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Spreading a Passion … Through Church Planting:
A Brief History of Bethlehem Baptist Church’s Church Planting Involvement
Compiled by Matt Wireman and Brett Toney
The Planting Church Plant
In 1871, twenty-two Swedish believers of the First American Baptist Church in Minneapolis were granted a request by the elder board to branch out from the church and begin a new body of believers. This new church plant, First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis, aimed to impact the influx of Swedish immigrants in the area with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This church, which later changed its name to Bethlehem Baptist Church, has – throughout its existence – been devoted to the development of biblically founded churches that are equipped to effectively reach their respective communities. Bethlehem’s church planting efforts fall into three distinct epochs: 1871 to 1980, 1980 to 2002, and 2002 to present.
The Early Years: 1871–1980
1871 – Bethlehem was planted by the First American Baptist Church and originally named First Swedish Baptist.
1879 – The need to reach out to Norwegian and Danish immigrants brought about Bethlehem’s first church plant in the form of the First Norwegian-Danish Baptist Church, which became Powderhorn Park Baptist. Twenty-nine charter members were sent from Bethlehem to establish the church. When the church closed in 2006, the building was given to Bethlehem and is now known as the 16/33 Center.
1888 – The growing need for work in Northeast Minneapolis led to the founding of Elim Baptist Church under Dr. Frank Peterson. Elim Baptist had their first service on February 21 as a result of people being willing “to throw themselves into another [church] for the spread of the Good News where they lived.” (Winston Sherwick, Bethlehem Baptist Centennial, p. 54, Free Church Press, 1971.)
1896 – The Seward Neighborhood was noted to have “practically no religious work going on.” (Sherwick, p. 51.) Seeing this obvious need for the Gospel, Bethlehem planted Bethel Baptist Church from the Sunday School and Industrial School outreach of the Bethlehem members in the neighborhood. The 146-member congregation was folded back into Bethlehem in 1961.
1941 – Partnering with sixteen other churches, Bethlehem sent some of its own congregation to the suburbs for the first time to form Spring Lake Park Baptist Church. ( Unpublished Anniversary Paper from Elim Baptist Church, p. 8.)
1944 – Bethlehem sent eleven of its members to help form Saint Louis Park Baptist Church. This fellowship became Park Baptist that later merged with First Baptist of Hopkins to form Cross of Glory Baptist Church. (Cross of Glory website, October 8, 2004.)
1948 – Edgewater Baptist, once known as Bethlehem Baptist Chapel, (Sherwick, p. 57) received 106 Bethlehem members to create a firm foundation for the congregation.
1949 – Bethlehem voted to support Wayside Chapel with $400, given in $50 monthly increments, and helped organize the chapel. Bethlehem also sent member Rev. John Lundberg to pastor the body of believers. The chapel became known as Wooddale Baptist and met on the corner of 71st and Nicollet. (Sherwick, p. 58)
1952 – Rev. Winston Sherwick was sent, with other Bethlehem members, as an interim pastor to establish, organize, and guide Brooklyn Center Baptist as it began to gather for worship.
1963 – Bethlehem came alongside of Cedar Grove Baptist by making the down payment on the church’s parsonage and contributing funds for the ongoing ministry of the church.
1971 – In May, the Primera Iglesia Evangelica Bautista (First Evangelical Baptist Church) began to meet in Bethlehem’s chapel (now Room 203) free of charge and also rented office space for $25 per month. While meeting at Bethlehem, the church was under the leadership of laymen Antonio de Paris, Jaime Martinez, and Roberto Morales. Bob Swanson, a missionary to Mexico, returned to the States and aided the church by taking on preaching responsibilities until Rev. Dagoberto Aguilar was called in April 1973. When Aguilar returned to his home country of Costa Rica in 1977, Delmar IntVeld was called to shepherd the flock. The relationship between the Hispanic church and Bethlehem was essentially limited to use of shared space, which formally ended in 1987 when the First Evangelical Baptist Church decided to change locations since Bethlehem was growing so rapidly and needed more space.
