Updated/Compiled by Matt Wireman, Brett Toney (Sept 2011)
Revised/Updated/Compiled: Kenny Stokes (Sept 2016)
In 1871, twenty-two Swedish believers of the First American Baptist Church in Minneapolis were granted a request by the elder board to branch out from the church and begin a new body of believers. This new church plant, First Swedish Baptist Church of Minneapolis, aimed to impact the influx of Swedish immigrants in the area with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This church, which later changed its name to Bethlehem Baptist Church, has—throughout its existence—been devoted to the development of biblically founded churches that are equipped to effectively reach their respective communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
1871 – Bethlehem was planted by the First American Baptist Church and originally named First Swedish Baptist.
1879 – The need to reach out to Norwegian and Danish immigrants brought about Bethlehem’s first church plant in the form of the First Norwegian-Danish Baptist Church, which became Powderhorn Park Baptist. Twenty-nine charter members were sent from Bethlehem to establish the church. Closing in 2006, Powderhorn gave its building to Bethlehem Ministry Initiatives, and is now the home of Jubilee Community Church and Jericho Road Ministries.
1888 – The growing need for work in Northeast Minneapolis led to the founding of Elim Baptist Church under Dr. Frank Peterson. Elim Baptist had their first service on February 21 as a result of people being willing “to throw themselves into another [church] for the spread of the Good News where they lived.” (Winston Sherwick, Bethlehem Baptist Centennial, p. 54, Free Church Press, 1971.)
1896 – The Seward Neighborhood was noted to have “practically no religious work going on.” (Sherwick, p. 51.) Seeing this obvious need for the Gospel, Bethlehem planted Bethel Baptist Church from the Sunday School and Industrial School outreach of the Bethlehem members in the neighborhood. The 146-member congregation was folded back into Bethlehem in 1961.
1941 – Partnering with sixteen other churches, Bethlehem sent some of its own congregation to the suburbs for the first time to form Spring Lake Park Baptist Church. (Unpublished Anniversary Paper from Elim Baptist Church, p. 8.) Presently, Spring Lake Park Baptist has become a campus of Eaglebrook Church.
1944 – Bethlehem sent 11 of its members to help form Saint Louis Park Baptist Church. This fellowship became Park Baptist that later merged with First Baptist of Hopkins to form Cross of Glory Baptist Church (Glory Online, October 8, 2004).
1948 – Edgewater Baptist, once known as Bethlehem Baptist Chapel (Sherwick, p. 57), received 106 Bethlehem members to create a firm foundation for the congregation.
1949 – Bethlehem voted to support Wayside Chapel with $400, given in $50 monthly increments, and helped organize the chapel. Bethlehem also sent member Rev. John Lundberg to pastor the body of believers. The chapel became known as Wooddale Baptist and met on the corner of 71st & Nicollet (Sherwick, p. 58). Presently, Wooddale Church is located on a large campus in Eden Prairie.
1952 – Rev. Winston Sherwick was sent, with other Bethlehem members, as an interim pastor to establish, organize, and guide Brooklyn Center Baptist as it began to gather for worship.
1963 – Bethlehem came alongside of Cedar Grove Baptist by making the down payment on the church’s parsonage and contributing funds for the ongoing ministry of the church.
1971 – In May, the Primera Iglesia Evangelica Bautista (First Evangelical Baptist Church) began to meet in Bethlehem’s chapel (now Room 203) free of charge and also rented office space for $25 per month. While meeting at Bethlehem, the church was under the leadership of laymen Antonio de Paris, Jaime Martinez, and Roberto Morales. Bob Swanson, a missionary to Mexico, returned to the States and aided the church by taking on preaching responsibilities until Rev. Dagoberto Aguilar was called in April 1973. When Aguilar returned to his home country of Costa Rica in 1977, Delmar IntVeld was called to shepherd the flock. The relationship between the Hispanic church and Bethlehem was essentially limited to use of shared space, which formally ended in 1987 when the First Evangelical Baptist Church decided to change locations since Bethlehem was growing so rapidly and needed more space.
