By Connie Cavanaugh
photography by Brittany Dengerud
Eighteen months ago the most visible
evangelical "witness" in Portage, Wisconsin, was a fellow who stood on a
briefcase-turned-soapbox outside the movie theater and screamed at passersby.
His message-all hellfire and damnation-wasn't well-received.
"People had a bad taste in their mouths for church," Bob Turner discovered
when he began driving the half-hour from his home in Madison in response to
God's call to plant a church in Portage, population 10,000. Portage had no
Southern Baptist church. Of the eight churches listed on the town's website,
only three were evangelical. "They were scared to death of church people," Bob
says. "The reaction of some was, 'You're not going to scream at us about going
to hell are you?'"
Bringing the good news
Bob and his wife, Alisha, weren't deterred by the town's reticence. "God told
me to bring some good news amid the bad," Bob says. And so he did. River of
Life, a church plant of the Central Baptist Association and the
Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention, was started in December 2004 with only
two people-Bob and Alisha. Once they had a core group of eight adults Bob
discovered a beautiful limestone Lutheran building was on the market. He called
them up. The actual value of $2 million was totally out of reach; plus, the
building already had an accepted offer from a condo developer. "That's that,"
Bob thought. Following the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Bob called back the
next day. The sale had fallen through. The building was available. Final price:
$135,000 -"7% of its value," Bob says. "There's obviously no market for 'used'
churches in Portage!"
And the people poured in
"I woke up one day, and I had church and Jesus on my mind," says Jenn Selbach,
25. "I had only been to church a few times in my life." One of her co-workers
had called her the day before and told her about a new church that was
starting. She gave Jenn the pastor's phone number, and Jenn called Bob
"I told him I was covered in tattoos from head to toe-expecting him to judge
me-and he said, 'Cool! I'll look for you on Sunday,'" says Jenn. She attended
church that Sunday and returned every week for a month. She'd never experienced
anything like what she found at River of Life. "I accepted Christ as my savior
When Jenn gave her testimony at her baptism service, nine people responded
to the invitation and gave their lives to Christ. One of them was her aunt, the
other her 74-year-old grandmother who needed a walker to get to the front. "I
can't stop talking about Jesus!" Jenn says.
Nicki Robarge, 29, was invited to River of Life by her Mary Kay consultant,
Becky Roddewig. Nicki had been invited to many churches over the years but had
never gone. Coming from a background of family abuse of every kind, she was
lugging around plenty of baggage. But Nicki decided to visit River of Life, and
she hasn't missed a Sunday since.
"Everyone was so welcoming-they greeted me with open arms," Nicki says.
"They even gave me a welcome gift." She was impressed with the fervor of
worship and when Pastor Bob delivered the message, "he was talking to me,"
Nicki says. "I could hardly hold back the tears. I couldn't sleep that night.
Pastor Bob called me the next day." Nicki attended the prayer service on
Wednesday and requested prayer so she could receive forgiveness. "Everyone
prayed, and then they clapped for me."
The following Sunday Becky was baptized and Nicki gave her heart to Jesus.
"This feeling is awesome-to hand my life over to Christ. I'm no longer ashamed,
because I've confessed my sins and been forgiven," Nicki says. "Pastor Bob
summed up my journey with one word: purpose. To reach out to other people gives
meaning to my pain," Nicki explains.
Doing whatever it takes
River of Life has several distinctives of an on mission congregation:
1. Everyone is a greeter. "Greeters should be like shark's
teeth," Bob says. "If the first few layers don't get you, the fourth one
2. Everyone is welcome. "I brought my neighbor to church
last week," Nicki says. Nicki wondered how her Hispanic guest would be received
at church in a town where 91 percent of the population is Caucasian. "At River
of Life they say 'come as you are' and they really mean it. No one looks down
on anyone else."
3. Everything is planned with guests in mind. "We assume
our guests don't know anything about church," Bob says. Words to the songs and
scriptures are on PowerPoint, and Bibles are handed out at the door.
4. Every first-time guest receives a gift: a River of Life
coffee mug filled with goodies along with church information.
5. They share the love of Christ with the lost through
ministry. "We don't hold events to get guests," Bob says. "We do it to
love people." River of Life had 110 people attend their Harvest Party event in
October. While doing ministry at the local fair, River of Life has printed
material available but gives it out only when asked. This is vital to showing
people there are no strings attached to sharing Christ's love, Bob says.
6. Worship is a time of joyful expectation, not a seamless
performance. "We're just a bunch of goofballs that love Jesus," Bob
says. "We never use prayer as transition-we'd rather have an awkward silence
than a prayer that allows the worship team a chance to take their seats. We
believe prayer is sacred; it's a time of dependence on God.
7. Everyone expects change. When the church met for their
first annual meeting in February 2006 Pastor Bob wisely counseled them that
some people will miss the closeness they had when the church was smaller. "If
any of you are feeling this way," he advised, "I personally give you permission
to start a small group." To anyone who feels like they can't teach a small
group, Bob explained, "Anyone can go bowling!"
Something to talk about
River of Life has grown exponentially and the baptistry is seldom empty. What's
the secret to the growth? "The unchurched finding real joy, being loved just as
they are, and coming to Christ-they can't stay silent!" Bob says. "They're
bringing their unsaved friends to church and to Christ." To find out more visit
"I love that God brought River of Life to this town," Nicki Robarge says. "I
can't stop talking about it! I want to be baptized and become a member, and
I've never been a member of anything."
Connie Cavanaugh is a writer in Cochrane, Alberta.
Bob Turner was a "natural evangelist" long before he was a pastor. He often
found ways to share Christ in the marketplace. While everyone has a unique
style of evangelism, here's Bob's approach.
1. I start with a brief testimony of how Christ has changed my life. I was
saved at 20, after which I helped lead my sister, brother and fiancé to faith
2. I tell people, "No matter who you are, what you've done, or where you've
been, in 30 seconds or less God can change your whole life." The fellow who led
me to Christ said these words and even though it sounds like an infomercial,
3. I show them (draw) the bridge to God illustration. Most people know
about the bridge but don't know what to do with it.
4. Then I get personal. I tell them "Picture yourself on that bridge. You
need to take a step of faith." There's a difference between knowing the bridge
is there and walking on it. I add "them" to the drawing.
5. The best news of all for people today isn't that they're going to heaven.
It's that their sins are forgiven. I turn to 2 Corinthians 5:17 and have them
read it aloud to me. When they read that they are a new creation, I put an X
through the "old man" on the bridge.
6. I offer to pray with them. I never share the gospel without giving an
opportunity to respond. Two weeks ago I led a woman to Christ and when we
finished praying she said: "Whoa! That's kind of like taking my hands off the
wheel and letting Christ drive!" She got it. Christ isn't the co-pilot; He's
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