Bringing new hope to the Black Hills
The owners of the cozy, kitschy diner, nestled among the tall trees and jagged rocks of Spearfish Canyon, just added more seating, but there’s still a 15-minute wait for a table.
The crowds in Spearfish seem to get bigger every year, despite its remote location in the Black Hills of South Dakota — six hours north of Denver and nine hours west of Minneapolis. Each August, more than 500,000 motorcyclists roar into the canyon for the Harley-Davidson rally in nearby Sturgis.
In a corner of the restaurant, Ken and Lisa Tackett talk excitedly about a different sort of growth spurt. Pushing aside a plate of Indian tacos, Ken Tackett grabs salt and pepper shakers.
“This is Spearfish. Here’s Belle Fourche,” he says, setting the shakers on the table. He carefully places a coffee creamer between them. “We put the church here.”
Merging congregations in the two towns — separated by 10 miles of U.S. Highway 85 — was almost that easy. One week the two churches discussed it. The next week they did it.
Since the merger in 2000, the newly named Northern Hills Church of Christ has doubled its size, averaging more than 150 in attendance most Sundays. The church is one of the largest in the Dakotas, a region with about 1.4 million people but only 31 Churches of Christ and a combined membership of less than 1,300.
The Tacketts and fellow Oklahomans Jerry and LaVon Savage moved to Spearfish eight years ago to serve as missionaries. Far removed from the Bible Belt, they found hard-working, devout people, many of whom grew up going to church but never were immersed in Scripture.
Jerry Savage once spoke with a man about the apostle Paul and was asked, “Did this happen before or after the flood?” The missionaries realized that they needed to present the gospel message in straightforward, simple terms.
The men split pulpit duties — Jerry Savage has become fond of saying, “It takes two of us to make one good preacher.” In Bible classes, discussions about the Scriptures and Christian living go on long after the final bell rings. (“I don’t know why we even have a bell,” Ken Tackett said.)
Church members also study the Bible beyond Sundays — with anyone who’s interested. John Powell, an employee of the Spearfish Wal-Mart, became interested in the congregation after several conversations with Jerry Savage.
“He made the mistake of telling me, ‘If you have any questions, call me any time,’” Powell said. He called the minister at least three times per week and studied the Bible fervently.
Powell and his wife, Deb, were baptized and joined the mix of farmers, college professors and West Coast transplants at the Northern Hills church.
“We just read the Bible,” said Valarie McMichael, who’s seen her church more than quadruple in size since the missionaries arrived. “I know that sounds so ‘Church of Christ’ to say, but it’s really true.”
REACHING THE QUIET
Many of Spearfish’s residents, like the Powells, are “hungry enough to know the truth that they’re not afraid to ask,” Jerry Savage said.
But gaining their trust took nearly four years.
South Dakotans aren’t known for mincing words — or speaking many words, for that matter. They’re not unfriendly, but reserved and slow to talk about matters of faith.
“I don’t think this area would be receptive to door-knocking folks,” said John Dennis, a former missionary to Spearfish. “It takes a long time to develop a rapport with people.”
The earliest evangelists for Churches of Christ came to the Dakotas from Texas in the 1940s. But they didn’t come specifically to save souls. They came to raise cattle.
“What converted people is the testimony of the lives of these Christian ranchers,” said Calvin Chapman, minister for a 60-member congregation in Faith, S.D., where archaeologists unearthed the world’s largest Tyrannosaurs Rex skeleton.
Chapman was baptized as a junior at South Dakota State University in Brookings, on the eastern edge of the state. He returned to western South Dakota years later to plant churches, and served as minister for the Belle Fourche congregation.
Dennis, who grew up in Texas, moved to Spearfish in 1984 with a church-planting team from Sunset International Bible Institute in Lubbock. He and his family spent eight years in South Dakota before returning, as planned, to Texas.
It’s something Dennis now regards as “a big mistake.”
“We were gone, but we never really left,” he said. The family moved back to South Dakota three years later. Now Dennis is minister for the Black Hills Church of Christ in Rapid City, about an hour east of Spearfish. The church recently appointed its first two elders.
Many other workers left South Dakota, after enduring years of hard work and harsh winters. The missionary zeal seemed to drain away from the region in the 1990s, and several congregations began to dwindle.
The Spearfish church lost its minister and was down to a core group of about 35 people. In November 1997 the members met to discuss their church’s future.
They had resumes from prospective preachers, but little money for a salary. They wanted to grow, but knew they needed help, said church member Cody McMichael.
They began to list what they were looking for in a minister: someone who’s good with youth, good with the elderly; a family man who involves his wife and children in ministry; a talented preacher, counselor and friend — with his own financial support.
“We listed the impossible person,” McMichael said.
