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Germantown: Bringing new life to an old village

By Kirk Noonan

Enter Germantown, Wis., and you’re transported to an enchanted village in Germany. Black, red and yellow flags flap quietly. Bavarian-style architecture accents many buildings. Spires rise from churches tucked among trees. A wrong turn can quickly lead to a rolling road flanked by orchards and fields of apples, strawberries and pumpkins.

It’s not difficult to imagine Hansel and Gretel skipping down the main boulevard with baskets of hot apple strudels under their arms.

Locals welcome anyone who ventures into the village — which has a strong Catholic and Lutheran presence. But it wasn’t until 2000 that the Assemblies of God established itself in Germantown when Life Church was planted in a local high school’s auditorium.

Since then, hundreds of residents have flocked to the church. It’s easy to see why.

On a recent Sunday morning, worship music from the sanctuary pulsates into the church’s foyer, which has the look and vibe of a Starbucks coffeehouse. Walls are painted in earth tones, the leather furniture is trendy, and the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee envelops everyone. The bigger draw, however, is the friendly people who call this place their church home.

When first-time visitors arrive, student ministries director Ryan Coggins immediately engages them, then introduces them to several regulars waiting for the next service to begin.

“I just wanted to check the church out,” a 20-something man says. “I’ve heard some good things about this place.”

Indeed.

As talk of cars and God ensues, the man appears genuinely relieved to have made some new friends so fast. Aaron Cole, pastor of Life Church, says providing an inviting atmosphere and focusing on relationships is by design.

“It’s simple. We win people for Christ through relationships,” Cole says. “A lot of people who come here haven’t seen church done the way we’re doing it.”

Cassie Roberts, 23, attests to that. For years she avoided church because she feared being judged. But after visiting the church, she says, she noticed the worshippers did just the opposite.

“They went out of their way to greet me and make me feel welcome,” she says. “I got connected here through relationships.”

Jay Snow had a similar experience. Though he grew up in a Christian home, he strayed from his faith and started playing in a band, drinking alcohol and doing drugs. But a chance meeting with a Life Church member had a transformational effect on him.

“I was invited to practice with the worship team,” Snow, 33, recalls. “I didn’t want to go at first because I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. But my friend persisted, and I finally gave in.”

After each practice Snow’s friend would spend hours in the church’s parking lot answering his questions about God.

“Eventually I felt convicted,” Snow admits.

He committed his life to Christ, led his girlfriend to a relationship with the Lord, became a member of the church and now serves as the church’s creative director.

“It’s awesome because we exist for the people who are out in the bars partying like I used to do,” he says. “Our niche is giving people a relevant experience so they have time with the Lord.”

Gary and Maxine Pribanich have been at the church since Evangel AG in Milwaukee planted it. The couple has seen Life Church grow from a handful of members to nearly 600 worshippers.

“Early on we were told we would see more people saved than we had ever seen saved at a church,” Gary Pribanich, 57, says. “That has been the theme of Life Church since it began because God’s heart is for those who don’t know Him.”

The Pribaniches say people are attracted to the church for many reasons, but the church’s desire to embrace those who do not know Jesus has made an impression on them.

“People can come as they are,” Pribanich adds. “God can clean them up.”

When Aaron and Tammy Cole came to the church six years ago they inherited a struggling congregation of less than 100 people who were reeling after the first pastor had a moral failing.

The Coles must have felt ambitious when they took the pastorate, as the church’s finances were in disarray, the church was housed in a tiny storefront, and the church’s reputation had been battered in the community.

“Because of the faithfulness of God and the leadership of the core group of people,” Cole says, “the Lord helped navigate this church through the tough times.”

Members of that core group Cole speaks of agree.

“We knew God would bring us through,” says Kurt Weber, 44, a long-time member of the church.

Maxine Pribanich concurs.

“Though it was a difficult time, we could feel the holiness of God,” she says. “He wanted to do things here.”

Another factor in the church’s phenomenal growth has been Cole’s vision for the pastoral staff and laypeople to get involved in the community. He joined the Chamber of Commerce, made friends with government leaders and has engaged local business owners. By doing so, he says, the church has built inroads throughout the community. And, contends Cole, doing so has piqued the interest of community members who regularly come by to check out the church.

“We’ve found favor in the community by getting involved with the community,” Cole says.

The church also found favor with its landlord, who offered to sell them the storefront they were leasing plus a neighboring storefront, the parking lot and several nearby acres for a discounted price.

Plans are afoot to transform the storefront next door — which once housed one of Germantown’s most popular nightclubs — into a student ministries center. In a couple of years, estimates Cole, they will break ground and build a new sanctuary.

“It’s totally the hand of God on this church,” says church member Rhonda Weber, 45.

With his congregation excited as ever about sharing their faith and seeing many more of Germantown’s 18,000 residents come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, Cole could not be happier.

“When I was asked to come here it was like God was saying, ‘I am doing great things here. Come and join Me,’ ” he says.

Perhaps Jay Snow captures the essence of Life Church best when he says, “God has been so faithful through everything. We’ve learned that the bigger the step we take, the bigger the blessing He gives.”


KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Simple Plan (knoonan.agblogger.org).

E-mail your comments to tpe@ag.org.

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