Exploring Evangelicalism in Madison
A Look at Two of the Capitol City's Largest Evangelical Churches & Their Impact on the Community
The flashing police lights whirl through the mist in front of the church on a foggy Sunday morning. Though the sight would alarm most, there’s nothing out of the ordinary going on at Blackhawk Church. Middleton and Madison police officers always come out to direct traffic for the thousands that attend one of the three Sunday morning services the church offers each week. Their two Sunday evening services also attract hundreds, bringing their total regular Sunday attendance to over 5,000.
While Blackhawk is Madison’s largest place of worship as far as attendance and square footage, it’s not the only one its kind. The city has a surprising number of Evangelical churches; a number that has continued to grow in recent years.
Religion and the (cheese) State
Madison, Wisconsin is by no means considered a conservative place. In fact, the city of 240,000 is often referred to as one of the most liberal in the country thanks in large part to the University of Wisconsin campus thriving in the city’s center, just down the street from the State Capitol Building.
In February 2011, Wisconsin was the subject of national attention due to protests over Governor Scott Walker’s “Budget Repair” bill. Part of the bill took away the rights of unions in the state to collectively bargain. As a result, thousands of Wisconsin teachers, firefighters, police officers, construction workers, and many others flooded Madison to protect their union rights. In response to those protestors, supporters of Gov. Walker formed counter-protest groups. At its height, 100,000 people were in Capitol square.
Many of the global and national news outlets that covered the protests referred to Madison as a liberal college town, full of hippies and drunken co-eds. As a result, the city also appeared near the top of several lists of America’s “Least Godly” cities.
While it might be easy to assume all of Madison fits the stereotypes after a stroll down the city’s famous State Street on a Saturday night, the assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Churches and other places of worship play an important part in making Madison the unique and vibrant mid-size city that it is.
A drive to High Point church just ten minutes west from downtown Madison or Blackhawk church, just five minutes down the road from there, doesn’t feel like a drive to foreign land. Both institutions clearly love their city, and make it a priority in their multitude of ministries.
High Point is a popular non-denominational church whose roots in Madison go back to the 1960s.
The congregation first formed as the Middleton Baptist Church in 1961. They moved to their current location on Old Sauk Road near the West Towne Mall in 1991. Most of their Baptist traditions were lost along the way, and they became what High Point Communications & Connections Director Lisa Dahlager calls “technically” a non-denominational church.
“We study the bible. Technically, we’re non-denominational, but I would definitely say we have similar values to most evangelical churches,” she says.
According to Dahlager, High Point is considered a “low” church, as they don’t follow the traditional church calendar year. Instead, High Point studies a certain portion of the bible in-depth for a few weeks at a time.
A recent service focused on the prophets, specifically Daniel, the book of Revelations, and end times. The sermon was prefaced by Senior Pastor Nic Gibson saying it was going to be unusual for him to do such a stereotypical Evangelical sermon. He waved his hands in the air while saying Evangelical, mocking the popular image of what many think of upon hearing the word.
Rather than bible-thumping and hand-waving though, the sermon instead felt like an intense bible study, as Gibson spent considerable time on trying to decipher just a few specific verses. The congregation seemed intent on Gibson throughout his sermon, carefully listening and responding with nods, appropriate facial expressions, and even a few “amens.”
Gibson came to High Point in the summer of 2010, when attendance was at an all time low. The church, which holds over 900, had only about 300 weekly attendees. Due to differences between pastors, and what Dahlager describes as “leadership issues,” High Point saw a huge decrease in Sunday attendance beginning in 2006. Since Gibson came to the church however, attendance has nearly doubled.
“It’s been so cool to see God build the church back up,” Dahlager says. “When some of the older members talk about it, they get tears in their eyes.”
High Point’s mission was also re-focused to become “Connect. Grow. Serve.” Dahlager stresses that each of those verbs is equally important. She says since she has been at High Point they have tried to focus on one each year. They break down the mission to specifically connect with God and others, to grow in understanding the gospel and knowing the bible, and to serve the city and reach the world.
