By Kelly Carr
You take in the gorgeous sights—calming lake waters surrounded by verdant fields and purple mountain majesty. After a few minutes of awe, you pull down the window shade, sit back, and sleep the rest of your flight.
Ah yes, many of us have experienced some of God’s greatest wonders from a bird’s-eye view only. The nickname “flyover country” came out of the camaraderie of folks who felt their heartland was overlooked by those who focused only on the coasts.
But, if we’re being honest, when it comes to Restoration Movement congregations, have we adopted a similar attitude?
When is the last time you heard people clamoring to plant a church in the Dakotas or Wyoming? Those states don’t have the same allure as the ones with famous bustling cities. But there is a need, and the Northern Plains Evangelistic Association (NPEA) would be glad to have you.
Who Wants to Go?
“Finding pastors in this region who want to move in and plant can be extremely difficult,” noted Matt Branum. “Lots of planters want to go to metro places, but who wants to go to the small- and medium-sized towns in the Northern Plains? Not too many.”
He speaks from experience. Matt is an NPEA board member and also the lead pastor of NPEA’s first church plant. “It’s overlooked territory,” Matt continued. “It may seem insignificant dealing with a town of 15,000 or a population base of 30,000 when towns of millions or hundreds of thousands exist everywhere else. Nobody is going to these areas, and they need Christ just as much.”
Matt understands the hesitancy. The first time he heard about the opportunity to plant in Spearfish, South Dakota, he said no.
The year was 2003. The former Dakota Christian Ministries and Wyoming Evangelistic Association had merged to form NPEA and was looking for a church planter. Someone had given them Matt’s name, and they excitedly approached him at the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis that summer.
Matt politely declined.
“They asked, ‘Would you pray about it first?’” Matt recalled. So he and his wife, Becky, committed to 30 days of prayer about planting with NPEA. “I was a little reluctant. But a couple of things happened along the way that confirmed to me that we were called to do this.”
Two factors also piqued their interest—Becky’s home church in Rapid City, South Dakota, was to help the launch. And, after a visit to Spearfish, Matt felt a longing to get back to a small-town setting as he had grown up in.
Matt asked Becky’s brother, Ryan Charest, to join the staff, and NPEA had their first church planters—North Point Christian Church was born.
Church Planter Care
The early years of church plant life were challenging for Matt and Becky and for Ryan and his wife, Pam, in some of the typical ways all plants struggle. But as these couples established North Point, loneliness was their biggest hurdle. They faced isolation while ministering in a part of the United States with wide-open spaces, small populations, and great distance between fellow churches.
While the North Point team enjoyed the community of Spearfish and its forthright, hard-working residents, gathering enough resources and committed church members in the cattle town was problematic. With the nearest Christian church an hour away, ministry mentors were few and far between.
Those early experiences of loneliness are why Matt and Becky, with the NPEA’s support, now minister to ministers and their families in what they call Church Planter Care.
“Trying to be a pastor to our planters is a passion of ours,” Matt said. “NPEA is glad to partner with us on that.”
NPEA has planted four churches: North Point Christian Church in Spearfish; White Water Christian Church in Laramie, Wyoming; Revive Christian Church in Bismarck, North Dakota; and Real Life Church in Sheridan, Wyoming (see that church’s story). They’ve also partnered with plants in Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska and have helped a few existing churches relaunch, revision, and flourish anew.
All of those who minister in the NPEA family now are joined together through the concerted efforts of Matt and Becky. Matt ensures that the ministers stay connected throughout the year with online video chats and occasional in-person meetings. Once a year the church planters travel together to a far-off leadership conference. And once a year all the ministers and their spouses gather for a retreat.
“I started to see the benefit in Matt’s life and ministry once he was networking with other church planters,” noted Becky. “I felt like he had ‘brothers in arms’ fighting the same battle.”
Church planting involves not only ministers but entire families. So Becky stays in contact with the wives, encouraging them through calls and texts, asking about their families, and being their sounding board.
“I want our church planters and their wives to know they are valued, prayed for, and not alone in this,” Becky said. “No matter what, we are here to cheer them on and lift them up as they serve the kingdom in this capacity. Being vulnerable myself shows that none of us has all the answers.”
Though Ryan never imagined he’d be a part of a church plant, he’s now helped with two. So inspired by his years as associate pastor of North Point, Ryan prayed about one day planting a church of his own. He is now the lead pastor of NPEA’s most recent plant, Real Life in Sheridan. Having the network of NPEA planters and the Church Planter Care system in place gave Ryan and Pam the courage to take this next step of faith.
“They truly care about me and my family,” Ryan said. “They’re for us and want us to succeed. They’ll do anything to help us.”
Ryan sees the difference from when North Point began 14 years ago. Now he has people to turn to, other pastors in a similar context. The fellow planters grasp the ups and downs of the region. “You can [express] your frustrations and they understand it,” Ryan noted.
Pam remembers the early loneliness in Spearfish all those years ago, and at first she didn’t want to go through it all again in Sheridan. “I was pretty opposed. I said, ‘I will never do this again.’ Of course, everyone knows you should never say that to God!”
But after some time and prayer and visits to Wyoming, Pam felt God calling her and their family as well, not just Ryan, into this ministry. Pam is grateful to have fellow NPEA church-planting families to turn to in this new venture.
“It’s easy to isolate yourself,” Pam said. “It’s hard to be humble and reach out for prayer or encouragement.”
Ryan and Pam both attest that they have found terrific support because Matt and Becky are intentional with their efforts of NPEA Church Planter Care.
It Takes the Right Person
The Northern Plains region is an interesting situation. Matt and Becky as well as Ryan and Pam noted that there is no quick movement. A church gathering cannot simply swoop in and establish a large following of spiritually interested church attendees. When you arrive in town, residents need to see proof that you care about the community, that you are worthy of their trust.
“The people here are extremely authentic; what you see is what you get,” Matt pointed out about Spearfish. “But they are independent. There is not a whole lot of need that they don’t work to meet themselves, so it’s hard to find a way to break in.”
Ryan agreed. In Sheridan, people were skeptical at first of a church that met in the local community arts building.
“Until you have your own place, people don’t receive that well here. They want to know you’re invested in the community before they give you a try,” Ryan said. “If you have your own place, that makes a difference, makes it more real.”
But Matt added that once you prove yourself trustworthy, you have their unchanging loyalty.
“There’s not a lot of showboating up here. People don’t care what car you’re driving, what clothes you’re wearing,” Matt said. “Can you get the job done? Do you have a strong work ethic? That’s what counts.”
Finances will always be an issue for planting churches in this area, as drawing resources from small-town, farmer/rancher churches is a hurdle. Because of that, not even NPEA exists in a vacuum—the board appreciates support from other church-planting organizations. One trusted ministry partner is Nexus, which started in Texas. Sometimes the two organizations work together to find new planters or to support a particular church plant.
Currently NPEA’s prayer and planning has them gearing up to start a church in Aberdeen, South Dakota. They are searching for a planter who is ready to come in and take the lead.
“It takes the right person,” Matt said. “If you want to do something no one else is doing—if you’re that kind of a person, then this is for you!”
Something to keep in mind the next time you’re flying over the Northern Plains: As you enjoy that beautiful view, remember those down below. Consider the people planting churches, those who are spreading the gospel. Pray for the people living in the towns who have yet to hear Jesus’ good news.
“Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:35).
Kelly Carr, former editor of The Lookout, is a writing and editing consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio (EditorOfLife.com).