This time for Bethlehem set a great launching point for further church planting. A summative statement on Bethlehem’s church planting efforts from its centennial publication still resonates true today: “One message at least that these churches bring to us is that churches that are born do grow to maturity. It is through local bodies of Christ like these that God gets much of the work of His whole Church done. Churches beget churches. And God’s people within churches travail triumphantly in the birth of persons into His family” (Sherwick, p. 60).
Bethlehem called a new, young, inexperienced man in 1980 who had never pastored a church before and did not have any extensive plans or programs with which to revitalize the fading congregation; he had only one vision for the church: “To magnify Jesus Christ by His Word so clearly that He draws people from [the demographically diverse surrounding area] to Himself and builds a church out of those kinds of people.” (John Piper, from an unpublished talk given at a Table Talk on October 30, 2008). John Piper proceeded to carry out this vision, by God’s grace, as he labored to transform the small, elderly, and theologically uninformed congregation into a vibrant, growing church that is passionate about theology and making much of God. This vision did not contain any church planting goals or strategies, but as the church grew both numerically and spiritually, the need and desire to plant likeminded churches became evident. Any efforts to plant churches stemmed from members seeing a need and rising to address it.
1988 – Growing out of the Bethlehem ministry to refugees from Southeast Asia (which had been led by Annette Carlson, Olga Mortensen, and Florence Martin), the Laotian Church of Peace was organized and established by Rev. Steven Cable. Cable had succeeded this position when his father-in-law, Rev. Phaitoon Hathamart, returned to Thailand. The church is currently pastored by Phouratsaphone Littana.
1989 – In the Spring of the year, the few leaders of Immanuel Baptist, a struggling independent Baptist church, came to Bethlehem looking for help. By August, Bethlehem had sent Brent & Kathy Nelson, along with a team of about a dozen Bethlehem members including Mike & Mary Jacobson, the Dingers, Fowlers, and Salzmans to help revitalize the church. Bethlehem was a crucial means of God’s grace to Immanuel, namely through its financial support and release of members to crossover; and also through its wisdom, encouragement, and camaraderie. After 17 faithful years, in October 2006, the Nelsons’ personal ministry came to a close at Immanuel. Seeking to proclaim and live out the Gospel among the unique and progressive Seward Neighborhood in Minneapolis, Immanuel Baptist Church continues to look to God with great hope and confidence.
1996 – After being an apprentice at Bethlehem for four years, Steve Treichler led a group of 13 believers to start Hope Community Church on the campus of the University of Minnesota, relying solely on God for provision, both financially and for the growth of the church. The church seeks to reach students at the university who are unfamiliar with the things of the Lord and to foster true Christian community while not forsaking truth. Hope Community is now located just 1 block west of the downtown campus of Bethlehem, on 7th Street & 11th Avenue. Presently, attendance at Hope is over 1,000 each weekend and the church has planted several other new churches around the Twin Cities.
1998 – On Easter Sunday, Bethlehem commissioned three cell groups, which had been meeting as Celebration Community Church, as an official church plant that sought to incarnationally and holistically reach the urban poor of the Phillips Neighborhood. Jim & Raquel Bloom led the ministry (joined by Jeff & Krista Noyed and Kevin & Robin Olson). The church planting fellowship “Rising” was developed through the ministry of Celebration and has grown and been strengthened.
2000 – Bethlehem partnered with Grace Church in Richfield to help revitalize the church. In February, Bethlehem set apart Rick Gamache to pastor the church, elder Randy Westlund, and about 70 others from Bethlehem to join the fellowship. The combined congregation had their first Sunday service in April 2000. The church was greatly strengthened in 2003 when it joined the Sovereign Grace Ministries church network. Subsequently, the church name was changed to Sovereign Grace Church. The congregation meets in Bloomington, MN, and is notably reformed in its doctrine and charismatic in its practice.
