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Pastor’s plans in mountainous Idaho ‘out the window’ after God moves

SALMON, Idaho (BP)–The church is located in one of the more remote areas of Idaho. It doesn’t have a visitation program. It doesn’t hold evening services during the summer months. Salmon Valley Baptist Church is, however, seeing exponential growth, and pastor Mike Palmer says God is doing a mighty work.

Lemhi County, named after an angel from the Book of Mormon, is a large, mountainous area populated by only 7,000 people. According to the U.S. Census of 1990, 50 percent of the county’s residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and 45 percent claim no religious affiliation at all. Surrounded by mountains and covered in snow at least nine months of the year, the town of Salmon, nestled in the heart of Lemhi County, is a remote place which is at least 100 miles from the nearest city.

It was to this place that God called Mike Palmer, a 1997 master of divinity graduate from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, to pastor a church.

“It’s definitely a different place,” Palmer reflected. “We have people that drive an hour to church; we have some members that live two hours apart.

To help people “understand just how remote this place is,” he added. “We’re 150 miles from the nearest McDonald’s. We drive three hours to get to Wal-Mart. Does that help you understand?”

Despite its remoteness, coupled with the challenge of so many unchurched people, Palmer has seen God’s hand at work in Salmon. Since his arrival in 1997, Palmer has seen the attendance at the church grow from between 70 and 80 in worship to a steady 120. The unexpected growth forced the church to build a new sanctuary in his second year. In Sunday school, the church has grown from roughly 40 to an average of 70.

“In our part of the world, we’re pretty close to a mega-church,” Palmer jokingly said. “Seriously, the Lord has just put his hand on this place, and the vast majority of our growth is by people getting saved.”

In his first year as pastor, Palmer baptized 15 people who were led to the church and ultimately to Christ through church members who invited them to the services. The second year, 12 people went through the baptismal waters, and though this year isn’t finished as of yet, Palmer said he expects some 30 people to be saved in 1999.

All this growth has, of course, come through a church that has no visitation program and only holds Sunday night services during the winter months. Palmer said visitation is almost a non-issue in Salmon. It’s not uncommon for him to drive 100 miles to make a contact with a visiting family. For evening services, he said he was seeing only about 15-20 people in attendance the traditional way, but when he began holding Sunday night services in the winter, which feature only intense discipleship training events such as “Experiencing God” and “MasterLife,” almost 70 people began attending regularly.

“I came out of church life and I know how you ought to do things,” Palmer said. “I’ve learned, though, that there is just no set pattern. You can learn all the methods you want to learn, but what it all boils down to is this: When the Lord sits down and decides to work in a place, it’s going to happen.”

The work God has been doing in Salmon has not only involved the church. Palmer and his wife, Michelle, have seen God moving in even more miraculous ways.

When Palmer was still a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in early 1997, Michelle was having problems. She had a tumor which was causing serious symptoms to arise, but no doctor could tell them what it was. After taking her to a specialist at Tulane University, who was baffled even after a biopsy, the Palmers gave it to the Lord, leaving New Orleans for Idaho.

The symptoms persisted, and the Palmers could not have imagined that anyone in their remote area could help. God miraculously led them to someone who could.

One hundred-fifty miles away, in Missoula, Mont., Mike and Michelle visited a doctor to see if he could even lead them to someone who could help. The tumor was obviously very rare, and their options were getting slim. The doctor examined Michelle for a short minute, looked at her neck and said finally, “Oh, I know what this is.”

“She was diagnosed with a carotid artery tumor, and it is life-threatening,” Palmer said. “This doctor just happened to have dealt with a family in which five of them had one. He was just exactly the person she needed.” The doctor is now treating her successfully.

Amazing things continue to happen in Salmon, Idaho, Palmer said. He has seen a great children’s ministry begin to blossom out of the Wednesday night services, which features a covered-dish dinner each week. More than 30 children, most of whom fall into the “no religious affiliation at all” category, show up each week. Palmer said the still-blossoming ministry has already led to numerous salvations in the families of these children.

“We could never have imagined coming to a place like this and seeing somebody come down the aisle every other Sunday on the average,” Palmer said.

As for his methods, Palmer said he realizes they have nothing at all to do with the souls being harvested in Salmon.

“We’ve got to be faithful to the Lord and not to our methods,” he said. “My plans have gone out the window and I’m just trying to keep up with God.”

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