First Congregational’s ministry evolves with times
It was 1841 … five years after the first settlers arrived in Fort Atkinson and seven before Wisconsin would become a state.
Fourteen men and women, whom God had guided safely through the wilderness to start a new life, discussed forming a church.
They didn’t know where it would lead, just that a house of worship was necessary as they went about doing the Lord’s work.
In the nearly two centuries since, American culture and society have changed, yet the congregation’s mission remains the same.
Today’s members of First Congregational United Church of Christ, too, are filled with a pioneering spirit. They don’t know where the future will lead, just that they will adapt as they go about doing the Lord’s work.
This Sunday, they will pause to celebrate their quartoseptennial — 175 years since their forebearers met in Milo Jones’ log cabin to organize the church. The 10 a.m. worship service will feature special music by Kevin Knapp, a celebration choir, distribution of historical directories and the ringing of the church’s 140-year-old bell, followed by a catered dinner. Among the guests will be the Rev. Peter Fabian, associate pastor in 1990-91; Jones descendant Milo and Joan Jones; UCC?conference minister Franz Rigert; state Rep. Cody Horlacher and Sen. Steve Nass. Commemorative cups are available and an exhibit will be at the Hoard Historical Museum Nov. 22-Dec. 6.
The anniversary theme comes from Psalm 101:5: “The Lord is good; His mercy endures forever. His faithfulness endures throughout every generation.”
The Rev. Chris Buckingham-Taylor, who has served as minister since 2004, said that theme is particularly apropos for such an occasion, as the founders — Yankees from the Northeast, particularly New York — had a world outlook not unlike church members today.
“In the birth of this church in 1841 and in the history of the country, the influence of the Northeast on the Midwest was that the settlers were mostly abolitionists. The people who came from the northern states didn’t own slaves. …,” he noted. “This was in the early 1800s.
“It was always an abolitionist area. So when the people came to the Wisconsin Territory, they were aware that the North was different than the South when it came to justice and when it came to the role of the church.”
Buckingham-Taylor said that during the Civil War, the bitterness against the Confederacy was very real, and the Congregationalists, Presbyterians and other like-minded denominations saw the South as a world to convert.
“We think of the South as the Bible Belt? Well, Fort Atkinson was the Bible Belt in the 1800s. They’re the ones who wanted to go into the South and teach them about Jesus,” Buckingham-Taylor said.
“Of course, that had to do with the fact that the Southerners were slave owners … You think of how the nation was so divided on that issue, and here we are in 2016 and the divisions still exist, and there’s still racism.”
The post-Civil War Congregationalists wanted to send missionaries south for the rebuilding, to take care of people in need.
“A social gospel grew during that time, and the social gospel said, ‘We need a better, more loving, society,’” Buckingham-Taylor said. “
They wanted to build a United States that was more like Jerusalem. They wanted free healthcare, free education … That’s what these conservative, teetotaling people of Fort Atkinson wanted back in the 1860s, because the war was devastating; it was hell. They said, ‘Our job is to build heaven after something like that.’”
Out of the fog of war grew groups such as the Shakers and others who, in the 1870s, were searching for something better.
“I’m proud of the fact that they used to see themselves as building a better world and that the point of being a settler wasn’t just to settle,” Buckingham-Taylor said of the church’s founders. “It was to create something noble, something better for the next generation.
“I think that’s our job here in 2016 … we have those pioneer roots and I think it’s still in the fabric of our community,” he added.
The minister observed that 2016 probably is just as scary a time as 1841 was “in the sense of that we don’t know what’s going to be. We don’t know what the future’s going to be.”
That particularly rings true in the divisiveness of the recent presidential election.
“We all keep saying, ‘why aren’t we looking at what we all have in common,’” Buckingham-Taylor said. “Really, if the election taught us anything, it’s the fact that politicians are not necessarily getting it.
“We all want the same thing: We want to be loved, we want to be in a healthy community …, we want to have people take care of each other. If people are homeless or hungry, we want to provide their needs. The church always has been that ‘social blanket.’”
He said that in the current political climate, Americans are unsure what to do.
“We don’t know anything except that the Lord is good … and faithful through all generations,” the pastor said. “It’s really kind of our theme as a congregation.”
First Congregational UCC long has been known as “The Church of the Open Door,” and with that in mind, it has replaced its boards with ministries that oversee certain areas: facilities, evangelism, nurture, worship and outreach. It is through these ministries that First Congregational UCC spreads God’s love to all ages throughout the community.
In addition to its music, Sunday School, adult book studies and other programs for members and youth, the church focuses on outreach. It houses the Fort Atkinson Daycare and Preschool and a contract bridge group; opens it doors for public events such as the winter farmers market and community resource fair; sponsors free community programs such as the “Great Scott” Must Be Magic Show taking place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 30; and is a venue for weddings, baptisms and funerals for not only members, but also nonmembers and persons without a church.