Connect has also taken on a different meaning of importance with High Point’s large online presence. The church puts all of their sermons online, and has a large following on social media because of it. Dahlager says people in nursing homes and those simply unable to make it every Sunday especially enjoy the ability to watch the services online.
Dahlager doesn’t do a lot of advertising for the church, but their numbers have still been steadily increasing in the last year. The church also has a seemingly endless host of volunteers always coming in and out of the ranch style building.
High Point also hands out connection cards to visitors at each service. If a visitor fills out a connection card, Lisa or someone else from the High Point staff will call and see how they enjoyed their Sunday morning at High Point, and if they’re interested in becoming more involved with the church.
“Our biggest growth is from people new to the Madison area,” Dahlager says. “We want to bring in people’s friends. People who are new to church feel more comfortable around people they know. It makes our job easier, and makes it easier for them to have their lives changed by Jesus.”
High Point has also seen former members returning in the last few years. Blackhawk conducted a survey of its congregation in 2008, revealing that 29% of their members had previously attended High Point, according to a 2010 story in the Wisconsin State Journal. Dahlager says this isn’t a problem for Gibson or High Point’s other staff, as she attended Blackhawk throughout her college career at UW-Madison. She says anyone is welcomed to High Point, and they don’t see Blackhawk as “competition.”
"I don't want to be the other Blackhawk," Pastor Gibson told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2010. "It's awesome, but Madison doesn't need two Blackhawks.”
Dahlager laughs when asked if High Point should be considered a “mega church.” She says figuring out how to make High Point still feel like a small religious community when they have so many members is the “key thing” for her to figure out. The church encourages members to engage in their small group ministry that meets in people’s homes during the week. These groups are usually 15-30 people.
Service is also very important to the church, as part of its mission and something for the congregation to grow from and connect with others through.
“’Serving the city, reaching the world,’ is something we try to strive for,” she says.
One proud point for High Point is the service they engage in with others in Madison’s religious community. Mt. Zion church, not too far from High Point, is currently undergoing struggles similar to High Point’s in 2008. High Point’s Executive Pastor, Lloyd Biddle, has been over to preach each Sunday, and the High Point congregation also prays for the church.
“Church isn’t just a building,” Dahlager says, “We’re a body of believers. And like Jesus said, when a part of the body is suffering, the whole body suffers too.”
As a first time visitor walking into Blackhawk’s main location on Brader Way, just outside of Madison city limits, you can’t help but marvel at the building.
When Blackhawk opened in 1965, they were much closer to the downtown Madison area, but were forced to move out to the Madison/Middleton border area when their attendance numbers exploded. They opened their current $18 million facility in 2007.
Blackhawk has a staff of 60 full time employees and hundreds of volunteers. The church also operates at three different locations. Besides their Brader Way building, they also have a Fitchburg congregation that meets each Sunday at a Junior High, and a more unique downtown location.
Starting in September 2010, Blackhawk began holding Sunday morning services in The Majestic Theater, which regularly hosts alcohol-infused rock concerts ending mere hours before the services begin. Blackhawk church invested about $50,000 into the branch out, according to a 2010 report by the Wisconsin State Journal. The church opened the new location, which holds 300, with a desire to attract more college students (the UW-Madison campus is just a few blocks away from the theater), and to lessen traffic at their main location in Middleton.
“There's something about holding a church service in a nightclub or a bar or a music venue," Downtown head pastor Rev. Matt Metzger told the Wisconsin State Journal. "They might look at that and say, ‘That's something I might be interested in.'"
Blackhawk Executive Pastor Gregg Bergman says the downtown location has been going strong since it opened, and the congregation is about 40-50% college students.
Blackhawk’s main location also has a huge group of college age regular attendees. The church’s College Age Ministry (CAM) is composed of over 500 students who meet regularly for bible study and service volunteering.
