Sometimes this year, picking a church has come down to geography, as it did last week.
We needed to be in Twin Falls, Idaho, by 6:00 Sunday night. The Dodge Caravan has been pretty faithful throughout the year, but the fewer weather challenges we can give it the better, and it looked like snow was on the way. So we choose Dillon, Montana, as the town where we’d find a place to worship, because it was in the southwest portion of the state.
Then we did our internet research to find a church and came upon the website for Dillon Assembly of God. There were a couple of things in their “What to Expect” page that appealed to us. The first was this statement, “As a guest we want you to remain as anonymous as you want to be. If you are looking for a connection, then we will be happy to greet and introduce you.” We were interested in seeing how well they’d manage to strike that balance.
On that same page we read, “We offer a Bible Study at 9:00 am and our Worship Service [at] 10:00 am. Service consists of a worship time, announcements, and a brief message from Pastor Ryan Spurlock.” What caught my attention there was the word “brief,” because I thought that was a word that might really appeal to some visitors, and because it’s interesting to see how pastors define that word for themselves when they’re speaking. As it turns out, we may never know what “brief” means to Pastor Ryan (whose family photo was featured on that web page).
We arrived at the church at about quarter to nine and found the door to the church unlocked, though we didn’t see any cars in the parking lot or on the street. We went inside and looked around. On the back wall with other Christmas cards, we saw a card from Pastor Ryan to the congregation thanking them for the chance to serve at the Dillon Assembly of God Church.
Not long after we read the card, Gene arrived. He greeted us warmly and confirmed that Pastor Ryan had left in July. In a minute or two, Dave and Ramona arrived, and we went downstairs for Bible Study. Ramona went to work preparing for the children’s Sunday School class (she had cookies that Gene fruitlessly tried to snitch), and Dave told us that since Pastor Ryan departed, the Bible Study was usually attended only by Gene, Ramona, and Dave. They had been working their way through 1st John. Gene bemoaned the lack of people attending and talked about people in the community following “the idols of hunting and fishing.”
Dave did most of the talking through the class. I can’t say I’d agree with his theological take on the book. He argues that we can live sinfree, perfect lives, and takes I John 1:8 (“If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us”) as only referring to Original Sin, what we are born into. Though I agree that God does work in us to overcome sin in various areas of our lives, I don’t see that perfection in anyone in Scripture beside Jesus (and I’m looking at you, Apostles). He talked about another local church that didn’t teach the perfectibility of Christians on earth and implied that this was the cause of a number of divorces in the church. I think my marriage would undergo much more strain if I claimed I had achieved a state of sinlessness.
Dave noted that this would be his last week teaching I John, because the next week a new pastor was coming, and “he’ll have his thing.” Time was up, and we went upstairs for the worship service.
Neil introduced himself before the service got started, and he asked us if we were visiting in town (he said they couldn’t help but notice when a new car parked outside. And our car does have California plates and stickers from around the country). The start of the worship service was delayed by our chatting, since Neil was leading the service. No one seemed to mind.
To start the service, Neil announced the news we’d heard in Bible Study, “This is our last Sunday pastorless. Pastor James will be here next weekend. It has been a long road for a lot of us, a hard last few months. But if you’ve had a chance to meet James and Hannah, they have a lot of energy! But we’ll still need to come alongside him and share the load.”
After a time of singing (which happily included a Christmas carol), Neil asked if anyone had a word of encouragement. He asked Mindy and me if we would mind saying a bit about our adventure this year, which we’re always happy to do.
Before the sermon, there was a short video of a stand-up routine by the comic Brad Stine. (“They’re so polite to kids these days at schools. They said our boys had ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] while they just said I was an OLP [obnoxious little punk.”)
Another Dave (different than the Dave leading Bible Study) preached. This Dave is a leader of Chi Alpha, a Christian college ministry of the Assemblies of God Church, at UM Western. Dave explained he presented the comic video partly because it made him laugh, but also to introduce his topic: “Focus.”
With a new pastor coming, he said, the church would need to cast away distractions and focus on Jesus. He spoke of mistakes he’d made in his ministry when he’d focused on building his group instead of building the Kingdom of God.
He said he was glad the transition period was over, but now the church would have to focus outward and not just inwardly. “I believe that God has something big for this community. Imagine new people coming through these church doors and finding genuine God seekers looking to change the world...We need to be a sending church, and an edifying church. It’s going to be an exciting time… I’m excited about seeing more people on the missionary wall. We’re going to need to use a bigger wall. God is brewing something here in Dillon.”
I had a chance to talk to Dave of Chi Alpha after church. He talked about churches he’d seen that refused to focus outward and were therefore dying. But he was excited by what he’d seen of the new pastoral couple, James and Hannah, and believed God was going to do great things through them in the church.
During the service, Mindy and I looked out the window and saw the snow begin to fall. We wondered if we should leave early, to be sure we could make it through the pass to Idaho. Then we remembered we could trust God for the journey. We were happy to see this little congregation, after a difficult stretch, trusting God for the next part of their journey, too.
Service Length: 1 hour 13 minutes
Sermon Length: 30 minutes
Visitor Treatment: We were greeted by several people both before and after the worship service. There wasn’t any way to record attendance that we noticed.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 28
Probable Ushers’ Count: 30
Musicians: acoustic guitar (man)
electric bass (man)
Songs: “Your Love Never Fails”
“I Want to be Used by You”
“Give me Jesus” (worship team only)
Miles to Church: half a mile
Miles from Start: 45,098
Total 2016 Miles: 44,802Church Website: dillonassembly.com