Motoring down Highway 2 from Fairbanks, Alaska, your eyes are peeled for North Pole. You see the McDonald's arch first, then the red-and-white striped Santa Claus house and the sign, WELCOME TO NORTH POLE, ALASKA — WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE. Your tour bus driver swings down St. Nicholas Drive and pulls up beside a 20-foot Santa Claus. You pile out with your fellow passengers to buy souvenirs, then to photograph the reindeer cavorting in a pen behind the giant Santa. You hear an excited boy from another group hollering, "Which one is Rudolph? Where's the reindeer with the shiny nose?"
Your group isn't here to meet the mythical Santa, to whom thousands of "Here's-what-I-want-for-Christmas" letters come every year. Nor to see reindeer, which you later learn were imported from Siberia by pioneer missionary Sheldon Jackson to provide food for starving Eskimos. You've come with a Home Mission Board group to see Southern Baptist work in Alaska.
Dave Baldwin, Director of Missions for the area Tanana Valley Baptist Association (14 churches, 5 missions, and 3 preaching points), is among the Alaska Convention leadership that has come along for the trip. Dave ticks off some numbers on FBC, North Pole for the past year: Membership 864; baptisms 26; Sunday School enrollment 312; gifts to the Cooperative Program $25,027."
Warm-spirited Johnny McKoy is the senior pastor of North Pole, the only church in Tanana Association with two full-time ministers. Johnny doesn't mind 40 below in winter "because this is where God called me to serve."
Pastor McKoy greets your group warmly and welcomes you into the church sanctuary. "How'd you get to North Pole?" you ask him.
"I came up with the U. S. Air Force in 1969. My wife, Patti, and I were married here in 1972. Except for a time in school back in the 'Lower 48', we've been here ever since. In 1976 I got out of the military and became associate pastor, then in 1992 the church called me as senior pastor."
Johnny tells you more about the church in Santa Claus land.
"North Pole is right in between two military bases. We're a young church. Most of our members and attendees are 45 and under and have three or four kids. Ninety-five percent are connected with the military in some way. They come from all over the United States and from all walks of life. Not only Southern Baptists, but we also have Methodists and Catholics attending, along with fifty to seventy-five tourists every Sunday during summer.
"Our Sunday morning services are taped for TV and broadcast live on radio over KJNP, an independent missionary broadcast ministry. The radio signal reaches across most of the interior of Alaska and also into Siberia. We send video tapes to Randy and Robin Covington, SBC foreign missionaries in Siberia. We've had letters from there.
"A lot of folks come to this part of Alaska spiritually burned out. They're hungry and starving for realness in the pulpit and for preachers to get out of God's way and let God do God's work."
Johnny shares his own personal testimony of "experiencing God."
"Last year I attended a Promise Keepers rally in Dallas. At the time I was critical of my church. I wasn't praying. I was dry and burned out. I asked God to make me real and to show me what I needed to do.
"When I came back to North Pole, I called Patti to the platform and asked her before the church to forgive me for not being the husband I should have been.
"I asked our boy, Ricky, to forgive me for kicking him out of the house. 'I love you, Ricky.' I said. 'I'm so sorry.'
"I apologized to the church for my critical spirit and for not praying enough.
"Then I asked the deacon chairman to come up. 'O.J.,' I said, 'I have sinned against this church. I haven't prayed. I've been critical.'
"When I gave the invitation, my other two boys were first to the altar.
"From that time a real spirit of revival began sweeping our church. One of the most special times came at Easter. We invited people to take a hammer and strike a cross, symbolizing the hurts in our lives and God's forgiveness of our sins."
Johnny shares more with your group about the continuing revival in Santa Claus land. Then the men in your tour gather around Johnny, lay hands on him and pray.
You board the bus with your group. The driver pulls out onto St. Nicholas. You pass by Santa Claus on the way back to the highway.
You know, Jolly Old Santa seems a lot smaller and the real Person of Christmas a lot larger.