I took this image in the early morning at what is called “the Con” on the hillside overlooking the community of Butte, Montana.
I’ve recently taken up residence and ministry on what is purported to be “The Richest Hill on Earth”. Headframes dot the landscape of the mining city known as Butte America, named such before Montana became the 41st State in 1889. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Silverbow County (Butte and suburbs) boasted a population of over 100,000 people who survived on the extraction of copper and other precious minerals from the earth. After WWI, declining copper prices and market saturation from South American countries such as Argentina drove many to seek their livelihood elsewhere. Today, Butte has stabilized and the community of 35,000 is striving to reinvent itself in a way that matches it’s former glory.
Historically, there’s been no shortage of attempt to bring the Gospel to Butte. Many have tried and unfortunately, many have failed. Immediately after moving here I started meeting with many of Butte’s 49 pastors and priests; guys barely surviving in the trenches, each lacking the confidence to go on an all out attack. Their stories have a glaring commonality: discouragement, disillusionment and confusion about what each of them described differently but iterated the same as the “Butte Nut”. The collection of their voices states, “I don’t know how to reach this community.” I took note.
One thing I know: Jesus died for Butte just as He died for Portland, Seattle and Billings. You name the city. Yet, each of those cities, and the city God has you laboring in, are different and present unique challenges that need to be considered for the Gospel to make sense in a localized context. In other words, what works in Seattle might not necessarily work in Boston – a completely different culture with completely different and sometimes competing values. It’s a huge ministry fail to bring a Seattle ministry template to another city and think it’s going to work without at least a few major tweaks. Separated by geographic and social distinctions, people are different and ministry demands a creative strategy.
This is how I would explain the many failed attempts to bring the Gospel to Butte, Montana. Hundreds of God fearing men and women have brought their ministry template from various other cities only to leave a couple years later scratching their head and wondering why it didn’t work. Dreams are dashed and confidence, resolve and passion lay aside in lifeless piles. Here’s a sad Butte fact: On any given Sunday less than 1000 Protestants gather in worship services and less than 1500 gather for Mass.
So, I’ve had to ask myself a question. “What will make me any different? How will Harvest Church in Butte, Montana be any different?” It’s a sobering question whose answer has brought me to my knees many times since moving to this community five months ago.
Go ahead and ask yourself the same questions. When you consider your ministry in your city, go ahead and ask, “What will make me (you) any different? How will (your church) in (your city) be any different?” As you’re seeking answers, consider these important things:
Know Your City
Your city is unique. It has a personality. It has societal disappointments, victories and challenges. The key to fruitful ministry is developing a strategy unique to the identity of your community that understands the goal is salvation and restoration.
Specifically, Butte is a literal melding pot of cultures and methodologies once opposed to each other. During its rise, people from all over the world came to Butte America to scratch out their share of the bounty. The history of Butte is replete with lore regarding these oppositions. However, hardship and demise have a way of helping to erode the walls of difference and find the basic components necessary for survival. The 2004 tsunami that struck the island nation of Indonesia is a recent example. In the aftermath of a pounding wave the need to survive leap frogged culture, language and religious barriers as people joined together in the common goal of preservation. After the “crash” post WWI, Butte experienced it’s own iteration of this human phenomena that resulted in a community able to recognize and celebrate it’s differences and become very relationally connected and interdependent. In short, they recognized that in order to survive, they needed each other.
In the brief time I have lived here, I have discovered a community that values relationships, diversity and benevolence.
An example of the importance of the benevolence value can be found in the startup of a local Butte hockey team that failed because “…they never did anything for the community.” So people never went to the games and it led to their bankruptcy after one season.
What your community values is very important. These values must be weaved into the strategy designed to bring the Gospel to your harvest field. But, you must know your city.
You’re God’s Representative – Be A Church That Matters
We, Harvest Church – Butte, are about to move into our own facility – a 12,000 sf Christian Science Reading room built in 1920 and was abandoned 14 years ago. Yes, I’m fully aware that we’ve assumed a space formerly used by a cult and are believing God’s redemptive power can even sanctify brick and mortar. We’ve been gathering at Butte High School and have been mobile. I actually like being mobile but mobility serves up costly logistical challenges that are alleviated by a permanent facility.
A permanent facility is going to help us matter more in the community. For one, being mobile limits our availability to address daily needs because no one knows where to find us on Monday or Tuesday or even on Saturday. Because we’ve chosen a strategically located billboard to advertise our location and sermon series content, we are known as the “Billboard Church”. Hey, at least people are noticing! But, simply having a building (or even a billboard) isn’t going to be the sole component of our level of mattering. It must be accompanied with strategic and life-giving ministry expressions. And, it begins with me and…you.
