In the Spirit: Church that pushed the envelope on 'casual worship' closes

In the Spirit: Church that pushed the envelope on 'casual worship' closes

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A Waunakee church that pushed the concept of “casual worship” to new levels didn’t draw enough interest and has closed.

St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 5757 Emerald Grove Lane, sought to attract people put off by the rituals and trappings of traditional worship services. Parishioners ripped out the church’s pews, pulpit and communion rail four years ago and installed coffeehouse tables, easy chairs and a cappuccino machine.

Sunday attendance peaked at around 50 a couple of years ago and had been dropping. Services have ceased and the church building is for sale.

“I still think it’s a great idea, but this apparently was not the time or the place,” said the Rev. Randy Hunter, pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Middleton.

The Waunakee site was a satellite church of the larger Middleton church, which continues to operate about nine miles away.

The Waunakee church was built in 1990 as Lord and Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church. After it closed,

St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Middleton took over its assets and began using the site.

The Middleton location continued to hold traditional worship services, while the Waunakee site experimented with a more laid-back structure. Hunter served both sites. His early morning sermon in Middleton was videotaped, then shown on large screens later in the morning at Waunakee.

Afterward, Waunakee parishioners discussed the sermon topic in small groups. The church motto was, “Casual about church, serious about God.”

When I interviewed Hunter and other church officials four years ago, there was much excitement about the new concept but also a realization that it was something of a gamble. The concept was intended to woo “the unchurched,” as opposed to poaching members from other Waunakee churches. That turned out to be a hard demographic to attract, Hunter said.

Church members have offered several theories as to why the concept didn’t take, Hunter said. Perhaps the church suffered from not having full-time pastoral staff members on site, or maybe the format wasn’t appealing enough to parents with young children.

Regardless, Hunter said he’s proud that the congregation tried something different. And he’s proud that church members made the tough decision to pull the plug when it became apparent the concept wasn’t working.

“While there is some sadness, I think it’s a sign of health when a group is willing to admit something didn’t work and move on and try something else,” he said.

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