From atheist to church planter

Michael Smith

Former Converge Content Specialist

Point Magazine // September 2019

Growing up in the central Wisconsin town of Wausau, Charlie Salamone wanted nothing to do with Christianity.

“From an early age, I believed that all religions were good and whatever you believed was good as long as you were sincere and trying your best to be a good, kind and decent person,” he said. “Then, if there is a God of any sort, you’re going to be just fine.”

As a philosophy, religious studies and psychology major at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Salamone became well known for his ability to debate with Christians. He was a fiercely committed and vocal proponent of atheism. One of his professors called Salamone “the best debater he had ever met” for the ways he attacked the Christian faith.

“I would go to Bible studies on campus just to tell Christians that they were wrong,” he said.

Salamone dropped out of school and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to try to become a professional musician. During this time, he started exploring Eastern philosophies and religions, including Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism.

Did you find Jesus?

Then, one night 17 years ago, Salamone experienced the presence of God. In his love and mercy, God powerfully opened his eyes to the gospel’s truth and took hold of his life.

“There was a very distinct voice in my head,” Salamone recalled. “It said, ‘You fool, you’ve always known. You fool, you’ve always known this was waiting for you. You’ve always known, but you’ve pushed it away. You’ve tried so hard to push this away, but you’ve always known.’

“When I first experienced God, what stood out was that I was in the presence of a person who was holy, and with that discovery came the realization that I was guilty before him. I was awakened to a sense of God’s holiness. I was awakened to a sense of my sinfulness. It was there that I first understood the gift of the cross.”

I would go to Bible studies just to tell Christians they were wrong.

A few weeks later, Salamone started questioning his newfound faith. He talked about his struggles with the one Christian he knew in Madison, the manager of the bagel shop where he worked. Her advice to him was simple: Pray about it.

Salamone prayed, “Jesus, if you’re real, prove yourself to me.” The day after his prayer, he realized Jesus had already shown himself to him. He decided then to believe and not look back.

After becoming a Christian, Salamone moved back to Stevens Point to finish his degree. His philosophy professor and classmates were shocked to discover how he had changed.

“I remember my professor asking me, ‘Mr. Salamone, how do I put this? Did you find Jesus?’”

Salamone’s response was the first time he shared the gospel in a secular, postmodern environment. That desire to bring the good news to those who do not normally hear it is what later led him to become a church planter.

“Church was culturally awkward.”

After graduating from college, marrying and starting a family, Salamone found himself as a stay-at-home dad. He started feeling a call to ministry.

He began to learn about church planting and how it is one of the best ways to reach people for Christ.

“I was in a good Bible-teaching church,” Salamone said. “I’m sitting in this church, thinking about my nonbelieving friends, and I realized they’re never coming here. And if they came, they wouldn’t come back. And it wouldn’t necessarily be because of Jesus. It would be because this is kind of culturally awkward for them and, to be honest, a lot of times church was culturally awkward for me.”

Salamone decided he would start a church to reach nonchurched people like himself. But as various evangelistic ministry ideas fizzled out or were rejected by ministry leaders, he began wondering if God was really calling him into ministry.

Salamone said it wasn’t until he started talking with Dwight Perry, who served as Converge Great Lakes executive minister from 2004 through 2016, that everything changed.

“No one was looking twice at me as someone who could do ministry full time until I connected with Converge, and then all of sudden it was like, This is what I’ve been looking for, people who heard my story and didn’t say I was crazy.

“Once I made contact with Converge, things started moving really quickly. They gave me an internship, and it wasn’t long before they sent me to the Church Planting Assessment Center. Not long after that, my wife, Erin, and I were raising money.”

One hundred churches in 10 years

Even before Salamone and his wife felt called to church planting, they had laid hands on the Fillmore building in downtown Wausau, then being renovated for a music venue. They were praying God would build a church there.

In 2012 the building’s owners agreed to rent to Salamone’s first church plant, Downtown Mission Church. However, less than three weeks before the church was to hold its first Sunday service, the owners got cold feet. They feared their bar business would suffer from having a church rent the building.

No one was looking twice at me as someone who could do ministry full time until I connected with Converge, and then, all of a sudden, it was like, This is what I’ve been looking for, people who heard my story and didn’t say I was crazy.

God was faithful and provided another temporary location for Downtown Mission Church. Less than a year later, the Fillmore’s owners contacted the church and asked if they wanted to buy the building.

The church purchased it at a fraction of the cost of the building’s previous renovations. These included all the infrastructure that would later be just what Downtown Mission needed, including two screens in the front, lighting and sound equipment.

A few years later, as Salamone drove through his old college town a half-hour’s drive from Wausau, he thought, We should have a church here.

First Baptist Church in Stevens Point was looking to sell the building it had owned since 1877. Salamone asked the church’s pastor if First Baptist would give the building to Downtown Mission. The pastor and church members said yes, and Downtown Mission Church-Stevens Point held its first Sunday service Aug. 28, 2016.

Downtown Mission Church recently started its third campus, located in Merrill, 15 miles north of Wausau. Salamone has a vision to plant 100 churches in 10 years.

Presenting the gospel in creative ways

Another way the pastor is trying to reach out to nonbelievers in his community is through public debates with an atheist. In April, Salamone participated in a debate in Wausau with famed atheist Dan Barker, president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

A video clip from the debate has been viewed more than 100,000 times on Facebook. Another debate is in the works for Madison, Wisconsin, in the fall, to be cosponsored by a college atheist group.

“I know that events like this bring out more nonbelievers and non-church people than anything else I can think of,” Salamone said. “And I’m always looking for creative ways to get nonbelievers to hear the gospel.”

Throughout the seven-year history of Downtown Mission Church, Salamone has been constantly re- minded of the words of Jesus in John 14:13-14: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”

“I can’t tell you how the story of Downtown Mission Church has been nothing more than that, asking God for big things as we seek to do his mission and watching him deliver,” he said.

Michael Smith, Former Converge Content Specialist

Michael Smith served as a content specialist for Converge from 2018-2021.

Additional articles by Michael Smith