Backyard barbecues in Utah. Basement Bible studies in Minnesota. S’mores in South Dakota. Not all church plants start the same, grow the same or look the same. While each location provides a unique set of circumstances, challenges, strategies and rates of growth, in each case success is measured not in numbers, but in life transformation.
What does it take to launch a church? According to USMB’s three most recent church planters, Christian Kohs, Phil Wiebe and Jon Fiester, that list includes the commitment of a core group of believers, personal invitations and a sense of connection for everyone who attends.
Christian Kohs launched Redemption Church in Owatonna, Minn., on Sept. 9, 2018, having spent three years learning the culture and meeting people. Owatonna, a city of about 30,000 people, has Lutheran and Catholic influences, he says.
“In a day and age where there are so many choices, a new church is just another choice,” Kohs says. “Oftentimes people say, ‘Why another church?’ But not everyone in our city goes to church, so why not?”
What started as a Bible study in Kohs’ basement grew to Sunday morning gatherings in April 2018 as Kohs and his wife, Erica, gathered a core team.
It took about five months to launch Redemption, says Kohs, who spent that time raising money and connecting with people.
Phil Wiebe and his wife, Melissa, launched Lakeview Church in Stansbury Park, Utah, on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. Wiebe spent the 10 months leading up to the launch hosting Bible studies, barbecues, vision-casting meetings, pilot services and practice services.
Lakeview is the only Christian church in Stansbury Park, a city of 19,000 where about 85 percent of people are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
“For us to go there was just a matter of like, Jesus wants to take ground, let’s grow where the battle is ripe,” Wiebe says. “It’s dry, and we’re watching Jesus take ground quickly.”
Most recently, Jon Fiester and his wife, Michele, launched Renewal MB Church in Rapid City, S.D., on Sept. 8, 2019. Starting with a core group of eight, the Fiesters held their first official meeting as a church in July 2018. In the 13 months after, the church grew to capacity in its meeting space and secured a larger space in the Dahl Arts Center for its launch.
The Fiesters are attempting to reach those who have been hurt by the church or have little interest in it.
“Our city has many gospel-teaching churches meeting the needs of traditional churchgoers,” Fiester says. “We have a desire to bring a church that is presenting the gospel in a neutral location in our city that is comfortable for people who are skeptical of faith.”
Any church launch requires certain elements to be in place. Gathering a core group of believers is key, a sentiment shared by the three planters.
“The most important resource we have is a group of people committed to the mission God has given us,” Fiester says. “Without an awesome team around me, this would not be possible. One person alone cannot handle the stressors of starting something brand new.”
In order to gain traction and spread the word, Kohs, Wiebe and Fiester agree that having a website and social media presence are vital. Having space is also an important component, although that looks different in all three locations.
Renewal MB meets in the Dahl Arts Center, Lakeview gathers in a space at a local strip mall, and Redemption rents a building from another church.
Kohs says it takes effort to make Redemption’s space feel like home, and if given the chance to do it again, he’d have secured his own building at the start in order to have space for during-the-week gatherings. One thing Kohs was glad to have in place prior to launch was a church staff.
Spreading the word
Knowing just two families when he moved to Stansbury Park, Wiebe connected over lunch meetings with friends of friends. He started three home Bible studies in the four months following an informational barbecue in June 2018.
When it came time to advertise Lakeview’s launch, Wiebe sent out a county-wide mailer to 27,000 residents. Going door-to-door was not an attractive option.
Going door-to-door was not ideal for Kohs either, who, after his initial Bible study grew to Sunday morning gatherings, advertised Redemption’s launch in the local newspaper.
“Church planting is most effective today via word of mouth,” Kohs says. “Personal invitation is still the most effective way to get someone to church. That, and Facebook.”
Fiester, too, relied on social media to advertise Renewal’s launch and continues to engage people on those channels.
He’s found it takes less talking and more doing, though, so every third Sunday, Renewal serves its community—meeting needs, praying for people downtown, offering complimentary s’mores and water—and follows these “Give Sunday” projects with a communion meal.
“We always have the opportunity to engage people and bring them a glimpse of the joy Jesus puts in our lives,” Fiester says. “People are seeing something different and they are curious about what would lead a group of people to give up the time and resources simply to make someone else’s day better.”
All hands on deck
Whether in Utah, Minnesota or South Dakota, preparing for launch requires a commitment from the core group.
“The church is the people, and our people owned their church,” Wiebe says. “They all jumped in with setting up chairs (and) prepping kid’s ministry, to hanging mirrors and paper towel dispensers in the bathrooms.”
The church launches themselves unfolded differently with highs and lows in each location.
In Rapid City, 80 people attended Renewal MB’s launch, Fiester says.
Kohs admits launch day at Redemption was disappointing in terms of turnout—20 people attended—but the event was significant in solidifying his team’s commitment.
“The core group of people who had put so much time into the day felt a sense of purpose and energy from it,” he says, adding that Redemption has since more than doubled in size.
In Stansbury Park, Wiebe credits a smooth launch with 223 people in attendance to the pilot services held at a golf course clubhouse once a month from October 2018 to February 2019, as well as weekly practice services in March. But if he had to do it over again, Wiebe says he would reconsider the timing.
“Launching into summer isn’t the best idea,” he says. “Things are winding down. People are in and out of town. Our core was going different ways for vacations.”
Wiebe says Lakeview continued to grow over the summer, and the church had summer interns courtesy of USMB, the Pacific District Conference and MB Foundation funds for future leadership.
With the launches behind them, Kohs, Wiebe and Fiester are looking to encourage sustainability.
Wiebe says he is focusing on fostering connection, whether through a weekly church barbecue at his house or encouraging people to join small groups.
“You have to make a place for people to get connected—fast,” he says. “They need a place to belong even before they believe.”
For Kohs, too, follow-up, connecting on social media and saying thank you continue to be important.
“I write thank you cards to guests and the people that serve at the church every single Monday,” he says, adding that he prints invite cards for people to hand out during the week. Redemption is adding staff and elders this fall.
For Fiester, personally acknowledging people who attend has encouraged them to return.
“People in our culture want to feel noticed and remembered,” he says. “We have found that to be true of anyone attending Renewal.”
All about Jesus
After having 80 in attendance on launch day, Renewal MB saw 75 the following Sunday, Fiester says.
“We measure success by how many unchurched people God connects us to that continue to come back,” Fiester says. “The most rewarding part of Renewal has been seeing God work in people’s lives, bringing them to a place of surrender and submission to his power.”
In the year since its launch, Redemption Church has grown to an average of more than 50 people each Sunday. The church has baptized 23 people in 2019.
“We measure success in a few ways, one of which is how many people are reading their Bibles, how many baptisms (and) how many people are serving,” Kohs says, adding that sometimes the slow growth can be challenging.
Since its Easter 2019 launch, Lakeview Church baptized three adults Aug. 4 and a week later began holding two services. The church averages 170 people including children.
“I measure success by life-change toward Christ,” Wiebe says. “Individual stories. A crowd is good, but a personal life story that Jesus has grabbed ahold of, that is the biggest win I get to be a part of.”
So what’s next? The mission for all three remains to tell people about Jesus, a conviction expressed this way by Fiester: “I have learned throughout this process that people are the most important part of any church. God’s purpose for any of us is to seek his lost people. He loves people and we cannot lose that focus of giving them hope.”
Janae Rempel Shafer is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Shafer is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Shafer graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She and her husband, Austin, attend Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas.