Godless Wisconsin Needs Jesus

Have you ever fallen in love with a time or place far away? For some, they long for the European sophistication of Paris or Rome. Others wish that they could have lived during the “simpler” times of the Victorian era. The grass is always greener somewhere else, I suppose. When I was in high school, I fell in love with the City of Seattle, Washington…from afar of course (my family and I lived in Indiana at the time). I’d never been to the Emerald City, but from the way it was portrayed in movies and TV and from the music that came out of the city, I knew that I’d want to live there someday.

Years later, as an undergraduate student, I remember guest speakers coming to our school and talking about the ministry they were doing in the Seattle area, and talking about how important it was. They would spout off statistics about how the Pacific Northwest was the most secular region of the United States, and how Seattle Washington was the most godless city of all. So, it was apparent to me that there was mission work to be done in this area, big time! And I knew God was going to call me there, because it was such a cool place…I loved the climate (in my mind), I loved the music, and I loved Jesus…and the people there needed to know Him! If God had asked me, as He asked Isaiah, “Whom shall I send…?” I would have answered, “Here am I, send me!”

Well, God never did call me to Seattle, or Washington at all. He called me to Wisconsin. In my mind, Wisconsin stood in contrast to Washington. I’d lived in the Midwest for several years, down in Indiana, and one thing that seemed clear about the Midwest (and I could only assume, Wisconsin) was that there was a lot of tradition, a lot of “this is the way we’ve always done it,” and a very old religious mentality. In my mind, at least, Washington (particularly Seattle) seemed like a place to push boundaries, eschew traditions, and it was void of religion–so it seemed like the sky would be the limit there. I was, of course, not sad to have been sent by God to go to Wisconsin after training at Southern…but I did wonder why I was sent to the Midwest and not the West Coast.

I have visited the Pacific Northwest over the past several years. There is a lot of beauty out there! I love the mountains, the coastline, and the cities. Seattle is, in reality, a very unique and beautiful spot that I enjoy visiting. However, in my travels and in my visiting, God has still not called me to do mission work there. And I am fine with that. The grass no longer seems greener…different, maybe, but I have a contentment that I am where I’m supposed to be right now, and that I’m doing what God wants me to do. There’s something biblical about that…Paul talks about the virtue of contentment in Philippians 4:11.

But it’s not just that God has called me here, or that I’ve grown up and gotten old and lost my “cool” edge…I’ve also come to realize that there is mission work to be done here in Wisconsin…big time. In a recent (2019) study by the Barna Group: Seattle-Tacoma area, indeed, is the 10th most Post-Christian (read: secularized) city in the country. Madison, Wisconsin is number 11 on that list. I had no idea, as a younger person, that such levels of secularism existed in the Midwest. By contrast, I’ve also often heard about how secular Portland, Oregon is…and it is number 54 on the same list. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is only a few slots below, at 58 on the list. People need to know Jesus here in Wisconsin, just as badly as they need to know Him out West. Truly not all mission work is needed “elsewhere.”

Doing some further research lately, I discovered from World Population Review that about 45% of adults consider themselves religious in Wisconsin. Only a handful of states register to have an adult population that is less religious (mostly in the New England area). That puts Wisconsin as either the 45th or 44th (depending on how you interpret the date) most religious state in the country. That’s a terrible statistic! It also shows Wisconsin to be at a tie with Washington, which similarly has 45% of adults identifying as religious. This, interestingly, stands in contrast with the rest of the Great Lakes states, showing Wisconsin to be the least religious state in our geographic area (Minnesota is at 49%, Illinois is at 51%, Indiana is at 54%, Michigan is at 53%, Ohio is at 58%, Pennsylvania is at 53%, and even New York is at 48%). Pew Research corroborates this in a 2016 study, which identifies Wisconsin as the 44th most religious state in the United States.

From a global perspective, World Population Review also finds Germany to have 40% of the population feeling that religion is important in daily life, and the Ukraine stands at 46% on the same question. So Wisconsin is more religious than Germany, but less so than Ukraine…which brings further perspective when we often refer to Europe as being further down the secularism turnpike than we are here in America.

If you follow politics at all, you’ll know that Wisconsin has become known as a sort of political laboratory for progressive ideas and that it is a sharply divided and segregated state when it comes to politics as well. Of all the contested swing states, it’s known as one of the more notorious ones, meaning that there is a lot of contention between political parties, and a lot of healing and unity that needs to be preached here. There are various studies on this, and you’ll hear it casually referred to when discussing these topics, but an interesting take on it comes from a book called The Politics of Resentment, by Kathy Cramer. Specifically, her book is interested in the political differences between rural and urban communities in Wisconsin, and how often these differences are more cultural and less based specifically on policy. She has a certain political bias herself (as a graduate of the University of Wisconsin) that you may or may not align with, however the results of her study are eye opening, regarding the state of our state.

The point of all of this is to say: for any young people who currently feel the lure of the exotic Coastal life, or who feel like the grass is greener elsewhere, or even that there’s not much work that needs to be done in Wisconsin and that God’s greatest needs are elsewhere…I can tell you firsthand that God needs you and your talents and your passion right here. That doesn’t mean he won’t call you somewhere else (certainly he has a unique plan for each of us), but truly if you want to get involved in meaningful ministry and mission work: there’s plenty of work that needs to be done locally. More so, I’ve realized, than is likely to get done in my lifetime.

So I’m appealing to the younger generation: Wisconsin needs you. The people here need to know about Jesus, and Jesus is calling you to be His hands and feet. Will you answer the call? If you’re interested in getting more involved in ministering to young people in our context, reach out to your local youth leader to get involved. If you don’t have a local youth leader, feel free to get in touch with me. I am very passionate about reaching young people for Christ and empowering our young local leaders, and I’d love to hear your ideas on how we can continue to bless God’s people here in Wisconsin.

Zack Payne, Youth Director


Cramer, Katherine J. 2016. The politics of resentment: rural consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker.