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‘I think we promote coming back to God more than coming back to church’


SPEARFISH, S.D. — The Black Hills may be the only place on earth that routinely gets 6 feet of snow yet bears the nickname “banana belt.”
Locals say that, by comparison, the eastern part of the state has it much worse during the winter.
Members of the Northern Hills church brave the weather — whether they’re from South Dakota, Oklahoma, Iowa or California. Church members say that their congregation’s simple worship, Scripture-centered Bible studies and focus on relationships is attracting new faces to their growing family.
“I think we promote coming back to God more than coming back to church,” minister Jerry Savage said.
‘I DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY’VE GOT HERE, BUT I WANT IT.’
“I counted a lot of ceiling tiles growing up,” Dave Nelson said of his early memories of church. He was raised Lutheran in South Dakota, but didn’t spend much time reading his Bible.
He and his wife, Kim, were used to walking into church services while music was playing, singing along — or not — and talking to almost no one.
Then they visited the Belle Fourche Church of Christ and heard minister Calvin Chapman preaching about the Beatitudes, asking the congregation to read along.
And everyone was hugging.
“I don’t know what they’ve got here, but I want it,” said Kim Nelson.
They were baptized in the early 1990s. A few years later their church merged with the Spearfish congregation to form the Northern Hills church.
A NEW ROLE FOR LONGTIME MEMBERS
Most of Northern Hills’ members have never heard of song 728b. They didn’t grow up with “Our God, He is Alive” or Songs of the Church.
Longtime members of Churches of Christ said that the diversity has been good for the congregation, challenging them to teach, explain, and investigate what they’ve been taught all their lives.
When Bryan and Cathy Lessly moved to Spearfish from Iowa they were, for the first time, in a church where more than half of the members didn’t grow up in Churches of Christ.
“Suddenly we felt like we had a role that we didn’t have in the church before,” Bryan Lessly said.
THERE AND BACK AGAIN
In 1997 Scott Simpson called a pair of ministers in Oklahoma and invited them to move north to Spearfish.
Eight years later, they invited him to move back.
Simpson moved to South Dakota in 1996 to teach English education at Black Hills State University. He and his wife, Sheryl, became active members of the Spearfish church and were a part of the congregation’s search for a minister.
The Simpsons moved away from Spearfish about four years ago. Scott Simpson taught at Abilene Christian University in Texas and later served as director of Camp Blue Haven in New Mexico.
When ministers Ken Tackett and Jerry Savage called him about starting “that campus ministry we’ve been talking about for years,” Scott Simpson said it was “very reminiscent of my call to them back in 1997.”
In July the Simpsons moved back to Spearfish. Members Roger and Betty Lessly helped the church purchase an old house near campus. The congregation plans to rebuild it into a Faith in Action Campus Events Center.
“God can bring us into conversations and situations that bring us all closer to him,” Scott Simpson said. “That’s really what this ministry is about, only with a more refined and intentional focus — and hopefully an on-campus center very soon.”
MORE ‘OKIES FROM MUSKOGEE’
The Tacketts and Savages aren’t the only Oklahomans to make the trek north.
Tara Wilkie, LaVon Savage’s sister, visited Spearfish during the late 1990s and fell in love with the place — and the close-knit church family. She moved here a few years ago and helped launch a singles ministry at the Northern Hills church.
Sarah Hamby just moved to Spearfish, after graduating from Oklahoma State University in May. She had interned for the Northern Hills church and plans to work with the new college ministry.
Her parents weren’t thrilled by her choice to move nearly 1,000 miles away from Muskogee, but they couldn’t deny that they had seen a positive change in their daughter, Hamby said.
“You get away from your Southern roots, from the ‘correct way’ of doing things,” she said.
August 1, 2006

Filed under: Churches That Work

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