A couple weeks before Christmas and before our new space had any electrical service, any work we did had to be done during daytime hours because without power we didn’t have lights. We needed to move 11 sections (12 seats each) of theater style seating to make way for our increased stage size and the AVL (audio, video, and lighting) station at the rear of the sanctuary. I approached the local rescue mission and employed five strong men, offering them $20 cash and lunch to help move the seating into a storage area in the basement of the building.
On the move day, after selecting a leader from their ranks and seeing them wrangle the first section, I took the stairs to the basement. Their 850 foot traverse would take them outside, down the sidewalk to the front of the building, through a wide doorway and to the storage area. I waited in the storage area for several minutes and to my surprise nobody came. Seeking a reason for their latency, my exploration took me outside to find my new employees, some seated and some standing, taking a smoke break. I chuckled and went back to the storage area and waited. A couple more minutes produced the first section of seating and sent the brutes off for the second section. I ascended the stairs and found them working on the second section of heavy, metal framed seating. Out they went and down I went to the storage area. When they didn’t arrive after a few minutes I went outside and found them taking another smoke break. I chuckled and waited.
This same scenario actually played out for the first eight sections of chairs and what I thought would take about an hour had already been 90 minutes. To expedite the project, I decided to lead the crew for the remaining three sections. Those last sections were arduous. Without sectional smoke breaks and muscles wearing thin, attitudes lowered and tempers flared. I actually started laughing at their creative use of colorful expletives. Finally finished and after two hours of hard labor, it was time to eat lunch.
I took the boys to a local sports bar called Metals; a restaurant fashioned from an old bank of the same name. I drove ahead of them as they walked the six blocks to the restaurant. As they entered I was talking to another gentleman who had asked me for $2.00. I declined to give him cash but offered to purchase him lunch. While my crew was finding a table I spoke to Randy about God’s love for him and my pleasure to buy him lunch. I offered Randy a seat at our table but he declined; a decision probably aided by the stare down he received by my crew as they entered the establishment.
I joined the guys at the table and offered them anything they wanted on the menu. I never imagined my offer would produce a couple rounds of 12oz Bud Lights, appetizers and meals all around. I have to admit that I cringed just a bit wondering how I would explain the purchase of beer to our bookkeeper.
Conversation jumped many lines from curiosity as to why I bought Randy (a guy they all knew) lunch to one of them claiming his hatred for God and his bewilderment at working in a church for the morning. I could tell from their antics and conversation that they had no idea that I was the pastor of the church. It wasn’t until a lady from our church recognized me and approached our table that they figured out who I was.
“Hello, Pastor George. Who are these guys you’re having lunch with today?”
I watched as their cheery faces fell lifeless with limp jaws. After the congregant made her exit, John who sat at my left asked, “Are you the pastor of the church?”
I confirmed his inquiry and the table erupted. In one wide motion, John exclaimed while waving his finger like he’d just equipped a sickle, “We should be ashamed! We ordered beer! You…you said you hated God! This is the pastor of the church!” I laughed and their shoulders sunk. “We thought you were the contractor!”
What I said next could only come from God and His leading. “My friends. All I ask is that you be yourselves because I’m going to be myself. As long as we stay true to that, we’re going to get along just fine. I don’t want you to pretend around me. I can take whatever you dish out. Now, I need to pay you.”
I then passed each of them $40 cash to which one of them asked, “I thought we were just going to get $20?” I replied, “Well, it was $20 per hour and we worked two hours. But let me say something about that. I want you to consider this $40 as God’s gift because you don’t deserve it. Yes, it took us two hours to move eleven sections of chairs but you also took a smoke break for each of the first eight sections. It takes approximately seven minutes to smoke a cigarette. You basically spent one of the two hours smoking. So this money is representative of God’s love and grace – which we don’t deserve. I don’t deserve it and neither do you. However, God extended grace to us when Jesus died on the cross. So, accept this payment as a reminder of God’s love for you. And, I hope that in the future you’ll remember this lunch and you’ll remember a pastor in Butte, Montana who tried to show you a picture of God’s grace.”
There was an obvious contemplative silence among them and we just sat there. I told them about our church and invited them to attend our Christmas Eve service. They came. And two of them have been coming since. In order to be a church that matters we have to be people that matter. And, it starts with you.
God is doing something unique on the “Richest Hill on Earth”. I suspect it might be one of the ripest fields of harvest too.