In my 23 years of driving Mineral Point Road from Mount Horeb to Madison, I've seen quite a bit of change. Once, the only outposts between Pine Bluff and the Beltline were a Kwik Trip and Steve's Liquor. Now there are vast expanses of mansion-like homes with soccer fields in-between. Little clumps of more modest Veridian homes have cropped up amid tracts of hay and alfalfa, and 'Building for Sale' signs point down a narrow lane toward a mini-industrial park.
A few years back, a sign went up in the cornfield that will soon become the Elderberry neighborhood, just across from South Point Road, about three miles west of the Beltline on Mineral Point Road. The sign read, 'Future Home of Blackhawk Church.' I didn't think much about it at the time; I figured the little church on Whitney Way was opening a branch office in the burbs. Then the sign sprouted an artist's rendering of the new church. It looked rather spectacular. Was that an illusion? Surely, no one would build a mega-church out here, would they?
As it turns out, they would, and they are. Last summer, work crews knocked over a house and started digging. This summer, they started building a church, and as one who's watched it grow, I can say, it's gonna be huge.
It needs to be. Blackhawk Church, an Evangelical Free Church founded in 1965, has gone from 300 weekly worshipers in 1996 to 3,000 a week just 10 years later. And this growth, while extraordinary by any standard, is part of a larger trend. In the Madison area, several other Evangelical Free Churches ' High Point, Door Creek and Bethany ' are approaching 'mega-church' status.
What's going on here?
I grew up United Methodist ('The People Who Sit in the Back'). My first experience with an Evangelical Free Church was in the mid-'80s, when two guys in my church, both named Bob, caused a big kerfuffle over whether or not the bread we used for Communion should be leavened (seriously). When our pastor wouldn't take one Bible verse as literally as they did, they left to join the new Evangelical Free Church.
After that, even in my relatively conservative family, 'evangelical' became a pejorative. We jocularly referred to the new church as the 'E-Free' and lumped its members in with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. But these fringe fundamentalists got the last laugh: They built a political movement that helped George W. Bush become president.
So in a time when 'evangelical' equals 'Bush Voter,' how does an evangelical church grow tenfold in hedonist Madison, home of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and where, if you believe Bill O'Reilly, members of the media commune with Satan? Does the area's population spurt of recent years consist largely of members of the Moral Majority? And are they out to convert the rest of us?
The Madison evangelical
Of the 3,000 regulars at Blackhawk Church, Steve Rogers and his wife Anne were the 61st and 62nd.
'We go way back,' he says, referring both to the city where he's lived all 52 of his years, and to the church, which he and Anne joined in 1980, when there were only 60 members. Both former Catholics, they were 'looking for a small church, oddly enough,' Steve Rogers says. 'When we joined, we were college age and wanted a church with a lot of college-age people and young families.'
They also wanted something particular, theologically speaking: 'We had drifted away from the Catholic Church. When we decided to come back to Christianity and become more disciplined in our practice, we were looking for a more Bible-based church.' Some friends invited them to the tiny church on North Blackhawk Avenue ' the original location that gave the church its name. They liked what they found.
Rogers, a financial publications editor at CUNA, has held various leadership positions within the church. He currently works with its high school youth group.
Julie Lounds, on the other hand, is a relatively recent addition. The 28-year-old developmental psychologist joined just three years ago when she moved here to take a job as a researcher at UW-Madison's Waisman Center.
Lounds grew up in evangelical churches, and even went to Wheaton College ' yes, that one, where dancing isn't allowed. (Well, it is now, but nobody was cuttin' footloose until 2003.)
'They had a lot of rules there,' Lounds understates. 'I didn't like that very much. I didn't like that I wasn't allowed to dance. That didn't resonate with me.'
After getting a Ph.D. from Notre Dame and landing a gig at the Waisman Center to work on mental retardation, Lounds wanted a church in large part for social reasons. 'I didn't know a single person in the city at all,' she says. Besides, she was a bit uneasy about Madison, with its liberal reputation. But never fear: 'It was scarier coming into [Madison] than actually living here.'
She heard through the grapevine that Blackhawk had a vibrant 20-something community, so she signed up: 'Maybe I should have shopped around a bit, but I'm really happy there.'
Rogers and Lounds came to Blackhawk by different means and are at different places in their 'faith journey.' But both are examples of what we might call the 'Madison evangelical.'
Generally speaking, the Madison evangelical considers the Bible to be the Word of God. The Madison evangelical believes that the best way to eternal salvation is faith in Jesus Christ and his redemption, as spelled out in the Gospel According to John. The Madison evangelical takes seriously his or her duty as an evangelist ' literally, one who spreads the word.
But also, the Madison evangelical believes the Bible, no matter how divinely inspired, doesn't cover everything, and even what it does cover is open to interpretation. He or she holds that even if the Bible is down on being gay, all that stuff Jesus said about helping the poor and loving thy neighbor is more important. Perhaps most significantly, the Madison evangelical is uneasy when the lines between religion and politics get blurred.
