Prairie Lakes helping to cover Iowa with churches

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication

Many a work of God has started under a tent.

Randy and Nancy Pfile moved to Decorah, Iowa, a few years ago. Up here in the state’s northeastern corner, rolling hills and creeks plunge to the Mississippi River Valley. People pay $10,000 an acre for prime deer-hunting land.

However, the Pfiles didn’t put up two white tents behind their house to chat about monster bucks or enjoy the scenic beauty. Instead, the Pfiles want a work of God.

So, starting in June 2020, they prayed under the tents with about 20 friends and neighbors. They were asking God for another church in their town of 7000 people. The Pfiles wanted a church like Prairie Lakes Church, which they attended before leaving Cedar Falls.

“You’re loved by God,” Randy Pfile said of his previous church. “You don’t have to have it all together. You don’t have to have all the answers. They offer a church home to people who’ve got their lives figured out, and they offer a church home to people who don’t have their lives figured out.”

Sixteen years ago, a friend invited the Pfiles to Prairie Lakes Church in Cedar Falls. They had a positive experience, joined and stayed for 11 years until they moved to Decorah. Then, missing what they’d had at Prairie Lakes, they set up a tent, gathered some friends and started praying.

Related: Inviting friends is one way the ‘front door’ of the church opens. Here’s another.

Chris Rygh, Prairie Lakes Church’s executive pastor of expansion, attended that prayer gathering two years ago.

“We just prayed, ‘God, what might you do here in this community?’” Rygh said. “There’s obviously people who are fired up about Jesus and don’t feel satisfied.”

Prairie Lakes Church wants to cover Iowa with churches. So far, the church has started eight campuses in 12 years, including the newest in Decorah that had its grand opening December 24, 2021. That church started weekly worship in January after a Christmas Eve launch. Rygh has stepped to help lead the Decorah campus while the church searches for a campus pastor.

“We’ve doubled down, tripled down on planting churches,” Rygh added.

Prairie Lakes is passionate about Iowans. The modest, steadfast people have solid Christian influences in their past, but there’s less spiritual vitality at this time. Five years ago, a Barna study shocked Prairie Lakes leaders. The central stretch of Iowa from Cedar Rapids to Waterloo is one of America’s least-spiritually minded places.

“It’s a churched group, but they’re not necessarily Bible-literate. They don’t necessarily know Jesus,” Rygh explained. “People are leading their lives more secularly than they are sacredly. Most people own a Bible, but they don’t know what to do with it.”

Pastor speaking

Worship band

Friends talking 

Natural disasters lead to new approach ― and quicker growth

Prairie Lakes Church, a 160-year-old congregation started near Waterloo, had been declining into the 1990s. But God began reinvigorating the church. John Fuller became pastor in 1998, and the church regained focus and momentum toward making disciples. By 2003, the growing church built a new building with a new vision to start more churches.

By 2008, Prairie Lakes leaders contemplated a new church building to reach more people. But then, in May 2008, a tornado with wind speeds over 200 mph devastated Parkersburg, a town west of Prairie Lakes Church. Then, two weeks later, heavy rains deluged the already-saturated communities to the church’s east.

The destructive tornado to the west of Prairie Lakes Church plus incredible flooding to the east paused the idea of a building campaign. Meanwhile, Samaritan’s Purse used Prairie Lakes Church as an operations center for volunteers sent to Iowa to help with cleaning up after the disasters.

Related: How one Converge church reaches beyond the walls

This struggle came with an unexpected divine direction. Prairie Lakes had a new staff member that was friends with Jim Tomberlin, who helps churches open multiple locations. 

Through that connection, Prairie Lakes heard of multisites for the first time. The leaders learned there was a way to start more churches on a more practical financial foundation. So, out of the storms and struggle, Prairie Lakes had a new philosophy for their vision.

Prairie Lakes opened a campus in 2010 in Waterloo and another in 2010 in Osage. Then, in 2012, Prairie Lakes opened a campus in Grinnell, followed by one in 2013 in Fort Dodge. Two years later, a church started in New Hampton. Next, in 2018, they created a church in Cedar Rapids, and a campus opened the following year in Independence.