This time for Bethlehem set a great launching point for further church planting. A summative statement on Bethlehem’s church planting efforts from its centennial publication still resonates true today: “One message at least that these churches bring to us is that churches that are born do grow to maturity. It is through local bodies of Christ like these that God gets much of the work of His whole Church done. Churches beget churches. And God’s people within churches travail triumphantly in the birth of persons into His family” (Sherwick, p. 60).
A New Vision: 1980–2002
Bethlehem called a new, young, inexperienced man in 1980 who had never pastored a church before and did not have any extensive plans or programs with which to revitalize the fading congregation; he had only one vision for the church: “To magnify Jesus Christ by His Word so clearly that He draws people from [the demographically diverse surrounding area] to Himself and builds a church out of those kinds of people.” (John Piper, from an unpublished talk given at a TBI Table Talk on 10/30/08). John Piper proceeded to carry out this vision, by God’s grace, as he labored to transform the small, elderly, and theologically uninformed congregation into a vibrant, growing church that is passionate about theology and making much of God. This vision did not contain any church planting goals or strategies, but as the church grew both numerically and spiritually, the need and desire to plant likeminded churches became evident. Any efforts to plant churches stemmed from members seeing a need and rising to address it.
1988 – Growing out of the Bethlehem ministry to refugees from Southeast Asia (which had been led by Annette Carlson, Olga Mortensen, and Florence Martin), the Laotian Church of Peace was organized and established by Rev. Steven Cable. Cable had succeeded this position when his father-in-law, Rev. Phaitoon Hathamart, returned to Thailand. The church is currently pastored by Phouratsaphone Littana.
1989 – In the Spring of the year, the few leaders of Immanuel Baptist, a struggling independent Baptist church, came to Bethlehem looking for help. By August, Bethlehem had sent Brent and Kathy Nelson, along with a team of about a dozen Bethlehem members including Mike and Mary Jacobson, the Dingers, Fowlers, and Salzmans to help revitalize the church. Bethlehem was a crucial means of God’s grace to Immanuel, namely through its financial support and release of members to crossover; and also through its wisdom, encouragement, and camaraderie. After seventeen faithful years, in October 2006, the Nelsons’ personal ministry came to a close at Immanuel. Seeking to proclaim and live out the Gospel among the unique and progressive Seward Neighborhood in Minneapolis, Immanuel Baptist Church continues to look to God with great hope and confidence.
1996 – After being an apprentice at Bethlehem for four years, Steve Treichler led a group of fourteen believers to start Hope Community Church on the campus of the University of Minnesota, relying solely on God for provision, both financially and for the growth of the church. The church seeks to reach students at the university who are unfamiliar with the things of the Lord and to foster true Christian community while not forsaking truth. Relocated to the corner of 7th Street & 10th Avenue, Hope Community is associated with the Acts 29 Church Planting Network and had about 600 people in regular attendance in Fall 2008. Hope Community has gone on to plant five other churches in the Twin Cities, and Steve has since helped Bethlehem develop its own method of church planting.
1998 – On Easter Sunday, Bethlehem commissioned three cell groups, which had been meeting as Celebration Community Church, as an official church plant that sought to incarnationally and holistically reach the urban poor of the Phillips Neighborhood. Jim and Raquel Bloom led the ministry (joined by Jeff and Krista Noyed and Kevin and Robin Olson) and sought to raise indigenous leadership in order to reproduce the cell group model. The vision for the cell groups began in 1993 and initially began meeting in 1994. The cell groups dissolved in 2000, but rejoined in 2001 after restructuring into a house church plant rather than as cell groups. The church planting fellowship “Rising” was developed through the ministry of Celebration and has grown and been strengthened since its restructure.
2000 – Bethlehem partnered with Grace Church in Richfield, which became Sovereign Grace Church in Lakeville, to help get the church back on its feet. In February, Bethlehem set apart Rick Gamache to pastor the church, Randy Westlund to help lead as an elder, and about seventy others from Bethlehem to join the fellowship. They came alongside of Paul Dreblow, a Bethlehem member, who had been serving as the interim pastor for two years. The combined congregation had their first Sunday service in April. The church continued to face struggles, but was greatly strengthened in 2003 when it joined the Sovereign Grace Ministries church network. The congregation of approximately 260, as of Fall 2008, is notably Reformed in its doctrine and charismatic in its practice.
