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‘Neighboring’: Making disciples on Montana’s range

MILES CITY, Mont. (BP) — Launching laity-led Bible studies at his Miles City, Mont., pastorate and at far-flung ranches on the state’s eastern range are among Jeff Cahill’s goals.

“Eastern Montana is so sparsely populated that we can’t expect to start a traditional church with a building, pastor and budget,” Cahill, pastor of Valley Community Church, told Baptist Press. “The way it works out here, these ranches trade work back and forth. We call it ‘neighboring.'”

The Cooperative Program is another way of neighboring, said Cahill, whose pastorate draws about 60 worshippers on Sunday mornings. Working with the nation’s other Southern Baptist churches in missions and ministries across North America and throughout the world, “we can join together to do things we couldn’t do apart,” Cahill said.

“It’s like multiplying our labor, like building a fence two miles long, rather than a quarter-mile if you had to do it alone,” the pastor said. “We see it as a way we can reach beyond our abilities.”

In addition to the 11 percent of undesignated income Valley Community Church gives to missions through the Cooperative Program, the church reaches beyond its abilities with mission teams from Tennessee, Texas and elsewhere.

On the range

Cahill, pastor of Valley Community Church nearly 12 years, invested five years in establishing a laity-led Bible study in Stacy, Mont., about 65 miles south of Miles City. Stacy’s school is closed, and the only public gathering place is a community hall.

“I use mission teams to rebuild fences for ranchers, and use that to start Bible studies,” the pastor continued. “It’s people who are very unchurched…. We’ll take the block party trailer and set it up.” A typical day, he said, might include a week’s worth of VBS activities and a complimentary burger for lunch.

“As we go help — branding, fencing, whatever — we go to each one of these community of ranches, lead Bible studies, and I tell them, ‘If you can read, you can lead this Bible study,'” Cahill said. “The key is that these Bible studies are simple and reproducible.” He uses studies written by Charles Brock, a former International Mission Board missionary in the Philippines.

Rural ministry requires the time and patience that Cahill describes as characteristic of ranching.

“We (ranchers) buy a bull, wait a year to get a calf, wait a year to see if we like the calf, then breed that calf if we like it, and it takes another year for that calf to be born,” he said. “We can’t expect (ranchers) to change what they’ve been taught all their lives in one visit. It takes years to build their trust.”

Cahill bought a small ranch “to put me in their community,” he said. He takes his horse, pickup and trailer for unpaid “day-work” from ranch to ranch, building relationships by helping brand cattle and ship calves to market.

“I understand (ranchers’) struggle because I’m having the same one,” the pastor said. “Last year was an 11-year drought, four inches of rain and it’s usually 15-16 inches.”

Lightning started four fires in July 2017 on the parched rolling plains of eastern Montana. They became one Lodgepole Complex fire, which burned 270,000 acres northwest of Miles City. It was the nation’s largest wildfire of the year.

This year Valley mission teams tore out burned fences and built or repaired others for at least four ranches burned in Lodgepole, working with Jordan Community Bible Church, the nearest Southern Baptist congregation.

“We’re just providing labor, and while we’re working together we’re building relationships,” Cahill said. “Our purpose is to start Bible studies and make disciples.”

In town

Valley Community planted a church in the unreached north side of town, and raised money to build a community youth center there.

“We want the community to see the church is supporting it, not that the community is supporting the church,” Cahill said. “We did the same when we restarted the church in Terry, (Mont.). We try real hard to not take from the community, but that they always see us giving to them.” Community outreach includes Bible and tract distributions.

The weeklong, multifaceted Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, touted as the town’s “premiere social event” each May, gives the church opportunity to use its block party trailer.

“We pieced (the trailer) together over a period of years, first the equipment and then the trailer,” Cahill said. Containing a bounce house, snow cone and cotton candy machines, a popcorn popper, a grill and supplies, the trailer is also helpful at Kids Fishing Day, an annual Miles City community event.

Valley Community church takes particular interest in Spotted Eagle Park, located outside the city limits and not eligible for public funds for upkeep. “We go out from time to time and help them mow, build a fence and things like that,” including power-washing and painting the restrooms, Cahill said.

“We’re also always looking for ways we can bless Miles City and reach them with the Gospel,” Cahill said. “One of the things I’m trying to do is to do better at building leaders and feeling more comfortable at letting them do things.

“We want to develop leaders here too, to reach out with home Bible studies here in Miles City,” the pastor continued. “We want to see them encouraged in their walk with God, and we want to disciple that person to be the disciple God intended them to be, reaching other people, discipling people so they can disciple someone else.”