'The Bible is the inspired word of God, but God gave people brains,' says Rogers. 'We look at difficult theological and doctrinal issues and we don't just say you have to accept these on faith.' He calls the church's weekly sermons 'academically challenging,' which helps Blackhawk fit in with Madison's intelligentsia. 'The pastors expect to be scrutinized by academic people.'
Similarly, in interpreting the Bible, Lounds tends to go by 'the idea behind the text,' rather than the literal text. And she's reluctant to hold others to standards that derive from her beliefs: 'I feel very cautious about judging other people. It's not my place to do that.'
Why Blackhawk has flourished
They say you're not supposed to talk about religion or politics in polite company. Heaven help you if you try to talk about both at once.
Yet, for the last two decades, the Religious Right has done just that, vociferously and effectively. The National Association of Evangelicals, of which the Evangelical Free Church of America (and therefore Blackhawk Church) is a member, has a 'governmental affairs' department. It opposes embryonic stem-cell research. It is against gay marriage. It favors capital punishment, as part of its commitment to the sanctity of life.
Even before the association's president, Ted Haggard, resigned amid charges that he bought drugs and had sex with a male prostitute, the Madison evangelical did not buy into this program.
'The Religious Right, the Moral Majority ' all those things make me really uncomfortable because I don't think they represent Jesus Christ very well,' says Rogers.
For example, many 'values voter' evangelicals view holding up big pictures of dead fetuses outside abortion clinics as an important mission. But, says Rogers, 'That stuff is just creepy. That's not the church. The church should be caring for women who've been through an abortion, or unwed mothers.'
Rogers also parts company with the Religious Right on gay marriage. 'I think there are a lot of mean-spirited people involved in this issue,' he says. 'I don't think anything's gained by that. I'm saddened by some of the things that have been done and said toward the gay and lesbian community in the name of Christ. I don't think Christ would behave the way some churches have behaved.'
Is homosexuality a sin? Says Rogers, 'That's a theological discussion I'm ill-equipped to deal with.'
And Lounds, who in her job at the Waisman Center encounters stem-cell researchers every day, is unwilling to condemn this approach. 'I know all about the promise there,' she says. 'I'm not exactly sure where I come down. A lot of these issues are really complex. The Bible doesn't say anything about stem-cell research. You don't find, 'Thou Shall Not Have Stem-Cell Research.''
On this and other issues, the Madison evangelicals seem reluctant to throw their moral weight around. As Lounds puts it, 'If somebody doesn't believe in my faith, why should they have to live by [my rules]?'
Wait ' evangelicals admitting they don't know something, and that issues are more complex than 'Jesus says so'? Welcome to Madison.
'Madison is no place to say, 'This is where we stand, and this is our belief system, and you have to believe it or you're wrong,'' says Rogers. 'When people hear the word 'evangelical,' especially in Madison, it conjures up images and baggage that isn't Blackhawk.'
Gregg Bergman, the executive pastor at Blackhawk, agrees: 'A lot of evangelicals want to do battle with the culture.' But the ones here in Madison, he suggests, are different.
'We don't do voter guides,' says Bergman. 'There are no official documents.' Political issues are not preached from the pulpit. Rather, they are discussed and debated, during small study groups that meet on weeknights. Explains Bergman, 'You take a passage and study it and see where it leads us and what it means to us in Madison in 2006.'
And, in fact, says Lounds, 'Being in a place like Madison makes you know why you believe what you believe,' because of constant exposure to other views. 'When you actually talk to people, they have good points. They're grounded in reality and logic.'
In more conservative, religiously homogeneous places, it's easy to simplify issues and toe the party line. But, Lounds has found, 'people in Madison don't let you do that.'
All of which helps explain Blackhawk's success.
Big and soft
What's going on here? Is this a new brand of evangelicalism, or is evangelicalism mutating into something less strident? Are the evangelicals who often get credit ' or blame ' for electing George W. Bush experiencing buyer's remorse? Is the Religious Right drifting toward the secular center?
Not really, says Michael Schuler, parish minister of Madison's First Unitarian Society. Schuler, a nationally recognized expert on large and growing churches, draws a distinction between 'hard' and 'soft' evangelism.
The evangelicals that draw all the headlines, Schuler says, are of the 'hard' variety. They hold a 'biblically inerrant' worldview ' that nothing the Bible says or implies can be wrong. Such fundamentalism, says Schuler, 'is not a particularly old tradition.' Rather, it dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has its roots in a cause that would appeal to today's liberals ' the abolition of slavery.
The hallmark of early Christian fundamentalism was what Schuler calls 'biblical legalism' ' the idea that a Christian nation needed Christian laws. But for most of the last hundred years or so, says Schuler, 'there's largely been a turn away from that. The focus has been much more on private morality and 'family values.''
Those who embrace this worldview, says Schuler, tend to subscribe to the idea that 'if the world were all Christian, all our problems would go away.' In this vein, hard evangelicals consider the separation of church and state to be 'debatable' ' or, as Julaine Appling of the Wisconsin Family Research Institute recently put it, a 'fiction.'