2000 – The elders of Bethlehem were presented with a proposal in May by Russ Gregg and Cecil Smith regarding their desire to plant a church, Sovereign Joy Fellowship. This vision was a result of God stirring in the hearts of those within their “Pilgrims” Sunday School class at Bethlehem since February 1996. The first service was held on July 1 in Bethlehem’s chapel (now Room 203). (Cecil Smith, A Proposal for a Cell Church Plant Sent Out from Bethlehem Baptist Church in AD 2000 (unpublished), May 1, 2000, pp. 7, 8.)
By the beginning of the millennium, Bethlehem had grown tremendously and was striving to use church planting as a means to handle the influx of attendees while learning how vital church planting is to a healthy, God-glorifying church. This growth, partnered with dissatisfaction with how church planting was being done, shed light on how a better, more strategic approach to church planting was needed.
Treasuring Christ Together: 2002–Present
In 2002, the Bethlehem council of elders began to pray and plan for the growth that the church was experiencing. The resulting vision was titled “Treasuring Christ Together” (TCT), which aims to develop more Bethlehem campuses, new churches, and aid for the global poor. That vision proposal, guided mainly by Kurt Swanson’s desire to aid foreign outreach, was passed quickly and now paves the way for Bethlehem’s continued growth. Developed along with the TCT vision was the Church Planting Residency. The program aims to equip called and qualified church planters by instilling in them the biblical convictions of Bethlehem’s mission and Elder Affirmation of Faith, and by providing opportunities to observe how those convictions are lived out in the manifold life of the local church. It is through TCT and the Residency that Bethlehem entered into this third era with a more focused and deliberate approach to spreading a passion for the supremacy of God through church planting on a local and national level.
2003 – Desiring God Community Church was initiated by a group of Bethlehem members who were moving to Charlotte, NC, to continue working with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The group, along with the elders of Bethlehem, asked Coty Pinckney to join them in prayer about his involvement in planting a church in Charlotte. In the Fall of 2002, Coty and his family were given confirmation of God’s call in his role to pastor the church. The first Sunday morning service was held on March 9, 2003, at the University City Hilton. The church seeks to build true, joyful community from the many people groups in the Charlotte area.
2004 – After serving as a St. Paul paramedic for ten years, Dwayne Gibbs sensed the need for a new way for the people of St. Paul to be reached with the Gospel. He and his wife, Mary, began to minister to at-risk and high-risk youth in the St. Paul area. This ministry developed into the Harvest Movement Youth Center with the aim to develop a church, now Berean Missional, that the Youth Center would function under. The church and Youth Center strive to be a redemptive force in the city and seek to continue to develop indigenous leadership through holistic evangelism and discipleship.
2005 – Treasuring Christ Church first opened its doors for a public service on March 27 with sixty people in attendance. The church plant was led by Sean Cordell, Travis Williams, and Kent Capps, who had initially desired to plant the church in Knoxville, Tennessee, instead of in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Lord eventually led them to start the church. The church has faced its shares of difficulties, having met in eight different locations in only three years, but the Lord continues to bless this ministry, evidenced by the steady growth both in the maturity of the congregation and in its numerical size. In the Fall of 2008, the 138-member fellowship was seeking a permanent facility as they continued to be known in urban Raleigh as a church devoted to the city, racial harmony, the poor, and one another.
2006 – Gregg Heinsch, a pastor from the Stillwater-Hudson, WI, area; and Matthew Molesky, a TBI graduate, left for Florida to establish Celebration Community Church as part of the Vision USA Church Planting Network, now Vision360. Christ Lent, another TBI graduate, has also joined in the church’s efforts as they seek to make worship a way of life, respond to the Spirit of God, connect with the people of God, and join in the mission of God. The church had about 200 people in regular attendance in the Fall of 2008.