“This has been something we’ve been working on for about a decade,” Rygh said. “It came out of a redirection in 2009 after a terrible flood and a big tornado. God redirected us from a big campus to a multisite. We grow quicker that way.”

Related: How church planting looks different now than it did in the past

That redirection motivated a journey toward the process Prairie Lakes now uses for each church. As a result, the church has a month-by-month timeline built off defined activities and specific needs to start and sustain a new church.

Prairie Lakes Church is passionate about planting churches but with purposeful precision. So, as the prayers under the Pfiles’ tent became the core team for a new church, Prairie Lakes encouraged one planned step after another.

“After every meeting, you knew what the next step was going to be,” Pfile said.

With a core team in place and suitable options for a location, the elders approved the initial plan in December 2020. Then, a 12-month countdown started for concrete actions like selecting a site, hiring a campus pastor and promoting the church in Decorah.

“We’ve had to grow our way into this thing,” Rygh said of the process.

“We think it’s a crying shame”

During this journey, Prairie Lakes leaders have learned that they have a partner in history: The Iowa Band, a group of disciples who came west to start churches. In 1843, 11 students at a Massachusetts seminary heard God’s call to make disciples in Iowa. 

“Here we are, trying to live out their dream,” Rygh said. “They shotgunned out across Iowa and started churches.”

A lot has changed since the 1840s and 1850s, when those pastors sought revival in Iowa. People go to Hy-Vees all over the state to get their groceries. Casey’s is a favorite spot to get pizza. Another change is Prairie Lakes forming an entirely online church experience in the last two years. Even so, the team at Prairie Lakes continues the historical and eternal work of sharing the gospel through churches.

“We sure like the idea of trying to change the spiritual climate of our state,” Rygh said. “What’s not going to go away is the local church. God has been faithful. Let’s not think that this is the one time where God’s not going to be generous. God’s been consistently faithful.”

Disciple-making churches take significant resources, thoughtful planning and devoted sacrifices. Yet, the people from Prairie Lakes churches get excited and pitch in each time there’s a new church. For Decorah’s campus, other sites contributed chairs, a sound booth, the stage, finances and volunteers.

Prairie Lakes campuses work together. But the gospel partnerships go beyond that. Prairie Lakes teams work together with churches of other denominations or movements to help more people trust Christ. This work includes leadership training and discussions on the best ways to start more churches.

“At this pace, we’re not going to get it done in the next 10 years, doing it ourselves,” Rygh noted. “We’re looking for other churches that are similarly called to church planting, to improve evangelistically and have more people say yes to Jesus.”

The Pfiles have seen the same thing as a new church starts in Decorah.

“They want to work alongside other churches and other organizations in the community to expand and enhance their efforts,” Randy said. “They don’t ever feel like they’re competing against other churches.”

Rygh said disciples from Prairie Lakes are concerned about their neighbors’ eternal future, not just how they experience church activities.

“We think it’s a crying shame that people are going to hell from the Midwest because they can’t find a relevant, inspiring, emotionally safe place to explore their relationship with God,” Rygh said. 

Related: The art of neighboring

Like many, Rygh thinks the church can bless future generations, including his adult children. A key is churches that avoid legalism and unforgiveness, instead serving people with sins and struggles.

“I want young families, young professionals, to have access to a church that will equip them and send them,” he said. “I also want a place where they can feel comfortable going even if they make stupid decisions, and they’re ashamed and embarrassed. They’ve got to have a place they can walk into and get their feet back under them.”

For Randy and Nancy Pfile, Prairie Lakes’ new campus in Decorah offers their neighbors Christ’s light and love. Again, God has started a work under a tent that is impacting a town.

“At almost every event, I see new faces that I haven’t seen before,” Pfile said. “People are excited to have opportunities to share God’s love with others and to show them a better way in their life by stepping over the faith line, putting their trust in Jesus.”

Converge’s 10 districts have committed to deploying 312 church planters before 2026. Read more inspiring church planting stories and learn about the goal to send out 312 church planters in five years.

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene