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Montana church expands reach with CP

In the past decade, Immanuel Baptist Church in Havre, Mont., has gone from ready to close its doors to reaching about 60 worshipers each week. It has grown "one family at a time," pastor Chris Richards says.

HAVRE, Mont. (BP) – Chris Richards’ job for 28 years was keeping America safe. Since his retirement from the U.S. Border Patrol in 2015, he’s turned his focus to shepherding Immanuel Baptist Church in Havre. And in 2018, he added Chief Cornerstone Baptist Church, 30 minutes south on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in north-central Montana.

As a border patrol agent, Richards nabbed illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, felons and even terrorists. (See today’s related story.) As a teacher and now Southern Baptist pastor, Richards has reinvigorated a dying church, led in efforts to reach out to the communities of Havre and the nearby reservation, started a church boxing club and is training others to be Christian leaders.

Two years ago, Immanuel Baptist started the Rock Hound Boxing Club. An oversized upstairs room at the church was turned into a gym, complete with boxing ring, punching bag and gloves.

“Leaders who earn the love and respect of their people, will have people who are invested in helping them succeed,” Richards said. “Leaders must also cast vision and direction.”

Since the Cooperative Program’s origin in 1925, it has earned love and respect by what it has produced, Richards said. The Cooperative Program is the way Southern Baptists work together in state conventions and throughout the world.

“I understand how much more we can do cooperatively, and I can’t help but support that,” the pastor said. “Southern Baptist missionaries don’t have to worry each month about losing support the way other missionaries do. Our missionaries are free to focus on the ministry God called them to.”

His congregation, which has grown to about 60 people, allocates nearly 12 percent of undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program.

“The Cooperative Program comes back to us through the Montana Southern Baptist Convention and the Triangle Baptist Association in support of Chief Cornerstone Baptist Church,” Richards said. “I see the start-up of church plants and house churches and realize it is Cooperative Program funding that makes them possible, and that’s how God is using Southern Baptists to grow His kingdom.”

While Richards served a two-year stint in Washington, D.C., in his role as a border patrol agent, Immanuel Havre was in decline, withering to a handful of families.

After preaching at Immanuel Baptist on Sunday mornings, Chris Richards travels to the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation to preach at Chief Cornerstone.

“We [the church] were too poor to pay the electric bill and the pastor,” Richards said, “so the pastor was leaving. We had a ‘What are we going to do?’ meeting and decided that we had our Bibles, so why not just open them and learn? So I started by teaching adults in Sunday School.

“We were a sad, small, little church, with hit-and-miss supply pastors, and then a young couple came in. He was a new highway patrol officer, and one Sunday we talked and I told him, ‘If the church is OK with it, you take over Sunday School and I will preach.’”

The church has slowly rebounded over the last decade, Richards said, as God has brought people who have a desire to hear God’s Word.

“One family at a time,” he said. “We are a teaching ministry, verse by verse, this way it’s the Word that elicits convictions. Every week I prepare a sermon, I’m discovering new truth for myself. More than anything I don’t want to get it wrong. This is God’s message, not mine.

In addition to Immanuel’s active small-groups ministry and outreach to students at nearby Montana State University-Northern, the church started the Rock Hound Boxing Club in 2019.

“A Rock Hound is someone who seeks out precious stones or diamonds in the rough,” Richards said. “It reminds us to look for those who may come from rough circumstances in hope of showing them their worth in Christ.”

The idea for the boxing club ministry came from his youngest daughter, Taylor, who started training under Ted Reiter, a one-time professional boxer and member of the church.

An oversized upstairs room at the church was turned into a gym, complete with boxing ring, punching bags, gloves and related items. It started as a ministry to reservation youth, picked up each week in a newly purchased church bus for the 30-minute ride to the Havre church, and gained steam as word spread.

“It’s got real potential as an outreach,” Richards said. “We want our fighters to consider that they’re fighting for Jesus. It’s also about character because club members not only represent Immanuel Baptist Church, they represent the name of Jesus.”

Chief Cornerstone Community Church was started by Alabama Southern Baptists Carl and Rose McElrath in the mid-1990s in Box Elder, and the church lies among the poorest villages on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. Yet a building constructed by mission teams in 2001 was paid for in seven months.

Earl and Lorna Shetler followed after the McElraths retired in 2010, and led Chief Cornerstone for six years. They were followed by a series of short-term, fill-in preachers until Richards was called to take on the ministry.

After preaching at Immanuel Sunday mornings, Richards travels to the reservation to preach at Chief Cornerstone. Services for an average of eight adults plus a dozen youngsters start at 1 p.m. each Sunday, followed by a potluck fellowship meal.

“There’s much spiritual opposition going on here,” the pastor said, including both Havre and the reservation in his statement. “Sometimes I feel like we’re on the front lines of battle, and there’s always temptation toward discouragement.

“The Gospel is the only answer, and I’ve seen it penetrate hearts in the most unlikely circumstances. During a baptism service one Sunday evening, I preached a small verse in Romans 6, and in the midst of chatter and crying children, a young mother heard the Gospel and was saved. God’s Word overcomes. It just takes prayer and people doing what He wants them to do.”