The program also hosts “study days” for the entire city of Madison’s college population at the end of each semester. Students can come to Blackhawk in the morning and stay through the whole day. There are activities for them to do, and quiet work environments. The day concludes with a concert complete with smoke machines. The church’s December 2013 study day brought over 1,200 students to the building.
Bergman says Blackhawk is successful at reaching college students and younger generations because their teachers (pastors) relate to a variety of ages. There are six full time teachers, varying in age from mid 20s to 60s, all with very different sermons and teaching styles.
Blackhawk, like High Point, does not follow a church calendar, and instead focus sermons and lessons on the bible specifically. Bergman does not hesitate in saying that Blackhawk is an Evangelical church.
Bergman says the definition of Evangel – good news- is their guiding theology. He says Blackhawk focuses on biblical teachings and they have a theological standpoint similar to most evangelical churches.
The five Sunday services at the Brader Way location are all done by the same teacher, but can be seen in a variety of different ways. Blackhawk has two viewing auditoriums. The Eastside allows you to see the service “live” with the band and speaker right in front of you, while the Westside auditorium just plays a video of what’s happening across the hall in the Eastside room. The Westside environment is more relaxed and people can sit at large tables and talk.
The church also has a gym, which is home to the first “more traditional” early service, and huge downstairs children's area and nursery.
Blackhawk recently installed kiosks that allow parents to check their child in to the nursery or Sunday school program via-computer. They have multiple kiosks to avoid long lines. Still, Bergman insists Blackhawk is not a mega church and laughs at the rumor that they have a café in the church.
“We serve coffee out here in the lobby. It’s funny, we actually looked at getting fancy espresso machines, but do you have any idea how much those things cost?!” he said. “And it takes four minutes to make each drink! That would never work here. Can you imagine two thousand waiting in-line for coffee?”
Blackhawk recently held their annual "Love Madison" Sunday. One Sunday a year, the church remains locked, and all members are asked to go serve the city. There were over 30 teams of anywhere from 10-40 people this year, who went out to homeless shelters, domestic abuse clinics, hospitals, and anywhere else in the community that had asked the church for assistance.
High Point has a similar service day which was also held recently. Dahlager says High Point is also involved in a Madison group in which all the pastors in the city come together to pray for certain issues the community is facing.
Blackhawk and High Point aren’t Madison’s only Evangelical churches. City Church on Madison’s east side is described by Dahlager as a charismatic, non-denominational, gospel focused church. There is also the large Door Creek Church which is based in Middleton that has multiple facilities. There are also smaller congregations such as the Vine and Gateway churches, and a surprisingly large evangelical community on the UW-Madison campus. Blackhawk also offers bus service to college students on Sunday mornings.
Bergman says college age students often provide ideas for different ways the church can serve the community. Bergman says a few years ago the church was discussing the annual Mifflin Street Block Party, a classic alcohol-infused party weekend for UW students, and while the adults were struggling over how to help, a student suggested they just go clean up the street on Sunday morning.
“We’re not the type of church that is against stuff, and lets everyone know,” Bergman says. “We believe good deeds leads to good will leads to good news, and that’s the best way we can help the community while spreading the good news.”
Before Bergman concludes the tour of the massive Blackhawk facility, he walks into what looks like a very lucky newborn's nursery. Boxes are filled with clothes, toys, and many more baby accessories.
“Everything in this room is given to new mothers who need help. We’ve already donated boxes to over 3,000 mothers, 99% of whom are not Blackhawk members. That’s what our ministry is.”
Erickson, Doug. "High Point Church Seeks Rebirth after 64% Drop in Attendance : Wsj." Madison.com. Wisconsin State Journal, 27 June 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.
Erickson, Doug. "The Majestic to Be Transformed into Church for 2 Morning Services a Week : Wsj." Madison.com. Wisconsin State Journal, 11 Sept. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2014.
Interview with Lisa Dahlager, April 30, 2014.
Interview with Gregg Bergman, May 7, 2014.