By Phil Alspaw
“This is just a fun ministry.” I say those words to my wife nearly every Saturday evening as we pull around a rural fire department’s parking lot and start driving 35 miles home after worshipping with Chain of Lakes Christian Church, started by Libby Christian Church last year on Easter weekend.
We usually drive on a logging road maintained only a few months of the year; it’s bumpy, narrow, and beautiful. A long section of the road stretches along a gorgeous river that supports a vast wilderness teeming with deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, wolves, bears, and a few campsites full of people.
It was just five weeks into this new work that we passed a bear looking for a meal in a meadow. At least once in a lifetime, everyone should be so blessed as to see a bear while on their way to worship.
We do not meet in a traditional church building, but in two bays of an old fire station. From the outside, it looks like any other building you might find in Happy’s Inn, Montana—adequate and understated. Across the road is the Kickin’ Horse Saloon & Eatery. Doc and Patty own the place. They make a great hamburger and homemade fries like Mom used to make, cut right before your eyes. They have promised to come join us for worship some Saturday evening.
On the other side of the highway is another bar and casino. It’s also the grocery store, post office, and gas station of the community. If someone decides to lease the kitchen, it will be the second restaurant.
Otherwise, there are houses and lakes. For school, kids can choose a one-room schoolhouse or a 50-mile trip into town. Six months into this new ministry, the schoolteacher from the one-room schoolhouse was coming to church and bringing his student body to youth group. There’s no Walmart here—the closest one is 50 miles away. No policemen, no council members, and no strip malls, either. Nowhere to buy lumber or new shoes, no hair salons or coffee shops. No hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, no subdivision covenants or salvage yards, and, until recently, no churches. But that’s not true anymore.
The local fire department asked us to come put a church in the community. The department leased out those two bays in its old firehouse, gave us permission to remodel, and got out of our way.
Some talented people transformed that garage into a beautiful church. Libby (Montana) Christian Church, which I also serve, was the tip of the spear. At first glance, we thought it would take $10,000 to renovate the garage. We prayed and quickly decided to take this on. It just seemed simple—a great opportunity. I have long said that a church is made or broken based on how it approaches opportunities. An unchurched area needed a church. Six hundred full-time residents needed a place to worship. Isn’t this what the Great Commission is all about? We didn’t need to go overseas or to cross any cultural barrier. We just needed to go down the road.
Our leaders presented the idea to the church, and the church responded. Rural churches aren’t known for great monetary resources, especially in northwest Montana. Lincoln County has the highest unemployment in the state. Over a period of five years, Libby, Montana, has become a community with no major industry. We are known as a dying town, literally, because of asbestos, but some of the greatest Christians you’ll find anywhere live in this place. They live by faith and visions of what can be.
The church is anything but dying. It’s thriving. The leaders of this church believe we must not shrink back while people in our community still need Jesus Christ.
So we prayed before and during the special offering, and while it was being counted. Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money to us. But not to God. When everything was counted, the church had raised more than $30,000. God knew we needed it, God’s people gave it, our church was committed to seeing it happen, and now we had more money than we thought we needed.
The people transforming the bays of the fire station were encouraged to do excellent work. The total cost of a new church, from construction to tech support, was $38,000. A friend who plants churches is envious of that figure, as he raises 20 times that amount for each new plant.
The first service was standing room only. In fact, a woman and her daughter even stood outside underneath a window to listen to the service. Three months into this new work, the church was totally self-supporting—the core group of believers was in place and ready to grow. Within six months, roughly 45 people called this their church home. A small group Bible study was started, the church has sponsored community events, men and women have taken ownership of their congregation, and ministries have been started and are flourishing.
Summer and fall were great months for the church, but winter has taken its toll on attendance (we expected that in Montana). As we go through these first 12 months, we are discovering the highs and lows all churches experience.
People in the area continue to have a watchful eye, wanting to see if we really are who we say we are. As one man says, “In this area, it will take a while for people to trust you.” That’s all right. We are in it for the long haul. Let them take their time. We will be here.
All ministry should be fun, but not every ministry is. This one is fun because the church saw a spiritual void and decided to fill it. The Great Commission applies to each of us—rural, urban, suburban . . . people of all nations. It’s our responsibility to take the church to places where there are opportunities. Time and again I have seen, through the ministry of Libby Christian Church, that when the church rises up in excellence, good times are not far away.
Phil Alspaw is preaching minister with the Libby (Montana) Christian Church.