Lincoln residents have more options than usual this year to attend Christmas church service in their own city.
That's because several new churches have formed in the booming suburb of 4,500 that for decades has been served by only one long-standing congregation.
New to town are First Love Church of the Southern Baptist Convention and Grace Lutheran Brethren Church, which has a facility in Bismarck but opened a second site in Lincoln this fall.
Peace Lutheran Church, meanwhile, is planning an expansion as its 28-year congregation swells and the demand for child care grows.
The Rev. Kevin Nelson of Peace Lutheran recalls the small bedroom community on the cusp of change when he arrived in Lincoln four years ago.
“The school opened and all these houses popped up like weeds popping out of the ground,” he said.
More homes mean more people in search of a place to grow spiritually. As new churches open in Lincoln to fill that demand, residents welcome their new Sunday commute.
Chrystal Rychman, for one, used to drive 35 minutes from her home in rural Menoken to Riverwood Baptist Church in Bismarck.
Since First Love opened in September across from Tumbleweed Bar and Steak House, it takes only 10 minutes for her family to drive to church. They go several times a week — to the Sunday service, as well as Wednesday night Bible study and on Fridays for devotionals and games.
Though apprehensive about joining a new church, the first sermon made her feel at home.
“It was a huge blessing,” Rychman said. “You could feel God in there.”
The Rev. George Crawley returned to Lincoln in June after living for several years in North Carolina, where he became a pastor in 2010. He first moved to North Dakota in the 1980s for college and later lived in Lincoln.
The pastor at Riverwood called him two years ago, asking if he would return to start a church in Lincoln.
“The Lincoln community had started to grow since the oil boom,” Crawley said. “There were a lot of unchurched people here.”
Several Baptist churches had occupied the building where First Love is now located, though none stuck. Crawley said the Dakota Baptist Convention allowed Lincoln Elementary School to hold kindergarten there until the school opened in January 2014.
First Love held events such as barbeques at its facility during the summer before the first service. That day in September, five families from Riverwood volunteered to attend church in Lincoln in an effort to get the congregation going.
Crawley said 30 to 35 people of all ages come weekly, some from Bismarck and some from Lincoln. He has signed a five-year contract to be the church’s full-time pastor and said he will stay “until God tells me otherwise.”
Grace Lutheran Brethren
Shortly after First Love opened, another church started across town inside a building at Lincoln Park.
The Rev. Ryan Nordlund of Grace Lutheran Brethren said his church recognized a need to spread the gospel. Three years ago, someone suggested Lincoln as an option for a second site, and he drove through for the first time.
“I couldn’t believe all the construction,” said Nordlund, adding that he noticed foundation holes everywhere.
While the congregation made plans to start offering Saturday services in Lincoln, the church began hosting sports camps at Lincoln Elementary and fundraisers for the school to buy volleyball nets.
To get the word out, church members dropped off multiple fliers at nearly every home in Lincoln. The church put up signs, made radio spots and placed an ad in the water bills of Lincoln residents.
Oct. 10 marked the first service at the small facility rented from the park district.
“There are very limited places to meet in Lincoln,” said Nordlund, adding he would like to construct a church in Lincoln that doubles as a gym facility, and he has a vision of opening a day care or coffee shop.
Those plans, though, are a ways off.
“We have had very few come from Lincoln, which is why we thought to rethink it and do a service for the kids,” he said.
The church is shifting gears over the next month. It will stop offering Saturday night service and, instead, offer a Wednesday evening kids club.
From talking with other multisite churches that are part of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America denomination, Nordlund knows to be patient. The key, they tell him, is to have endurance and keep going, even when the numbers are small.
Though new churches have attracted Lincoln residents this year, Peace Lutheran’s congregation never has been more vibrant.
Nelson, the pastor there, said only a few young families with kids came to church when he started in 2012.
Now, it’s filled with youngsters. The congregation, which is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denomination, has grown from 115 members to 150 in four years.
Nelson said part of the church’s success stems from his position as a part-time pastor. He works a day job as a civil engineer for Wenck Associates.
He leads service every Sunday, but he is paid for other duties, including funerals and weddings, on an as-needed basis.
Before his sermons, children flock to the church for lessons tailor-made to them.
“Our Sunday school program has grown, and we don’t fit back there anymore,” Nelson said, referring to the education wing in the double-wide trailer attached to the church.
That’s also where a member of the congregation runs a child care facility called Jan’s Little Jewels.
Jan Netland bought it a year ago from a previous owner, who had operated it for several months.
She hired more staff and expanded the capacity to 26 kids due to high demand.
“We had 22 families on the waiting list at one point,” Netland said.
She and Nelson hope to build an addition with six classrooms for Sunday school, preschool, day care and a fellowship hall.
Pastors at all three churches said the opening of Lincoln Elementary has had a profound impact on their congregations.
Before the school opened, students in Lincoln took buses to nearby schools in Bismarck.
“Just about everyone in this community said it’s long overdue,” Nelson said.
A counselor at the Lincoln school contacted Peace Lutheran last Thanksgiving asking if the church could help a family in need.
His congregation responded by showing up with a carload of food to help the family far beyond the holiday.
The church is addressing other needs at the school as well.
“Some of these children are showing up without hats or mittens,” Nelson said.
This holiday season, members brought coats to the church, which will go to kids at the school.
Grace Lutheran Brethren, meanwhile, plans to hold its Wednesday kids club at the school from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Nordlund, coincidentally, used to coach basketball with the principal.
Earlier this month, First Love showed its gratitude for the school’s teachers by hosting a Christmas party. Church members offered the educators food and gifts.
The church also held a Thanksgiving meal for more than 90 people who came from four Bismarck congregations.
Crawley said he loves being back in the community.
“I missed the people,” he said. “This is home.”