As the pastor of the same church for 50 years—nearly his entire ministerial career—Virgil Amundson has seen God do "great and mighty things." In fact, his church began to grow numerically and spiritually just about the time he was ready to throw in the towel, but a prophetic promise from God kept him in place. Pastor Amundson stepped down in October from his post as senior pastor but can testify of the value of persevering at a time when many pastors are taken in by a "bright lights, big city" or "bigger is better" mentality.
His Shell Lake Full Gospel Church (FGC) of Shell Lake, Wisconsin, is an example of a small church with big impact. Located in a quiet lakefront town of 1,300 in northwest Wisconsin, Shell Lake FGC averages 275-300 in attendance, so it's amazing to see what its people have accomplished spiritually and financially in 50 years. First of all, the congregation owns a 20,000-plus-square-foot facility that is debt-free; and second, it supported missionaries in 37 countries to the tune of $552,000 in the last fiscal year. Not many small, rural congregations have that kind of track record. So what makes Shell Lake FGC different, and what can this church teach other small congregations?
'Invest in Others'
The story of Pastor Amundson and Shell Lake FGC is not really about nickels and noses. Rather, it's about how lives are revolutionized when someone cares enough to show mercy, believe in them and encourage them in their lives and ministries.
"The greatest key to success in ministry is investing in people," Amundson says. "We need to get out of ourselves and invest in others and bring them into their greatest productivity. Sowing life, sowing encouragement, sowing hope: These are the things that make a church very strong and very effective and will cause it to continue to grow. The principle of God's Word is whatever you sow, you reap. I'm strongly convinced of that."
The seeds Pastor Amundson planted in people have produced a tremendous harvest, not only in Wisconsin or even regionally but also around the world. But the genetic blueprint of the church harks back to the seeds of mercy planted in his own life as a young man.
Raised by God-fearing parents in the small town of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, just 25 miles southeast of Shell Lake, Amundson attended a small Pentecostal church where his father served as an elder. In those days, Pentecostals in the area were scorned and shunned. A young Amundson chafed at the ridicule that came with being dubbed a "holy roller" in a Lutheran-Catholic town. He came to resent his heritage and began to pursue acceptance, notoriety and the pleasures of this world.
One night, when his father found him at a drinking party, he brought him home and called the family's pastor, C.L. Warner. When Pastor Warner arrived, he didn't condemn young Virgil or even say anything about the trouble he had gotten himself into that night.
"How are things going, Brother Virgil?" Pastor Warner asked. When Virgil tried to talk, all he could do was bawl. The pastor then laid his hand on him, quietly prayed and said, "Everything is going to be all right, Virgil."
Pastor Warner became Virgil's spiritual father. This father-son relationship became a springboard for all that proceeded in Virgil's life from that time and a blueprint for his future ministry. Virgil began serving in the church as a youth pastor and adult Bible teacher while growing spiritually under Warner's tutelage.
In 1966, a Pentecostal church in Barronett, Wisconsin, was without a pastor and asked Pastor Warner if his young protégé could fill the pulpit. Three years later, when a church building and parsonage became available in the neighboring town of Shell Lake, the leaders of the church in Barronett decided to move the ministry there. Services began with about a dozen people, signaling the beginning of Shell Lake Full Gospel Church.
'This House Shall Be Filled'
The first two years at Shell Lake were difficult for Pastor Amundson and his family. The people of the community showed little interest in the new Pentecostal church. Amundson's wife, Linda, helped make ends meet by sewing clothes for their three children and polyester suits for her husband. But Linda battled loneliness after leaving her lifetime hometown of Rice Lake and was unhappy over the dress code imposed by her husband and the church.
Along with preaching three times a week, Amundson had a secular job, and in his church, there was little fruit. For a time, the young couple struggled in their marriage, until Pastor Amundson realized he needed to take time not only for his fledgling ministry but also to care for his family. He also began to realize that God's holiness was more a matter of the heart than outward appearance.
One January night, the young pastor found himself discouraged and praying alone in the church. It was time for the midweek service, but because the temperatures were well below zero, no one had come.
"God, if you don't do something, I'm not going to be here much longer," he cried out in prayer. As he wept, suddenly he saw a vision of the entire building filled to capacity, including the balcony, and a prophetic utterance passed through his lips: "This house shall be filled, and the lips of the people will be full of praise."
From that time, things began to change for Shell Lake FGC. A city councilman named Roy Slater, who had heard the pastor speak at a Memorial Day service, came to him for help. Slater's marriage was falling apart, and his wife was bound up with alcoholism. Pastor Amundson ministered to Slater, who became the pastor's first convert in Shell Lake. The couple began to attend the church along with their five children. Roy Slater later became the first elder of the church. His son, Dan, now serves the congregation as pastor for families and missions.
The church began to grow, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit began to flow. People were healed. A praise and worship band developed. And on Easter Sunday of 1975, the vision Pastor Amundson had seen five years before came to pass. The building was packed, and glorious praise sounded out to God.
