban area southwest of Milwaukee. It also represents a mission that has successfully blended contemporary service design with traditional Lutheran worship. This has created a blended worship experience that is both modern, yet true to the principle of worship having its one true focus on Christ crucified. To illustrate where we have come from, Victory of the Lamb has grown from 12 members to over 110 in just under 3 years. Our attendance at Sunday worship continues to rise with a regular attendance total averaging about 150 per Sunday. At our Christmas Service we had 220 in attendance. Our first Adult instruction class had 3 prospects. Currently, the Pastor runs 2 classes of 7-10 each several times a year. How did this unique mission start? It started with the idea of one man and a mission spirit of a local congregation.
In early 2006, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Muskego, WI, a congregation of 2300 souls, had commissioned a demographic study of the southwestern suburbs of Milwaukee in combination with a study that already been released regarding community growth for WI. The study showed that the Southwest suburbs, and the city of Franklin in particular would be the fastest growing communities in WI for the next 20 years. The study that examined religious behavior showed that well over half the community is and would be un-churched. An even larger number of households would claim a church home but do not attend that church regularly. Another notable feature was that most people noted they would not search out or attend a church that was outside a radius of 3 miles from their home. A simple look at where the fastest growth was occurring and where the local WELS churches were, and there was a glaring hole to fill in Southwest Franklin. Not only was there no WELS church servicing this new and un-churched area of Franklin, there were very few churches of any kind servicing this area.
With the synod financial crisis in full bloom there was no mission money available for home missions like this. St. Paul’s had already started funding a missionary position in Africa for John Holz. Also a couple of years before, they joined with a number of Waukesha WELS congregations to partially fund for 3 years a startup congregation in a similarly growing area of Waukesha county that had no nearby WELS churches. That church, Living Word Lutheran, has grown as well and has over 160 members. St. Paul’s as a large congregation was taking on a mission above its synod mission offering to help spread the Good News in its area of influence. In the 10 to 20 years before this they had also spun off two daughter congregations in the form of Living Water Lutheran in Wind Lake and Star of Bethlehem Lutheran in New Berlin. Those congregations have 350 and 1000 members respectively.
So in early 2006, Pastor Peter Panitzke came up with an idea to start another congregation, using the data from the studies, in that underserved area of Franklin. This mission would be different. It would not be a daughter congregation in the sense of redistributing WELS members to a more convenient location as was typical. This was to be a mission focused on reaching the un-churched of southwest Franklin and it would be an all-contemporary church. St. Paul’s approved $100,000 to start the mission paying out 33,000 a year for 3 years. Additionally, two other congregations nearby, St. Jacobi and St. Paul’s, Franklin, agreed to pay into the kitty to assist in starting the mission. This additional funding never really materialized as these congregations were struggling in their finances. However within the first year of this mission, the new congregation managed to secure an additional $100,000 in gifts over the course of 3 years from individuals, new members, and a number of other WELS congregations in the area gave one time gifts.
Pastor Panitzke had gathered 6 WELS members together to form the Victory core. On behalf of this core group St. Paul’s called seminary graduate, Ben Kuerth in May of 2006. Pastor Kuerth recalls his first meeting with Pastor Panitzke. He told me, “We’ve called you to a mission that has a shoestring budget, 6 core members, and really has no WELS counterpart to learn from or compare to. You have no house, no place to worship, and no precedent for this kind of mission.” Although there were other WELS all-contemporary missions around, they were mostly started with Synod assistance, support from a wide base of other WELS churches, and a large core of WELS members to provide support and assistance. We had none of that.
Pastor Kuerth arrived in the area in July of 2006. Although the new mission was responsible for paying for it, St. Paul’s had secured a mortgage on a great parsonage in Franklin as no seminarian would be affording any kind of a house on their own in swanky Franklin. St. Paul’s administratively took care of the books and Pastor Kuerth would share in their staff meetings and ministry team resources (church secretaries) He gave an introductory sermon at St. Paul’s when he arrived and I was interested from the very beginning. Pastor Kuerth started going door to door canvassing and introducing Victory of the Lamb. A few more WELS members became part of the core group as well and began meeting for Bible Study. The primary mission was to find a place to worship. In this as yet undeveloped part of Franklin there are really only two locations to rent space from, Showtime Cinema and the Polonia Soccer Club. Showtime Cinema flatly rejected our offer to rent space from them. They wanted nothing to do with renting out to a church. The Polonia was a bit reluctant as well as a bunch of old Polish Catholics wasn’t as amenable to Lutherans coming in to set up shop on Sunday mornings in their “Beer Hall”. However, economics won out and they agreed to rent out the Polonia.
With a space secured, we now turned our focus on starting worship services. We came up with a plan to start worshipping on December 3rd 2006. Then we would have a “Grand Launch” service on April 1st. 2007. This gave us time to work out the kinks and develop our core a little further so we could actually pull off a worship service. I entered service with Victory in September 2006, starting to create the first version of the website and host it on my webservers. I then turned to arranging for the sound equipment needed for the services. It arrived two days before the first service. We had two hours to get it out of the box, setup and working before our first musicians of a guitar and a keyboardist needed to be heard. Our first media cart was a gutted out 26 inch console television case with wheels on the bottom. We had 140 in attendance at our first service. About 40 un-churched people and 100 or so curious WELS people from the area. After that first service and a follow-up Christmas Eve service we had about 35 start to worship with us weekly as we headed towards our Grand Launch.
It is hard to capture the “seat of the pants” way this mission started, yet it was off to a better than expected start. In the next installment, I will focus on the two unique features about this congregation that distinguish it from most any WELS congregation. A thorough look at Victory’s outreach and evangelism efforts as well as its decisions on how to “do worship” are a significant topic to the success of Victory.