Church stands out for its growth

The Rev. Wes Feltner has overseen a reported 30 percent rise in worship attendance since coming to Beran Baptist Church in January 2014. (Photo by John Gessner)

Neighborhood controversy behind it, Berean looks to expansion

A lone oak tree in the parking lot of Berean Baptist Church marks the spot where the first chapel house, a one-story rambler, was built in 1963.

It eventually became the church’s youth house and in 2000 was removed and paved over for parking.

“That was sad,” recalled Kay Larson, managing director of church operations, who began attending the Burnsville church in 1992. “It was a very emotional day.”

Wistfulness is understandable for longtime members of a church founded by 13 people, some of whom mortgaged their houses to buy farmland for a church home at what is now 309 County Road 42 E.

But 10 building projects later, Berean is in a position many other churches might envy. A drop in the Christian share of the U.S. population has been driven mainly by losses in the mainline Catholic and Protestant faiths, the Pew Research Center reported in 2015. Evangelical Protestants, including Baptists, held their own from 2007 to 2014, falling only slightly as a share of the population.

Berean, meanwhile, reports that its worship attendance has grown by 30 percent since 2014, and member giving by 24 percent. The church has expanded its worship space to a “simulcast” location in rented space at Kenwood Trail Middle School in Lakeville.

Now Berean is planning a 30,000 square-foot expansion on church-owned land in Burnsville. The project’s centerpiece is a 1,046-seat worship auditorium west of the current church building, across Plymouth Avenue.

The City Council approved the expansion Feb. 21, capping months of neighborhood controversy over what some nearby residents called an imposing “megachurch” project. The approved plans include generous screening and traffic-control measures to guide churchgoers away from the adjacent Interlachen Woods neighborhood.

Berean’s lasting appeal, said elder board Vice Chair Craig Eiter, lies chiefly in a foundational belief in biblical literalism that’s no different now than it was in 1963, even as the church has made giant leaps in worship style, marketing, video and social media.

“It’s a very different world than even 25 years ago,” said Eiter, of Prior Lake. “It’s much more complex than it used to be. And I think the complexity can cause pain and it makes life hard to understand sometimes. And at the root at what we believe the Bible says is, ‘There is hope,’ and the hope is in the person of Jesus, who died for our sins.”

The church’s unabated growth, Eiter said, is also the byproduct of an unusually committed congregation and a history of charismatic head pastors. The last three are the Rev. Jerry Sheveland, 1981 to 1991, who went on to lead the Baptist General Conference; the Rev. Roger Thompson, 1991 to 2014, who remains on staff; and the Rev. Wes Feltner, who came to Berean in January 2014 from a church in Decatur, Ill.

To his credit, Thompson volunteered to step aside to make way for a new head pastor and a new chapter for the church, Eiter said.

“I’m pretty driven and passionate and very much concerned about leadership. I’m not big on status quo,” said Feltner, 38. “And so it just seemed like a beautiful fit for how God had wired me and what the church was looking for, in an area, the Twin Cities, that we felt would give us a great opportunity to reach people that a more rural setting would not.”

Berean has resisted the advice of post-modern “church experts” who say the way to reach people today is by “softening your convictions,” Feltner said.

“And so, where many mainline churches have said, ‘Let’s soften it to reach people,’ we’ve actually said, ‘No, we’ve got to hold to what’s true, but we need to make sure — 1st Corinthians 13 — that we do this in love, that we do it in a kind way,” said Feltner, of Elko. “Because I think the other extreme is truth that just bashes people over the head and doesn’t meet them where they are. We’re trying to hold that uncompromised middle ground, which is that we’re still going to be truthful, but we’re going to be very gracious and kind — at least that’s our desire — in how we have that conversation.”

Also, modernity matters.

“We are very intentional about our social media, Facebook, Twitter, the whole gamut,” said Feltner, who leads a staff of 40. “We have people dedicated to that. We have what you would even call ‘rebranded.’ We’ve updated everything (such as) logos and things like that.”

Berean’s average weekend worship attendance is 2,400 people, including 300 at the Lakeville campus, said Larson, of Farmington. With the addition, the church could accommodate up to 4,500 per weekend, Eiter said, between its current sanctuary, a gym space used for worship simulcasts, the new auditorium and the Lakeville site. Church leaders didn’t set attendance goals, he said.

“Our primary purpose is we have no room and we’re growing,” Feltner said. “At some point you have to say we simply can’t keep adding services and adding services without expanding our facility.”

The church had already retired its old debt when members voted to approve $18 million in new debt in February 2016, Larson said. Leaders expect to spend $11 million to $13 million on the addition. Future remote locations are possible for Berean, which has also planted new churches in past years.