When a former Oshkosh fifth-grade teacher stood up to preach for the first time 20 years ago in the old Methodist Church building at 155 State St., he knew 69% of Americans claimed belong to a church or other religious organization.
Today, less than half say they associate with a community of faith.
For two decades, Mike Holba viewed these statistics as an opportunity.
The pastor founded the Ripon Community Church (RCC) in 2002 because he believed a place of worship was needed for people who, as he observed then and still says today, have been “extinguished by the church, but not by God”.
“About 4,000 churches will close this year and about 1,000 will start,” he told the Commonwealth in the fall of 2002.
When Holba delivered his last sermon as senior pastor and founder of the CCR last Sunday, he was surely aware that in the decade ending in 2020, 3,850 to 7,700 places of worship closed per year in the United States. United, or 75 to 150 congregations per week (source: the Center for Analytics, Research and Data, affiliated with the United Church of Christ). And that was before the pandemic.
In these grim numbers shone the RCC, which, like many evangelical Protestant churches, thrived on discipling modern, secularized Americans who, for various reasons, mainstream Protestantism proved less compelling. Some view it as irrelevant, overly critical, negative, or otherwise unnecessary in their daily lives.
That Holba started a church from scratch and grew it to the point where it once met in the Ripon High School auditorium is a fascinating story of our time.
He tapped into a silent throng that turned out to be 247 strong for that first service on September 8, 2002. Five minutes before worship began, volunteers rushed to set up folding chairs to accommodate the overflowing crowd. The average age was 40 and the parishioners were dressed casually, with only two men wearing ties.
“Welcome to the grand opening of Ripon Community Church,” Holba greeted the congregation. It was greeted with enthusiastic applause and a few whoops before Fox Valley jazz vocalist Janet Plant and guitarist Tom Theabo kicked off the service with four songs.
Holba told the congregation that “Jesus was responding to people’s daily needs and how we could help them. So we’re just trying to get to know Jesus – that he’s real, that he can improve our lives more than any church.
The fact that the RCC seems to have unleashed a secret sauce to make faith meaningful to many at a time when organized religion is in decline is not to denigrate Ripon’s other 14 beautiful houses of worship. Nor is this to suggest that Holba’s particular pipeline to the almighty is more direct than those of other Ripon clergy.
But under Holba, and under the leadership of his successor and Ripon-born son, Sam Prellwitz, who will deliver his first sermon as senior pastor this Sunday, the church is showing that people are hungry for spiritual growth, often in ways that swap high – church sacraments, long robes and solemnity for projected Bible scriptures, blue jeans and Green Lake baptisms.
RCC is not perfect. It is one of the less ecumenical churches in Ripon, preferring its own missionary work to cooperation with other congregations in Ripon.
But hard to argue about the difference it unilaterally made in people’s lives, not only helping them develop a relationship with God, but establishing, running and then creating the Ripon Community Food Pantry, the thrift store Traded Treasures and Coffee Mugs.
So good luck to Holba as he plants his next spiritual seeds in Slinger, Wis.
And God bless Prellwitz as he, other CCR staff and congregants continue to spread their ministry while being spiritually enriched by the gospels whose timeless messages guide Ripon Christians in how to listen, d to learn, to live and to love.