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GREAT FALLS, Mont. — Lewis and Clark.
The Blackfeet Indians.
The grizzly bear.
All their footprints figure in the history of this Big Sky community that’s home to picturesque waterfalls, scenic hiking trails and — if you venture down the right street — a nondescript green building with steel walls.
Built in the 1970s, the green building is not, to put it kindly, the most visually appealing structure in this Missouri River community of 59,000 souls.
But it’s not the outward appearance that draws visitors to the Great Falls Church of Christ.
“I tell people, ‘We’ve got an ugly building with great people inside,’” said minister Scott Laird, who with his wife, Patty, has served the 250-member church since 1994.
The state’s largest Church of Christ, the Great Falls congregation mixes native Montanans, active and retired military personnel from nearby Malmstrom Air Force Base and outdoors enthusiasts drawn to the hunting and fishing culture.
It’s a congregation filled with more jeans and cowboy hats than suits and ties — and a flock known statewide for its support of youth rallies at small churches and family events at Yellowstone Bible Camp, about 200 miles south of Great Falls.
Converts describe a congregation that presents the Bible in a simple, easy-to-understand way, welcomes newcomers with open arms — and makes delicious apple pies.
That’s right: Anyone who visits on Sunday receives a freshly baked pie through the church’s “Monday Night for the Master” program.
“It was good!” a smiling Tim Clark said of the pie.
“And they weren’t real pushy,” he added, referring to the church members who delivered the pie. “They didn’t want to come in and sit there and talk to us for an hour.”
No hard sell, in other words?
“It was just being friendly,” replied Clark, who works as a manager at a Walmart. “You know, ‘Hey, if you need anything else, let us know, and we’d love to see you back next Sunday.’”
The “genuine friendliness” of the church impressed Kimberly Clark, Tim’s wife and mother of their two children, Hunter, 12, and Chloe, 9.
“I’ve been to other churches, and it seems they are really working hard to be friendly and welcoming,” said Kimberly Clark, who teaches at an elementary school near the Air Force base. “Here, that friendliness, honestly, comes naturally.”
“They’re not having to work at it,” agreed Tim Clark.
The Clarks were baptized in 2006 and now serve as co-leaders for one of the church’s 13 “life groups” — small groups that meet regularly and help keep members connected.
On any given Sunday, the congregation welcomes 20 to 30 visitors, said Silvia Crooks, wife of minister Chris Crooks, who shares the preaching duties with Laird.
“Great Falls is definitely unique,” she said of members’ focus on evangelism. “I don’t know that most places have guests showing up week after week.”
A KINGDOM VIEW OF LORD’S WORK
A bright yellow banner hangs at the back of the Great Falls Church of Christ auditorium, declaring in black and red letters: “Seek, Save, Strengthen & Send … All for the Glory of God.” That motto encapsulates the church’s approach, Great Falls’ elders said:
• Seek and save: Members and leaders alike share the Gospel and invite friends, neighbors and coworkers to the church’s small-group meetings and worship assemblies. The relationships developed often lead to Bible studies and baptisms.
• Strengthen: Splitting the preaching duties gives Laird time to devote to helping sister congregations in Montana and elsewhere that are struggling or divided. For example, Laird provided support in 2011 as three Churches of Christ in the capital city of Helena worked to heal old wounds and eventually merge.
At the same time, the arrangement allows Crooks to work with teens and participate in youth rallies all over Montana.
“Our goal is to have one of us in Great Falls,” Laird said, “but the elders are fine with one of us being gone whenever we need to be to help other congregations.”
• Send: The church prepares members — such as Air Force personnel who may be in Great Falls only a few years — to serve and lead when they move away.
In addition, the congregation sponsors a two-year internship program that allows young ministers to gain experience working alongside Laird and Crooks. In fact, Crooks — who joined the Great Falls staff in 2001 — was the first intern.
“The way we look at it, the Lord’s work is not just here in Great Falls,” said elder Jerry Merriman, a native Tennessean who stayed in Montana after retiring from the Air Force in 1991. “It’s worldwide.”
A TRANSITORY MEMBERSHIP
The Great Falls church began in 1948 as a handful of Christians meeting in rented facilities at the YMCA and later the Bungalow Bakery.
The congregation’s first building was constructed in 1951, as a group of 40 met at the corner of 34th Street and Central Avenue. A new facility — the green building — was erected on the same property in 1974.
A half-dozen ministers served the congregation before 1969, when the hiring of Gordon Naylor brought stability. Naylor preached full time for 25 years. At age 85, Naylor still serves as one of Great Falls’ four elders and occasionally preaches.
By 1979, membership hit 159. That grew to 203 in 1994 and 235 in 2011.
To deal with auditorium crowding, the church added a second Sunday morning worship assembly in 2004.
The congregation owns 27 acres not far from the current location and plans to construct a new building when God provides the funding.
In a typical year, the church baptizes 12 to 22 people — many of them converts from the community, Laird said. Still, the congregation struggles to grow its membership.
“For every one person that moves in, we typically send three people out,” Laird said. “We have to keep converting people or we’re going to go downhill due to Air Force transfers and our economy. Great Falls is not a town that brings workers in. Anytime that we do get a new family in, we’re pretty excited.”
Leading someone to Christ and then watching them move away can be difficult, said elder Mike Rocheleau, who met his wife, Doris, while serving with the Air Force in Germany.
But he said Laird and Crooks have helped change the church’s mindset.
“Rather than looking at it as a detriment, we see it now as a positive because we get these people for three or four years, maybe, if we’re lucky,” Rocheleau said. “So we’ve got to equip them as well as possible before we send them away. It gives us a little more sense of urgency.”
Hannah Cubbage, a 16-year-old high school junior, said: “The cool thing about being at a church like this is, you always have new people coming in, so there’s never really a stalemate. … It’s awesome to have the same group of kids around every week, but being able to let new people in is really helpful for us to grow.”
SERVING GOD AND COUNTRY
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. C.J. Reeves said the church asked him to serve as a deacon two years ago.
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