I grew up in the south, where there was a Southern Baptist church on seemingly every corner. I was raised in an SBC church that was a scant 1/4 mile from our house. We were part of an association that spanned a couple of counties and included dozens of churches plus our own associational church camp. I grew up in that SBC church and when I entered college I was active in BSU (I think it is called BCM now) and surrendered to the ministry and began to serve in various SBC churches. I was part of a small rural church (less than 50 members) and I was part of a large mega-church and that was just in northwest Arkansas. But God called us out of there to an exciting new challenge. I won’t bore you with the details right now, but God moved us from Arkansas to the Black Hills of South Dakota a little over 7 years ago. We spent 4 years as Mission Service Corp (MSC) missionaries serving in two churches in that area before moving to North Dakota to pastor First Baptist Church in Langdon, near the border with Canada almost 3 and 1/2 years ago.
I give this as background so that you will understand my perspective. In one sense, it isn’t all that unique. In my experience, a rather large number of folks who are pastoring and leading churches in the Dakotas are originally from more southern climes. They are people that God has called to go and make disciples and they have been faithful to that calling. One of the things that I quickly discovered here in the Dakotas is that the relationships we establish through associations and the convention are important. In my seven years so far, I have built much closer relationships with both state and associational staff as a whole than I ever had with any single denominational or association leader in Arkansas. Now you may chalk this up to the smaller size of the convention here and that could be part of the reason, but I think the larger reason I seek out and build these connections has to do with the isolation here.
The sense of isolation sets in very quickly once you “go to work” here. The next closest SBC church is a little over an hour away here in northeastern North Dakota (coincidentally, so is the nearest Wal-Mart). During my time in the Black Hills, which is one of the larger and stronger associations in the DBC, the sense of isolation wasn’t as great as it is here. Reflecting back on it, there were as many churches in Rapid City alone as there are in my entire association here in ND. So isolation isn’t the norm everywhere in the Dakotas, but it is more pronounced in the majority of the places here. In addition to the geographical spread, there is the fact that we truly are an oddity up here.
The town of Langdon has only about 2,000 people, but we have a lot of churches. There are nine different denominations represented among them if you count the two different Lutheran types separately and the large majority of the people in town belong to either of those Lutheran churches or the Catholic church. Many of my church members are former Lutherans and Catholics in fact. The various evangelical churches and a couple of mainline churches round out the picture. We are the only church in town that has a baptistery in the building as far as I know. I was told by a couple that lived here in the 70s, when our church was still very new in the community, that every time we had a baptism at church, large numbers of people from the community would come to see what we were doing. Our church was planted back in 1970 during the time that the ABM defense system was being built in this area, so people are more or less used to us now, but it was a much greater novelty at the time.
These days we are a little more accepted as a whole. Our church helps run an AWANA program, primarily in conjunction with the local Evangelical church, along with some helpers from a couple of other churches. It is simply the best way to get ministry done sometimes here in the north. We also host a community service during the Lenten season, usually on the first Sunday night, although last year we were given the Good Friday service. It is a way for us to reach out to the community and we have many from the community who come each year, even a few Catholics. My time here has also given me the unique opportunity to preach in both the local Evangelical church and an area Mennonite church. These kind of things just don’t happen in the south in my experience.
There is much that I could share, but I am trying to not be either long-winded or boring. I started to talk about the differences in denominational life between here and the south, but I will save that for some other time if folks are interested. I guess I can answer some of that in the comments or make it another post for another time. Suffice it to say that my experience with state conventions and local associations are totally different between Arkansas and the Dakotas. The funny thing about it is that I can’t even contemplate returning to the south as a pastor. I have found that God has molded me and shaped me for ministry here and I can dream of nowhere that I would rather be.