The congregation soon outgrew the old Lutheran church building it occupied, so in 1978, the church purchased land and constructed a new building that seated 250. The building was later expanded to accommodate 350 with a large fellowship hall, offices and classrooms. The $400,000 expansion was completed in 1995—debt-free. The church has gone through many renovations and additions in its 50 years.
In 2005, the congregation planted a new church in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, known as Grace Community Church, and in 2011, Shell Lake FGC started having two Sunday morning services to make way for continued growth.
But perhaps the greatest fruit the church has experienced has come through its world missions emphasis. In the early days, Pastor Amundson imparted a vision for world missions into the DNA of the church, and Shell Lake FGC began to support missionaries to the Philippines, China and other nations. Many of those missionaries are still on the field and continue to receive support from Shell Lake.
The annual fall missions conference, which began in 1987, has become the high point of the church's year, bringing unity to the congregation around the common purpose of helping and blessing others. Multiplied thousands around the world are being transformed through the work of more than 60 missionaries who receive prayer, encouragement and financial support through Shell Lake. Missionaries are refreshed and sustained at the conference for their work in 37 nations.
'The Miracle Is in the House'
The congregation of Shell Lake FGC also emphasizes raising up leaders from within. Rather than looking for skilled leaders from other congregations, the leadership team and church staff are entirely made up of people who have been saved or raised up at the church and who have grown into their ministry under the guidance of Pastor Amundson.
"The miracle is in the house," Amundson says.
Those who are raised in the congregation have the DNA of the church, the pastor says, and are able to remain in the flow of ministry God has established in the church.
Regan Myers is one whose life was miraculously transformed by the seeds of compassion at Shell Lake FGC. Myers moved to Shell Lake from Rockford, Illinois, where he had battled addiction. He says a voice told him he needed to leave Rockford, where he had been stealing guns from drug dealers and selling them to support his alcohol habit.
When he came to town, Myers stayed with his uncle, who was a member of Shell Lake FGC. Myers received Christ and later married a woman from the church. God had saved his life, but on occasion, he would succumb to temptation. One of those times, he found himself in an Eau Claire, Wisconsin, jail. Pastor Amundson picked him up the next day, and like Pastor Warner, who had treated Amundson with compassion years before, Amundson showed grace to Myers after his failure.
Embarrassed by his actions, Myers began to earnestly seek the Lord for deliverance. Each morning he would go down to his basement and pray before going to work. One day, he had what he describes as a "Shekinah glory experience." He was baptized in the Holy Spirit and received a revelation of Matthew 6:33: "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be given to you."
Myers then began to serve in the church. He and his wife, Dawn, volunteered to babysit for young couples so they could attend midweek Bible study. Myers volunteered as a janitor and started an early-morning prayer meeting for men. Eventually, he joined the church staff, serving as administrator, associate pastor and director of the Compassion Center, a residential program for alcohol and drug rehabilitation. He also earned bachelor's and master's degrees from a Bible college through correspondence. Last November, Myers, who once stole guns from drug dealers, became the lead pastor of Shell Lake FGC.
'Dreams Come True'
Amundson self-published a book, Called to Be Faithful: 50 Years of Pastoring a Small Town Church That Has Touched the World, to help other pastors realize the value of staying where God planted them in ministry. Pastors sometimes believe they cannot accomplish great things in a small church but think they must move on to a larger area to fulfill their ministry; Amundson believes this is a lie from the enemy of our souls.
"Longevity is a key to seeing your dreams come true," Amundson says. "Many pastors leave their churches before they see the fruit of their ministry."
To serve long-term in the ministry, Amundson says, the pastor also must guard his emotional well-being. Part of that is forgiving others who criticize or betray. Pastor Warner prepared Amundson for such difficulties.
"When you've been treated like a low-down cur dog and still desire to preach, then you know you are called," Warner told him.
Another key to maintaining emotional health has been developing interests outside of the church.
"I've shared with more than one pastor that they need to get a life," says Amundson, a hunter, fisherman and golfer.
Amundson also makes his family a high priority.
"I see recreation with my family as ministry," he says. "It's the best way I know to serve them."
Linda Amundson has not only been a great support in the ministry, but their relationship also has been a stabilizing force in the pastor's life.
Pastor Amundson will continue to attend Shell Lake FGC, which recently recognized him formally as founding pastor. As the Lord opens doors, he hopes to help other churches and ministries fulfill their destiny.
"My prayer is that we can still be a blessing to those who are in the trenches who might need a battle-worn soldier to come alongside them for encouragement so they too can remain faithful to the end."
Tom Shanklin is an evangelist and author of You Can Touch the World. He and his wife, Susan, travel the U.S. and overseas proclaiming the gospel, encouraging leaders and helping God's people fulfill the Great Commission. Learn more at shanklinministries.org. Readers may also contact Pastor Amundson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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