This story first appeared in the Sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper.
Just a few hours after comedian Mike Vecchione finished his set on a recent Saturday night at The Comedy Club on State, the space was turned over to a rental customer.
Bibles replaced beer. The jokes largely disappeared.
This is where Madison Alliance Church holds Sunday services. The new church is one of several religious startups — called "church plants" — trying to gain a following in the area. They pop up in storefronts and rental buildings, their leaders sometimes working second jobs until their religious ventures establish themselves.
They are churches such as The Vine, an Evangelical Free congregation that meets at Madison's Lapham Elementary School, and the nondenominational Ezra Church, which gathers at Eastgate Cinema.
Starting a church is always a challenge and, historically, the success rate has been poor, said Warren Bird, research director for the Leadership Network in Dallas, a Christian nonprofit that works with growing churches.
But with a greater emphasis now on researching potential markets and coaching new pastors, the odds have greatly improved, said Bird, co-author of "Viral Churches: Helping Church Plants Become Movement Makers."
In a recent study of 10 large Protestant denominations, nearly seven of 10 church plants were still around four years after starting, with an average weekly attendance of 84, Bird said.
While 84 followers may seem small in this age of megachurches, it is actually pretty typical, Bird said. The average U.S. church draws 50 to 100 people weekly, he said.
For a behind-the-scenes look at starting a church, the State Journal is tracking Madison Alliance Church, which began a monthly service in September. Occasional articles will update readers on its progress.
Heart of the city
The Rev. Ben Stewart, 30, lead pastor of Madison Alliance Church, said he hopes to reach people who are not currently attending a church — "maybe even people who've been burned by religion."
A Connecticut native, he spent eight years helping to build the youth ministry and missions departments at Appleton Alliance Church, a megachurch in Wisconsin's Fox Valley with upward of 3,000 regular attendees.
There are more than 2,000 Christian and Missionary Alliance churches in the U.S., but they operate more as an affiliation than a denomination, Stewart said.
He describes the theology as "Bible-based and Christ-centered" and said it is closest to an evangelical Protestant world view.
Stewart, who is married with two children, earned a bachelor's degree in biblical studies from Northwestern College in Roseville, Minn., then completed the Alliance's internal ordination process. He was tapped by the Alliance's Western Great Lakes District to start a Madison church.
Does Madison need another church? Stewart spent months researching that question and concluded it does, at least the kind he wants to start.
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"We want to be an urban ministry in the heart of the city. Our primary emphasis is to make known the name of Jesus Christ, and we think that may be more of a need Downtown than in some of the outer areas."
The church plans a strong social justice focus and has made inroads into the homeless community. It sponsors monthly "Food For All" events at which everyone gets free food and hygiene products.
Financed by the district
Stewart has an advantage many startups don't. His effort is being funded by the 40 Alliance churches in his district, which are encouraged to contribute 3 percent of their revenues to church development.
The church's first-year budget is $200,000. A little more than half goes to salary and benefits for Stewart and co-leader Jesse Rhodes, 31.
The two worked together in youth ministry in Appleton. Rhodes, married with three children, is working toward his ordination.
The next biggest expense is rent, about $30,000 a year. The two came upon The Comedy Club while walking on State Street and liked the non-traditional setting, at least for the startup period. (They even incorporate a "comedy moment" into each service.)
Comedy Club owner Gus Paras said he had never rented to a church and has no personal connection to this one. "They come in and I see these two young, polite guys. How could I not want to help them?"
This first fiscal year, which started July 1, Stewart and Rhodes are responsible for raising 10 percent of the $200,000. That figure doubles each year until year five, when the church is to be self-sufficient.
The church's first-year budget "is a high amount," said Bird, the church planting expert. Yet, "if you have two people on staff and any kind of overhead, that's going to be burned through pretty quickly," he said.
A big challenge for the church will be turning people who may not have much history with attending a church into people willing to give generously to sustain one, Bird said. For these people, often called "the unchurched," their "discipline of giving is not immediate," he said.
Spreading the word
The church has done no paid advertising. Stewart and Rhodes handed out about 1,000 flyers at the freshman convocation at UW-Madison.
They're trying to reach people on Facebook and Twitter and through small prayer groups and events such as "Food For All."
The church's October service at The Comedy Club drew about 40 people, of which nearly half were homeless.
"There's a sense here that they love humanity at its core," said Monica Viren, 42, who is homeless. "Status doesn't matter."
Most of the rest of the parishioners had some previous connection to Stewart and Rhodes, such as Alissa Ehlers, 18, who attended Appleton Alliance Church and is now a UW-Madison freshman.
Hot coffee and large trays of pastries welcomed worshippers. Stewart, carrying an iPad for an occasional prompt, preached a sermon on the Book of Acts. Rhodes, on electric guitar, led a four-piece, contemporary Christian band.
Stewart said he loves the people the church is attracting, but to be successful the church will need to broaden its appeal.
"That's our biggest challenge," he said. "Financially, we cannot exist as a church with only college students and the homeless. We will need to be very intentional about reaching out to all demographics."