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Muskego church has reason to be jubilant

Congregation celebrates jubilee in old home while prospering in new one

Oct. 8, 2012

Muskego - As Tom Larsen sat in the Bush Gardens restaurant, amid laughter and good times, part of him felt like he was in church.

With good reason. The building that's now a restaurant had been Atonement Lutheran Church for some 45 years, about as long as Larsen has been an Atonement member, before the church sold its building to its former neighbor Bushy's Pub & Grill on Janesville Road.

Not surprisingly, the church chose Bush Gardens as the setting to celebrate its 50th jubilee earlier this year. "They turned our church into the most beautiful restaurant," Larsen said, admiringly.

Though Larsen was pleased with the building's transformation, he had to admit it was a little unnerving.

"I could feel where I used to sit in the congregation," he said. "You go in the main entrance that used to be the church. But they decorated it so nicely, so beautifully, it worked out great."

Reasons for 'more elbow room'

Larsen was a leader in the effort that culminated in the new Atonement Lutheran Church that opened in 2008 at W16244 Martin Drive.

"We needed more elbow room," Larsen said.

Unlike many churches other mainline denominations that are losing members, Atonement Lutheran never has had more people.

Church officials say the reason is a combination of how they reach out to young families, are warm and caring of each other, and know what they believe and why they believe in it.

Young families tend to like contemporary Christian music, said Frank Waltz, church council president. So, a service with all contemporary music was added to the two Sunday service it already had.

"That's the life of the church, not us old people," Waltz said with a chuckle. "You've got to lighten the church service up."

The church still has a Sunday service with all the favorite traditional hymns and another that's a mix of traditional and other music.

The church isn't done yet reinventing itself. An outdoor worship area is in the works that could be used for public events as well as worship services, Larsen said. And there's a fire pit for youth groups to gather around.

A musketeer for a pastor

The Rev. Greg Van Dunk, Atonement's pastor who has served the church since 2005, also is a big factor in getting members.

"He has been a real spark for us," Larsen said. "He's very energetic."

Van Dunk has guided the growing church from one where the pastor does everything to one that inspires the congregation of 820 to take care of each other, Larsen said.

That has given rise to a "one for all and all for one" feeling in the congregation, Larsen said, if he can borrow the phrase from the Three Musketeers.

If members get sick or have an accident, they will immediately get offers to do whatever needs to be done, he said.

"We're a very, very tightly knit congregation," Larsen said.

The members have found a rare thing, Van Dunk said.

"It's a good thing to find true friends," he said. "And when those friends become spiritual companions on a faith journey, it's a gift from God."

Broadening their efforts

The congregation also cares for believers in areas that aren't so well off financially. Atonement has sister churches in Milwaukee's inner city and in El Salvador.

"It's good to be the church together," Van Dunk said, and to help others who have been dealt less than an abundant hand in life.

The local congregation also has sponsored refugee families - one from Hungary, one from Laos and four friends from Vietnam.

And finally, congregation members took the time to stop and think about who they are what they want to be, Larsen said.

"We decided it's not about getting numbers," filling the seats, he said. Rather, it's about ministry and what the congregation wants to do, he said.

Every so often, he said, "You need new ideas. "Like a company, you can't make the same product all the time."

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