“We believe in the greater church,” said Jane Winiarski, who heads up the evangelism ministry.
Members are extremely involved with other churches and organizations as they volunteer for Meals on Wheels, the Fort Atkinson Food Pantry, FISH and Cornerstone of Hope. The latter operates the former Habitat for Humanity Restore on the city’s south side, with proceeds going to the community through efforts such as renovating senior citizens’ homes for greater accessibility.
A project particularly near and dear to Winiarski’s heart is Prayers and Squares.
She recalled when Buckingham-Taylor told the church’s Prayer Chain group about a program in which prayer quilts are made for persons with illnesses or other challenges.
“I thought, ‘I sew; I’m a prayer warrior,’” Winiarski recalled. “That was on Sunday, and would you believe that on Monday morning, there were three or four of us around my kitchen table sewing? And the rest is history.”
First Congregational UCC?became the first church in Wisconsin to institute Prayers and Squares, in the spring of 2004. Since then, the group has sewn nearly 360 quilts, with some even sent to Iraq.
“All you need to do is request one and have the person who is going to receive it want the prayers,” according to Winiarski. “The quilts are dedicated in church. And upon giving them to recipients, we have witnessed some very wonderful signs of peace … the spirit is there.”
But perhaps one effort that touches the greatest number of people is First Congregational UCC’s broadcast of its 10 a.m. Sunday worship services on WFAW?Radio.
“We feel like our radio ministry is a lot bigger than we know. There’s no way to really quantify it … we don’t know the numbers of people who listen to our ministry, but we run into them every week,” Buckingham-Taylor said.
While many programs have been very successful, some ministries have gone by the wayside as times and people change.
From 1977 until last month, the church hosted Our Daily Bread, providing healthy noon meals and fellowship for senior citizens.
Winiarski explained that Meals on Wheels had grown so much and, with many senior citizens moving to assisted-living facilities, attendance at Our Daily Bread was dropping.
“We were starting to get a lot people who wanted carryouts, and that wasn’t the purpose,” she said. “We were back to praying and asking ‘how are we going to carry out our mission?’“
The Congregationalists also were among the original church partners in the former Family Promise, which had been providing temporary shelter, job training and other resources to homeless families. And they briefly operated an Infant and Toddler Center that, unfortunately, had to close due to high costs.
“We don’t know what we will do with that ministry,” Buckingham-Taylor said. “The cool thing is there’s energy again to figure out how to best use our resources for ministry and where that might be and what that might be.”
One of the programs that has been at the church on and off for six decades is community theater. In 1948, its Couples Club started what grew into the Fort Atkinson Community Theater (FACT), which has several spinoffs today.
Church member Grace Firari and a member of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church recently started Youth FACT, an offshoot of FACT. Both groups, as well as the Rock River Theatre Guild, use the church, which sponsors them by providing space.
“We really see that as part of our past, because community theater started here back in the 1950s with the Couples Club,” Buckingham-Taylor said. “This is where the community theater was birthed.”
He said the church always is looking at ministry in rather unconventional ways.
“The point of ministry is not that you have to beat people on the head and say ‘now you know about Jesus Christ,’” he said. “We believe you see us through our actions and you judge us through how we treat you.”
This need to take a fresh look at outreach is not exclusive to First Congregational UCC. Most every denomination is experiencing a decline in its church-going generation.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve buried some of the great people of Fort Atkinson history … people whose names are on walls in town, in the museum. It’s kind of overwhelming,” the pastor said.
He has presided over the funerals of more than 100 members since 2004, with 12 of those just this year alone.
At the same time, younger generations are not attending worship on a regular basis, and churches must find new ways to draw their interest. The UCC?calls this a Shift ... from maintenance to missions, institutional patterns of the past to the entrepreneurial possibilities of the future.
“The future of the church all across the country and the world is changing because the paradigm has shifted, Buckingham-Taylor explained. “This idea that ‘church happens here’ is one of those paradigms that may be in the middle of a shift. Were trying to figure out what that means for us.”
He said today’s church must look at Fort Atkinson and ask, “What are its needs?” Instead of doing what the members think they need to do, they must do what the community says is needed.
“That’s all part of the shift as we begin to think of how we take our church out into the streets and into peoples lives,” Buckingham-Taylor said. “If people aren’t coming here, we have to figure out how we go there. That’s where we live today.”
The first 175 years were based on a building, he pointed out. But the next will extend far past the brick walls.
“We are here to make disciples for Jesus Christ to transform the world one person at a time,” the pastor said.
Yes, the Lord is good … and faithful through all generations.