In the last 20 to 30 years, says Schuler, 'the evangelical movement has become the mouthpiece of a partisan political organization.' The most conservative elements of the Republican Party have used the leadership of large, fundamentalist churches to spread a certain message and win votes, even though Schuler estimates that 30% to 40% of those churches' members are political moderates.
This approach has succeeded in part because there's no analogous movement on the left ' quite by design.
'We're very careful not to align ourselves with the Democratic Party or the Green Party or whatever,' says Schuler. For example, when U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin delivered a sermon at First Unitarian, 'I basically admonished her to talk about an ethical issue outside the realm of politics.'
Schuler suspects the growth of Blackhawk Church in Madison has something to do with its 'soft' evangelism, which is likely more appealing to Madison's citizenry. But he also thinks the church's growth owes in part to, well, its growth.
'A lot of people,' he says, 'are gravitating toward larger churches.' Mega-churches ' defined as churches with 2,000 or more weekly worshipers ' 'have grown at the expense of smaller churches without the bells and whistles.'
Blackhawk has its share of bells, whistles and other tantalizing trinkets. Its current building does not have a single cavernous sanctuary, but rather is divided into several smaller, more intimate worship spaces that each hold 60 to 300 people. Each space has its own band and its own style of worship, and the sermon for the day is delivered over closed-circuit video.
In addition to the usual church extracurriculars ' youth groups, mission trips, choir and the like ' Blackhawk offers no fewer than 28 'affinity groups.' These are entirely social endeavors dedicated to things like basketry, disc golf, improv comedy, science fiction and creative writing. In other words, the appeal of the church ' especially to people new in town ' comes not only from sharing Christian fellowship, but also from sharing hobbies.
For the college crowd, the church offers shuttle service from campus. And Blackhawk has a worship space at Hilldale Theatre, where a video hook-up delivers the sermon and other messages to those who prefer this location.
The new building, which should be completed next fall, is similarly designed, meant to offer a smorgasbord of worship options. In addition to three separate worship spaces, it will house a bookstore and coffee shop in an indoor courtyard that, in artists' renditions, looks suspiciously like the inside of a shopping mall.
Bergman, Blackhawk's executive pastor, says the church has not done any real 'marketing' or 'market analysis.' But it certainly seems inspired by churches around the country that have. Churches looking to grow, says Schuler, ask the question, 'What will it take to drag people away from their TV or their golf games?'
Often, Schuler says, the answer lies in a whiz-bang presentation with big video screens and lots of computer graphics, along with an easily digestible (some might say watered down) message of love and salvation. Reflects Schuler, 'Whether or not that leads to spiritual deepening, I don't know.'
The cross and the sword
The two forces at work at Blackhawk ' bells-and-whistles marketing and soft evangelism ' reflect nationwide trends that have put the evangelical movement at a crossroads.
Rick Warren, pastor of the stadium-size Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., put church marketing in black and white with his best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. And the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many large and small evangelical churches are split over the issue of marketing, to where some have lost up to half their membership.
Many see nothing wrong with using techniques perfected in business to attract more souls to the flock. But others find Madison Avenue tactics unseemly and inappropriate when employed by churches. One evangelical pastor voiced that concern and was demoted, then fired. He told the Wall Street Journal, 'I believe Jesus died for everybody, not just a target audience.'
The leaders at Blackhawk seem to agree. They don't advertise, says Bergman, nor do they concern themselves with the demographic profile of their parishioners. Rather, they present their church and its modern style of worship, and the people come. Of course, says Bergman, a little word of mouth doesn't hurt.
Nationwide, evangelical ministers who think 'love thy neighbor' matters more than 'do not lie with a man as with a woman' are becoming a force to be reckoned with.
One prominent example happened this past summer at Woodland Hills Church in Saint Paul, Minn. As reported in The New York Times in July, Pastor Gregory Boyd is a staunch conservative on issues of sexuality, abortion and the like. Yet he has consistently refused requests to wax political from the pulpit, ignoring members who urge him to plug their upcoming anti-gay marriage rally or put anti-abortion fliers in the lobby.
Finally, fed up with their entreaties, Boyd spent six weeks' worth of sermons in a series called 'The Cross and the Sword,' in which he said, in essence, that the church was no place for politics, and vice versa.
'When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,' Mr. Boyd preached. 'When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.' He went on to publish the sermons in a book of the same name.
Many within the congregation welcomed his forceful sermons; others, not so much. His church of 5,000, which Boyd founded in 1992, lost 20% of its members.
Blackhawk, for its part, does not seem to face any such schism, because the members tend to know the rules. Politics remains the purview of small Bible-study groups, where the focus is more on discussion than dogma. Of course, every once in a while, someone wanders into Blackhawk looking to whip up some conservative fervor. 'They come for a while and they beat their drums,' says Rogers. 'Then they realize nobody's falling in behind them, and they move on.'