2006 – Grace Community Church began having weekly services on November 5 in an urban neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee. The eighty-person congregation, led by former TCT Church Planting Resident Jordan Thomas, is supporting two church plants in Nigeria and is actively involved in numerous in-home Bible studies. Grace Community intentionally strives to be Christ-centered by not busying themselves with many programs and activities and instead focusing on exalting Jesus; this emphasis comes from a desire to not only act like a follower of Christ, but to be a follower of Christ.
2006 – In 2005, three pastors from Bethlehem, Wally Brath, Sherard Burns, and John Erickson, began to pray and meet about planting a church. Their desire was to plant an intentionally diverse, biblically faithful church that intends to live out the gospel reality of racial harmony on the north side of Minneapolis. On March 5, 2006, the Lord granted them their desire and All Nations Christian Fellowship held its first service at Garden City school, in Brooklyn Center, with about 100 people. In September, Sherard Burns resigned from the senior pastor position and John Erickson took on the responsibility of preaching until May 2008 when Dr. Allan Joseph was called to fill the senior pastorate. There were about 180-200 people in attendance each Sunday in Fall 2008 while this body of believers sought a more permanent facility in which to meet.
2007 – Several years before Glory of Christ Fellowship started regular worship services, Mike Perry and Greg Chaffin were leading a Bethlehem small group that desired to plant a church in the area of Elk River/Rogers, Minnesota. After submitting a vision document to the Bethlehem elders, Charlie Handren was asked to join the TCT Residency in order to lead the church plant. The plant opened its doors in the Fall 2007 as Glory of Christ, and 100 attendees met in the Handke Family Center in Elk River in Fall 2008. This body of believers is strongly devoted to see the gospel proclaimed among the nations.
2009 – After completing the Church Planting Residency in January, Tim & Abbey Cain moved to El Cajon, California, and began work on planting the church that they had been planning and preparing for during the previous year.
2009 – Bethlehem took on two Church Planting Residents in August to begin learning and developing their church planting philosophies. Jason Vaden and his family came from North Little Rock, Arkansas, planning to return to Arkansas and plant a church there. Brett Louis and his family came from Clinton, Mississippi, unsure as to where the Lord would have them plant a church.
2010 – After nearly a year of preparation and planning, John Erickson left All Nations Christian Fellowship (ANCF) with the elders’ and congregation’s blessing to plant Jubilee Community Church in South Minneapolis. Joining John and his family in initiating this plant was Dan Porch and Kurt Swanson, along with several families from ANCF. Meeting at the 16/33 Center, they hope to reach minority groups in the Phillips and Powderhorn neighborhoods.
2010 – Jason Vaden began working to plant Urban Harvest Fellowship in North Little Rock, Arkansas. The vision for this church was born out of the burden to bring the power and presence of God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, to bear upon one of the darkest areas of North Little Rock.
2010 – Brett Louis started Christ Redeemer Church, working to advance the kingdom of God on the east side of the Twin Cities when they began meeting in September in Woodbury, Minnesota.
2011 – Bethlehem approved Mike Bartlett to begin planting Redemption City Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Mike is currently building a core team of supporters and forming a launch team to begin Redemption City Church. His goal is to plant a missional, orthodox, reformed church in the downtown corridor of Grand Rapids.
2011 – Bethlehem started a partnership with Global Church Advancement to help form both national and regional networks to further the multiplication of theologically aligned churches. TCT is in the process of training leaders and recruiting coaches to continue strategic church planting in the Twin Cities as well as in other regions where TCT Church Plants already exist.
The most significant, strategic action for Bethlehem in church planting has been the establishment and cultivation of a church planting network. The first TCT Network Meeting took place in August 2007, and the network is continuing to meet with a strong sense of shared mission to work together to plant new churches whose elders gladly embrace Bethlehem’s mission statement, the Elder Affirmation of Faith, and the summary of biblical life.
Bethlehem looks forward to enriching its church planting efforts by further developing the TCT Network by equipping current Bethlehem church plants to reproduce other churches and by continuing to encourage and train those pastors already within the network. Bethlehem is excited to see how God will continue to use faithful bodies of believers to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things by planting churches for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.