First Free Groundbreaking

Onalaska First Free Church broke ground last week on its $3 million expansion. Pictured are, from left: Onalaska Police Chief Jeff Trotnic, Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen, Pastor Shane Holden, Elder Doug Jorde, Mark Carpenter, executive V.P. of State Bank Financial, Dave Mydy, president of Fowler & Hammer.

Greg Kirscher, River Valley Media Group

First Free Church of Onalaska held its formal groundbreaking ceremony last week in anticipation of its almost $3-million, 1,170-seat worship center.

Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen, one of the keynote speakers told the crowd of well-wishers, “I believe that the bedrock of any community is the strong faith-life of the community.”

Executive Pastor Mark Brockberg thanked the mayor, saying, “We are blessed to be part of the Onalaska community.”

For one member, change has always been part of church life. Mae McDowell joined the church in 1944 as a charter member.

“When we first moved into this facility, I thought that would be it, “she quipped. “Now we’re doing it again.”

Starting with tent meetings in 1914, the church officially organized in 1946, assuming the name Moody Memorial Free Church and meeting in a rented chapel on Campbell Road in La Crosse.

By 1990, attendance had inched up to 100 and the name had been changed to First Free. Brockberg recalled his own affiliation with the church in 1996, several years after it outgrew the Campbell Road facility and moved to Aquinas High School.

Brockberg said the current building constructed in 2002 was only designed to seat 700. The church now averages more than 2,000 worshippers over the course of three weekend services. Jumping ahead to the remodel, Brockberg brought cheers and a round of applause when he announced that the new facility will feature padded seats in place of the old plastic chairs.

“We are in existence because of the gospel of Jesus Christ—it changes lives,” said Brockberg. “It changes individuals, kids, families and communities.”

Brockberg also pointed out that the structure is just a building. “What matters is people. Our vision is loving people,” he said. “Each month we serve families 150 families with food.”

Brian Faught, pastor of family life saw the promise of more space as a chance to better serve his young flock. “We’ve been at capacity in the children’s’ and youth ministries for months now and this gives us space to grow, “he said. “We’re busting out at the seams and need more room.”

But while some pastors wrestled with overcrowding inside the church, missions Pastor Dave Konkol was concerned about the outside. Konkol said he’s planning several new initiatives for next year to reach out into the community.

“Our goal is to get people out of the church,” he said with a grin.

In an interview, Senior Pastor Shane Holden explained the apparent inconsistency between generally declining church numbers nationwide and the growth of First Free.

“We put truth in a package so people can understand and make it relevant,” he said. “Also, the people here are so loving. Our motto is, ‘Come as You Are.’”

Holden also said the growing numbers of young married couples at First Free despite current statistics showing that nearly 60 percent of millennials drop out of church at some point.

“We have about one child for every 2.3 people,” he said. “When you hold that baby for the first time, things change. People often have a desire for their children to learn about God.

“Also, it’s probably our style,” he continued. “The coffee, the casualness and the blue jeans.”

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Gregory Kirscher is a freelance reporter who covers Coulee Region churches, the city of La Crescent and other area events for the River Valley Media Group. Call 608-791-8218 to be put in touch with him.

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