The New Testament paints a picture of a church that met together whenever and wherever they could find the space. They gathered at the Temple, they met in homes, and they worshiped beside riverbanks. It didn’t matter where they met so long as they could be together. For them, community wasn’t about the place; it was about the people.
That same mindset has come to define an SE Online group in southern Wisconsin. Over the course of the past two years, they’ve met anywhere they could find the space. They’ve gathered in a coffee shop. They’ve thrown Watch Parties in a local park. They’ve worshiped together in each other’s homes. Just like the early church, the location has been of little consequence. All that has mattered is the community.
It began with Andy and Sharon White, a couple from Elkhorn, Wisconsin. They started watching Southeast’s weekend services at the beginning of the pandemic. Soon, they were members of one of the charter SE Online small groups. As they connected with group members from Pennsylvania, Canada, and Australia, Andy and Sharon realized they had found the church community they longed for.
Wanting to share that digital community with the people in their physical community, they decided to host their first Watch Party in the Summer of 2021. The Phoenix Park Bandshell in nearby Delavan seemed like the perfect environment to invite some of their friends to join them for worship.
There was just one problem.
“We didn’t know if anyone would show up the first time,” Andy remembered. “We really thought that it might just be me and Sharon.”
Yet, God did something far beyond their expectations. Just over 25 people showed up for that first Watch Party on July 18, 2021.
It turns out this was just the beginning. The Sunday at the bandshell encouraged some of their friends to get involved. Soon, a small contingent from southern Wisconsin was engaging weekly with SE Online content and groups: Cheri, Butch, Tom, Val, and Bob—each one at a time story leading them together into community.
Soon, it became clear that this growing community needed a gathering place. Andy approached the owner of the nearby Stillwater Coffee Company to see if they had any available space the group could use. Appropriately, it turned out that the shop’s community room was wide open on Sunday mornings. On August 8, less than a month after the party at the bandshell, the SE Wisconsin crew held their first gathering at Stillwater.
Having a more permanent home at the coffee shop opened up some great opportunities for the group. The owner provided them with a sign to advertise the weekly services. Eventually, she even asked them to create a flyer with information about SE Online for her patrons. The group’s relationship with the coffee shop employees opened the door to host a baby shower for one of the baristas. Through it all, their small faith community continued to grow.
The group marked their one-year anniversary this past June with another Watch Party at the bandshell in Delavan. Just as He had before, God worked in incredible ways. Attendance at this year’s Watch Party nearly doubled, with almost 50 people between the two morning services. Plus, a new couple connected with the SE Wisconsin community. They had been watching morning services only blocks away from the bandshell when they realized SE Online was broadcasting from their local park! They packed up their lawn chairs and came to see what all the fuss was about.
At every step, God’s guiding and providing hand has been apparent.
“We look around and we wonder how we got here,” Andy said, reflecting on the past year. “And there’s no real answer other than it’s a God thing.”
Stephen Puricelli, SE Online Campus Pastor, agrees: “I think there’s something special happening here. It is unique.”
Community can happen anywhere. It can happen at a park or in a coffee house just as easily as in a church building. After all, community isn’t about the place; it’s about the people.