By Phil Alspaw
For the most part I love Sundays. I love coming to church. I love seeing the familiar faces of people that make up our extended family. I love seeing the new faces of those who are joining our family. I love the confused look on the faces of seekers as they try to figure out how to join in, and I love the look of believers as they reach out in opportunities to welcome these innocent new ones. I love the songs of worship, and I love that the Lord’s Supper is a part of our time together every week. I love preaching and I love preachers.
Let’s just put it this way, by Wednesday I’m as excited for Sunday to come as a child about to receive new toys.
But remember, I started by saying “for the most part.” There was a time that Sundays were confounding to me at best, and depressing at worst. Let me explain.
THE DRAW AND THE DILEMMA
People don’t live where I live—in northwest Montana—to get rich. Folks are not migrating here because of all the conveniences (a trip to Wal-Mart involves a 90-minute drive). Our main attractions don’t include fine dining establishments or job opportunities.
Quite simply, the draw of northwest Montana is threefold: (1) It is a truly beautiful place; (2) it is very quiet, compared to most of the rest of the country; and (3) the hunting and fishing are unequaled anywhere in the lower 48 states.
But these three factors with such great appeal to many people can leave church leaders scratching their heads. Many different activities compete for church attendance. That is true no matter what the environment, but our area has some unique challenges:
• Because of the beauty, it is a challenge to overcome the common philosophy that a person can simply get close to nature and find God.
• Because of the peace and quiet found there, many people prefer to head for the woods on weekends.
• And last, when a person chooses to live in a place because of the hunting, he tends to hunt every chance he gets because the deer and elk season is only five weeks long. And (are you ready for this?) that even includes Sunday mornings.
COMPLAINING, PRAYING, PROPOSING
For the first three years of our ministry at Libby Christian Church, I watched a full third of our congregation disappear during those five weeks each autumn. Truth be told, it took most of them another five weeks after hunting season ended to get back in the swing of church again. I was convinced we could break the trend, that people would stop missing church to hunt if we gave them a good reason to. I was wrong and today I’m proud to admit it. Here’s why.
After three years of complaining and praying—actually, for two years we probably complained more than we prayed—our elders decided to try something completely outside the box of tradition.
The decision didn’t come easily. For months they prayed seeking God’s wisdom and direction. They disagreed among themselves and came back to revisit the issue many times. They sought the wisdom of others, including such servants as Ben Merold, a preacher’s preacher; Kevin Ingram, president of Manhattan (Kansas) Christian College; Kevin Daniels of Harvester Christian Church, St. Charles, Missouri; and Don Wilson of Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, Arizona.
With all the thoughts on the table and the Holy Spirit guiding, our elders decided to start a new service for outdoorsmen on Thursday nights. It would last six weeks and be completely geared toward those who love the outdoors. We hoped it would start off with a bang, but it really started with an explosion—and it just keeps growing!
TROPHIES, VIDEOS, AND VICTORIES
We asked church members to lend us many of their trophy mounts. The first year we had more than 60 mounts in our auditorium. There was a caribou that had been shot in Alaska, bears from our area, and elk that the best of hunters would covet. We had a wall of mule deer and across from it a beautiful set of whitetail mounts. A man who had found Christ in Libby and today preaches in Hawaii let us display his trophy moose. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats adorned two of the walls. And to top it off, coyotes, foxes, geese, birds, and fish—and many, many photographs—filled every square inch.
I don’t mind telling you it was stunning. The second year we saw the same thing but were able to add a full African lion and a shoulder mount of a zebra.
And we didn’t stop there. We created a video of our members’ hunting adventures that ran as a continual loop before and after services. Possibly the best part of the service came when we asked two of the top hunters from the church to carry a video camera with them into the woods to produce what we called “Adventures with Bill and Jim.” These two guys get to places most of us could only dream about.
Each week they appeared in different spots quoting Scripture and sharing their lives with us. That first year we followed the two of them on a goat hunt in the high mountains. Folks came back every week to see if Bill would fill his tag. The final week of our trial year we showed him taking a trophy. I am fairly certain we are the only church in America to show something like this as part of a worship service.
This year, Bill and Jim put together a group of videos that we called the adventure set. One week they were standing in the middle of a pack of wolves and the next a cow moose charged at them. In later weeks they called in a mountain lion and filmed a bear standing right in front of them. People came just to see what would happen to Bill and Jim.
The sermons were geared to outdoorsmen, and we have found an astounding number of passages that speak to the hearts of hunters and fishermen. One might wonder if we saw anyone give his life to the Lord during those weeks. The answer is a resounding yes! Not only that, but today we have men worshiping with us who once swore they would never darken the door of a church. What started as Thursday nights for them has now moved to Sunday mornings, and many have found places to serve over the past two years.
We have discovered a new opportunity in the life of our church. This year, rather than seeing our attendance drop by 30 percent on Sundays, attendance actually grew during the five weeks we previously had written off. Today our elders are considering how God uses the catalyst of simple creativity, and I have to tell you we are all wondering what next year holds for us.
Phil Alspaw is preaching minister with the Libby (Montana) Christian Church.