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New churches called vital for the Dakotas

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

BISMARCK, N.D. (BP)–The Dakota Baptist Convention has launched an ambitious plan to increase their total number of churches by 15 percent this year toward reaching an ever-growing population of people who don’t know Jesus.

“We have 87 congregations in the two states, and we need to plant more churches because new churches reach more people,” John Guillott, state director of missions and Starting Churches team leader, told Baptist Press. “They baptize more per capita, and new churches develop new leaders and new opportunities for evangelism.”

To cement their commitment, the convention’s executive board has adopted a Church Planting Proclamation, acknowledging Jesus’ command to make disciples and the early church’s example of establishing churches as recorded in the Book of Acts.

“We believe the command of Jesus to make disciples of all people is intended for the church today as much as it was intended for the church in the first century,” the proclamation states in part. “We recognize that, while it is the nature of the kingdom of God to grow, the population growth of many of our communities is increasing faster than the growth of the church which means that the church is losing ground daily, and this troubles us.”

During the first two months of 2007, the Dakota convention identified three new church starts, Guillott said. DBC Executive Director Jim Hamilton believes the church planting plans now in place have the potential of exceeding the goal of a 15 percent increase.

“In a place like the Dakota Baptist Convention where a large number of our churches are in a survival mode rather than a ministry mode, it’s critical that we begin to plant new churches that reach people faster,” Hamilton told BP.

The convention has been planting six to eight churches a year, so increasing their overall church count by 15 percent this year is a big deal, Hamilton added.

“But for us to mature as a convention and reduce lostness across the Dakotas, it’s going to take new churches,” Hamilton reiterated.

Because of the diverse culture of North and South Dakota, the convention leadership realizes that no one method of doing church will reach everyone.

“We want to plant all kinds of churches in all kinds of places for all kinds of people,” Guillott said. “That means using cowboy churches to reach that culture. We have the Sturgis Bike Rally out in the Black Hills of South Dakota every year. There are a great number of bikers that live in the Dakotas, so maybe a biker church.

“We have Native Americans. Right now we have 15 congregations on 11 reservations, but we need to plant some Native American churches in some of our larger communities for Native Americans not on the reservations,” Guillott added. “Some will be urban-type churches, some will be rural churches, some will be contemporary and some will be traditional.”

Given the popularity of cowboy churches in the Dakotas, the convention recently held a training session for people who want to learn how to lead them. One potential church planter set a goal of starting four new cowboy churches during the coming year, Guillott said.

Since church buildings likely won’t accompany each new church plant, leaders will be prepared to meet in a variety of facilities.

“Cowboy churches will meet maybe at a rodeo arena or a riding facility or in a livestock auction barn,” Guillott said. “One of our cowboy churches that we started in Huron is meeting at the state fairgrounds in a winter building, and then this summer they’ll move into an arena-type facility.

“The biker church will meet in whatever facility the bikers would feel comfortable meeting in,” he said. “It may be someone’s garage. It may be a campground or some other meeting facility. Some will have traditional buildings and some will have rented buildings, whatever will fit the need of that particular church plant.”

In order to enlist workers to start new churches, leaders from the Dakota convention have been visiting Southern Baptist seminaries to recruit students who are looking for an effective place to minister after graduation.

“As we talk with students we tell them the story of the Dakotas, of the need out there. We try to help them understand that it’s a challenge to come to the Dakotas because our churches are geographically spread out across two states,” Guillott said. “What we deem as success is someone who’s able to come and plant their lives and begin to impact a community, ministering to people in all kinds of ways. Success often may not be measured in numbers but will be measured in impact in some of these smaller communities and cities across the Dakotas.”

A native of southwest Louisiana, Guillott and his wife left a pastorate in Overland, La., when they heard the call of God to the Heartland Baptist Association in South Dakota, where he began serving as an associational missionary with the North American Mission Board in 1999. From there he moved into his role on the state convention staff.

In addition to bringing in trained leaders, the convention is trying to increase the number of laypeople involved in church planting. They also are using pastors of existing churches who are willing to shepherd more than one congregation.

The response from people throughout the convention has been mixed, Hamilton said, because when leaders focus on church planting, some pastors fear that’s the only thing they’re going to do.

“When we start talking about church planting, we have to back up and tell them of course that we’re going to strengthen and help existing churches,” Hamilton said. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t plant new churches.”

Guillott said one of the greatest needs is along the Interstate 29 corridor near the cities of Sioux Falls, Brookings, Watertown and Fargo.

“Many people are moving from our smaller communities to our larger cities. We haven’t been able to keep up with the church planting that we needed to do there,” Guillott said.

A bold initiative like the Church Planting Proclamation embraced by the DBC executive board Feb. 23 is essential in North and South Dakota, leaders believe, if people there are ever going to know saving faith in Jesus Christ.

“We’ve got to do it,” Guillott told BP.

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  • Erin Roach