By Allison Hurtado
Russ Shearer says it’s like building a plane in the air. He’s talking about church planting, of course. He started his first church 17 years ago in a small Wisconsin town; he and his wife had been married less than a year.
“It was a challenging, phenomenal experience and we learned who we were and who we weren’t. We were young and figuring out ministry, leadership and life. By God’s grace, the church had a tremendous impact on that town of 3500. It was a great run,” Shearer said.
During his last five years in Wisconsin, the church grew 28 percent a year. In the midst of a fruitful season, God was tugging at his heart with a sense that Shearer needed to do more for the kingdom. He and his wife began praying about what God was asking of them.
“In the process of seeking God, we felt called to plant another church. There were five specific things we were looking for in our next call. Our hearts were open to wherever God might lead, including overseas. In the midst of our wrestling, we received a call from Gary Rohrmayer,” Shearer said.
Gary Rohrmayer, executive minister of Converge MidAmerica, was also looking for the right person for a church planting initiative, in Illinois. He received a prompting from God to call Shearer (without knowing that he was considering another plant). A year later, after a lot of prayer and seeking, Russ and his wife made the move to plant Ignite Church in Peoria. But he knew he didn’t just want to plant a church, he wanted to start a movement.
"We want to see dozens of high-impact churches started throughout Central Illinois and beyond, churches that will introduce people to Christ and that will raise up and send out other church planters that will do the same,” Shearer said. “The way we do that is through an intentional residency program. So when we sensed God calling us to plant again, we had a conversation with Paul and Stephanie Seidl. We went to Bethel together, and I had seen the makings of a church planter in Paul throughout seminary.”
Seidl said he knew church planting was already in his DNA. He came to faith at a church plant, served in a church plant, is passionate about it, but just hadn’t done it yet. At the time, he was an associate pastor at Faith Fellowship in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Although his senior pastor loved partnering with Seidl, he affirmed Seidl’s call to plant a church and gave his blessing. Seidl went to the Converge Church Planting Assessment Center and was given a few items to work on. After several months of fundraising, he and family packed up and moved to Peoria.
“Our decision to go was impacted by the fact that statistically the American church is losing ground and we didn’t want to be part of the generation that let the church die,” Seidl said. “God really said go, so we went. It was a step of obedience for us.”
Shearer and Seidl have collaborated from the beginning, giving Seidl additional training and experience with building a launch team, developing teams and systems and gaining leadership and teaching experience. Ignite Church launched in 2013, and by the next year Seidl was transitioning into starting the first daughter church.
“Last summer Russ told me, ‘OK now, it’s time to start thinking about the next church plant. Where is God calling you?’” Seidl said. “In September 2014 we began to change my role from resident to church planter for our next site/church. My responsibilities changed and we started asking God where he was calling us to plant.”
Seidl wanted to fall in love with a group of people. He studied demographics and prayed, but was lacking a clear sense of direction. He started asking the question, Where can we meet? What area needs a church? His heart was drawn to Sunnyland. A hard-working, blue-collar region of the city in desperate need of hope. He knew Sunnyland was where God wanted him.
Sunnyland (which is part of the greater Peoria area) is home to 13,000 people who do not know God. Seidl and his family moved (again) to start meeting their neighbors and impacting their community. With the help of Shearer and Ignite Church Downtown, he set up his launch team, secured his location and is getting ready to launch Ignite Sunnyland toward the end of September. Shearer is looking for a new church planting resident, and Seidl will also repeat the program. The real question: How do they do it?
“To be honest, it is thrilling and it’s scary at the same time,” Shearer said. “We are figuring this out as we go. We aren’t an established church of 1000 people and have lots of money. We aren’t even two years old, and we are sending out people and resources. It’s hard but we really believe this is what God has asked us to do. We believe as we step out in faith, the kingdom is built and people are going to find Jesus. That is why we do what we do.”