A panel of five local pastors responded to the survey of Dane County churches presented by Dubuque Seminary professor Christopher James at Upper House on November 19, 2019. The survey results presented a view of the Madison area in contrast to the popular perception of the city once described as the Athens of the Midwest.
For one thing, Madison is not a bad place to plant a new fellowship. “It is possible to start new churches here,” James said. His research found 34 churches started since 2010 in Dane County are still going, and 52 churches started since 2000 are still going.
Dane County has 317 churches, just under half of them in Madison (156). He described 54 percent of the churches as evangelical, 32 percent as Mainline, 11.5 percent as Catholic, and 2.5 percent as other.
“Going to one church on Sunday is not the same as going to a church some place else,” James said. Difference in worship experiences vary by faith tradition, politics, and racial factors. “Those three categories explain a lot of the diversity in Dane County,” James concluded.
The five pastors who responded to James’ presentation were:
- Kerri Parker, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches
- Marcus Allen, Senior Pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church and president of the African American Council of Churches in Madison
- Tiffany Malloy, Pastor, Blackhawk Downtown
- Fr. Eric Nelson, Pastor and Executive Director of St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center
- David Gilbertson, Pastor, City on a Hill
Pastor Allen remarked that the finding that surprised him the most was the fact that some churches feature 10 minute sermons. Fr. Nelson confessed that he was one of those who favored the shorter sermons.
Pastor Allen said that the churches of Madison could have an impact if they spoke with one voice to the school board about educational inequities and addressed other social issues in the same way. But he said evangelism, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, needed to be the top priority.
Fr. Nelson said what was missing from the survey was the percentage of the Madison population that actually attends church. It would have been good to have that information.
“I am grateful that we have such a wide variety of robust churches,” said pastor Malloy. “There are lots of options.”
Pastor Jacobson said that he was surprised by the polarization and the differences in priorities among churches. “Our God is working in a lot of different ways,” he said. “The answers our culture is giving are not working.”
After two years planting a church in Madison, Jacobson said, “It’s viewed as hard soil, but it’s a fertile soil.”