2000 – The elders of Bethlehem were presented with a proposal in May by Russ Gregg and Cecil Smith regarding their desire to plant a church, Sovereign Joy Fellowship. This vision was a result of God stirring in the hearts of those within their “Pilgrims” Sunday School class at Bethlehem since February 1996. The first service was held on July 1 in Bethlehem’s chapel, now Room 203. [Cecil Smith, “ A Proposal for a Cell Church Plant Sent Out from Bethlehem Baptist Church in AD 2000” (unpublished), May 1, 2000, pp. 7–8.] After several years, the fellowship discontinued meeting, resulting in several members joining a new sister church, Jubilee Community Church, in 2010.
By the beginning of the millennium, Bethlehem had grown significantly. This growth, coupled with a sense that Bethlehem’s church planting efforts in North America could improve, gave birth to the next more intentional chapter of church planting.
In 2002, the Bethlehem council of elders began to pray and plan for the growth that the church was experiencing. The resulting vision was titled “Treasuring Christ Together” (TCT), which aimed to develop three Bethlehem campuses, plant new churches, and provide financial aid for the global poor. The elders transitioned Pastor Kenny Stokes from Pastor for Urban Ministries to a new position, Pastor for Church Planting & Strategic Mobilization. His task was to oversee the planting of new churches, the establishment of a church planting network, and the oversite of multi-campus work. Strategic developments during this chapter that still serve Bethlehem today:
Bethlehem’s prayer during this chapter was that God might be pleased to give grace to plant one church per year, alternating each year between a new church in the Twin Cities and one elsewhere in the United States. Below is a list of the churches established during the TCT chapter:
At this writing, Bethlehem is just crossing the threshold of a new chapter of church planting. The vision for planting is embedded in a new all-church vision, “Fill These Cities: 25 x’25.” Pastor Jason Meyer explained the vision to the church in a sermon entitled, “The 25 x’25 Story” on September 10, 2016, this way:
In January of 2015, I told the elders that I felt like I was finally able to peek above the clouds a little bit and start thinking about the next ten years instead of the next ten minutes. One of the first things I saw was that the next ten years could be the decade of church planting. Previously, a small, all church elder subcommittee worked with our pastor overseeing church planting to vet residents and recommended planters to the elders with a prayer goal of approving one planter per year.
In the first phase, Church Planting 1.0, God gave us grace to plant a church planting network of 14 churches, half of which are in the Twin Cities; the other half are in strategic places throughout the United States.
Church Planting 2.0 could be even more fruitful by using each of the three campuses to be like church planting spreading centers—like missile silos along the I35 corridor to fill these cities with gospel preaching churches.
Here is what I mean. We are a church with three campuses and a seminary. The seminary now has a church planting track. If we had three Bethlehem Seminary graduates, past or present, accepted as church planting residents on each campus each year, by God’s grace we would be positioned for 3 church plants every year, one from each campus. What that means is that each campus would be able to help train, mentor, assess and send one church planting resident per year when running at full capacity.
In the next phase, Church Planting 2.0, we take the strategic value of church planting and make it a church-wide shared value, with implications on each campus. We intend that the congregational elders on each campus would be engaged in the church planting vision, engage in mentoring, assessing and endorsing pastoral residents for church planting and the revitalization of declining churches. That way, each campus would be a church planting spreading center.
We want the elders engaged in church planting at the grassroots level and ground floor planning and praying and dreaming and strategizing. They will look for potential planting and revitalization opportunities and strategize about where the Lord might be pleased to start a church plant. We intend for small groups and small group leaders to play a strategic role, joining together to form core groups for new churches in specific target areas. We aim to deploy leaders from among the elders, Bethlehem College & Seminary graduates, and even at times pastors in this vision. We also are proposing that Kenny Stokes would be the church planting pastor to lead the decade of church planting.