They ended the meeting with a prayer, hoping that God would provide them with such a man.
They got two.
Six inches of snow fell on Spearfish the night the Tacketts and Savages arrived — in June.
Eight years later, both families own four-wheel-drive vehicles and have mastered the art of maneuvering in 6 feet of the white stuff — almost.
Ken Tackett and Jerry and LaVon Savage have known each other since their childhood days at Burnt Cabin Christian Camp in northeastern Oklahoma. The son of a missionary, Jerry Savage attended Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Ken Tackett attended Oklahoma Christian University.
In 1994, Jerry Savage was named youth minister for the Chandler Road Church of Christ in Muskogee, Okla. Ken Tackett, who was working for an insurance company in Muskogee, assisted in the ministry and also served for a year as part-time family minister for the West Side Church of Christ.
After four years, both men felt a strong desire to plant a church. They surveyed Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, where Jerry Savage had done mission work while at Harding. They also contacted Rick Eldred of North Central Evangelism Team Missions, a church-planting ministry of the East Hill Church of Christ in York, Neb.
Scott Simpson, a member of the Spearfish church, contacted the missionaries through Eldred and passed along his church’s request for a minister.
The families raised most of their support in three months, including funds from the Bell Trust, a philanthropic organization that benefits church ministries. Church members in York gave them a two-week overview of life in the region.
The Spearfish church members embraced the mission team warmly, though a few of them muttered, “Let’s see if they’re still here after winter,” McMichael said.
One of the first baptisms Ken Tackett remembers in Spearfish came in November 1998 — in a lake with an outside air temperature of 10 degrees. The next day, the lake froze.
As spring arrived and the Black Hills thawed, the missionaries spent much of their time “chasing U-Hauls,” Jerry Savage said. Transplants, especially from the West Coast, were moving to the region in large numbers, as were contractors and new businesses.
Mike and Michelle Kane moved to the area from Sacramento, Calif. Michelle Kane found Spearfish on the Internet and decided to relocate her marketing consultant business there. The couple attended a Presbyterian church in California and visited churches in Spearfish. Several weren’t receptive to their 6-year-old autistic son, Jack, but the Northern Hills members took to him right away.
Jack attends Bible classes with the other children. “To them, he’s just Jack,” Lisa Tackett said. And Jack’s parents are able to worship together.
“It’s turned into our second home,” Michelle Kane said.
WANTED: GRAY HAIR
The Northern Hills church building is something between a barn and a ski lodge.
The architects, members of the church, wanted a building that captured the spirit of the towns it sits between — the coffeehouses of Spearfish and the feed and seed stores of Belle Fourche. Sojourners, retired church members in recreational vehicles, spent several summers assisting in construction.
The church hosts regional events for ministers from small congregations throughout the Dakotas and Wyoming, and the missionaries said that churches in vibrant, receptive cities throughout the region need workers.
“Bismarck, Rapid City, Fargo, Sioux Falls — the number of places is endless that need people to come up here, on fire for the Lord,” Ken Tackett said.
Though leadership squabbles and doctrinal issues have divided churches in the region in years past, most Churches of Christ remain closely connected “because survival is your goal, rather than refining doctrine,” Chapman said.
The Tacketts and Savages don’t plan to leave Spearfish anytime soon. Each year, they’ve lost financial support from contributors. A few other churches have taken their place, and the Northern Hills congregation has increased the ministers’ support as its numbers have grown.
The missionaries’ longevity has contributed to their success, Dennis said.
“They came into Spearfish with the mentality that they were digging in and going to stay there,” he said. “That is what it’s going to take — people who are going to make this area their home.”
Many of the congregations have young members, Chapman said, and long for the experience and guidance of older church members.
“We crave that gray hair,” he said.
Sojourners Roger and Betty Lessly parked their RV and moved to Spearfish in 2001. Roger Lessly, a retired mechanical/nuclear engineer, served as an elder for nine years at a church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“It’s such a great feeling to find people who are open and receptive,” he said. “To me, it’s always felt like this is how the early church might have been.”
NORTHERN HILLS CHURCH OF CHRIST, SPEARFISH, S.D.
Location: Western South Dakota, less than five miles from the Wyoming border, between the cities of Spearfish and Belle Fourche. The region has a combined population of about 15,000, with a median age in the mid-30s.
PEOPLE: About 175 members.
WEB SITE: nhillscc.org
STAFF: Jerry and LaVon Savage and Ken and Lisa Tackett serve as missionaries to the growing church, which provides some of their support. Churches outside South Dakota contribute the rest.
VISION STATEMENT: “Lifting hearts and changing lives for the cause of Christ — in western South Dakota, eastern Wyoming, our region and the world over.”