RAY, N.D. (BP) -- People have been swarming to western North Dakota for seven years, most wanting to get "a piece of the Bakken" oil/gas boom. Will Page isn't one of them.
The church planter arrived in August 2012 to give, rather than receive. He has planted two churches and is planning a third, with the support of the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program, Cornerstone First Baptist Church of Williston, N.D., Prairie Partners Baptist Association and the Dakota Baptist Convention.
"The people are here; churches are needed," Page said. "Lost people are moving to North Dakota, and there are people here now who are Christians looking for a church.
"Churches that are started now will quickly become self-sustaining, and in five to 10 years, these churches could have an enormous impact on missions in the Dakotas, western United States and all over the world," Page said.
Impacting the people drawn to western North Dakota's oil boom starts with the CP, Page believes.
"God uses wealth to further His kingdom" Page said. "The Cooperative Program works. CP funds church planting and churches that are planted will give back to CP so more churches can be started. It's so simple, it's brilliant.
"All the churches -- even a small church like Ray -- can contribute to CP and have a world-wide impact, a Kingdom-expanding impact."
Page planted Cornerstone First Baptist Church of Ray, N.D., in February. After prayerwalking many of the expanding communities in western North Dakota, Page and sponsoring pastor Ashley Olinger of Cornerstone Williston, chose Ray as the church site. The community had just two churches; one Lutheran, the other Catholic.
The 2012 U.S. Census put Ray's population at 609. But the local post office mails to 629 homes, Page knows, because that's how many postcards and flyers he's mailed to announce the new church. The most fruitful advertising so far, however, has been the free announcements on the local cable access channel, Page said.
Perhaps a dozen people each week participate in Sunday morning worship at Cornerstone Ray, which meets in a closed-on-Sunday supper club on a main street in town. Some people come in for a meal, not realizing the doors are open for a church service. Most of those leave when they realize what's on the menu is the Bread of Life, the planter grinned.
"What's being done is the money given at Ray is recorded, and 10 percent will be sent to missions through the Cooperative Program," Page said. "It's a small amount of money, but that's the way CP works: a whole lot of 'smalls' make up big big in the end.
"Ten percent is a tithe; we also give to the association and Dakota Baptist Convention," Page said. "The only way the Cooperative Program is going to work is if churches are going to contribute to it."
The only way church planting is going to work in the oil boom towns of western North Dakota is if God's people pray, prayerwalk through the towns, and seek His guidance, Page said.
"We've just gotten started," he said. "Frankly, we have to take a long-term view of this. We need to plan ahead for five to 10 years. At the same time we need to concentrate on what's happening this year."
Page's second church plant is in Williston. Called the 717 Church, it meets at 7:17 p.m. Thursday nights -- for now, at least -- at Cornerstone Williston. About 25 participate weekly.
"We've got a lot of guys in the oilfield who work 7-day weeks and we've run into a lot of guys who just can't make it to church on Sunday," Page said. "Also, Williston State College is less than two miles from Cornerstone. A fairly large group of college students attend as well.
"We liked the name," Page said. "It meets at an unusual time and it is geared toward people who can't make it to church on Sunday. '717' also corresponds to Psalm 7:17. The verse works, but the name is because of the time."
"I will thank the LORD for His righteousness; I will sing about the name of Yahweh the Most High," Psalm 7:17 reads in the HCSB.
Alexander, about 30 miles south of Williston, while Ray is 30 miles east, will likely be the site of Page's third church plant. Like Ray, it has a growing population and is underchurched. First Baptist Church of Watford City, where John Lane is pastor, and Cornerstone Williston, are exploring how they can cooperate to see a church started in Alexander.
An essential component of western North Dakota church planting is raising up men from the congregations to become pastors and leaders of the churches, Page said.
"Our goal is to lay the foundation now so the church in Ray 10 years from now will be a viable, indigenous church that will be here 50 years from now, and the same thing with the churches to follow," Page said. "If we do not lay the foundation now, we're going to miss this golden opportunity. Last year I didn't see the Mormons. They're out and about here, now."
Volunteers are needed to help set the foundation, grow and strengthen churches, and evangelize and disciple community members, Page said. He envisions help from Southern Baptists who move to the oilfield for their "piece of the Bakken," and other volunteers who can help with backyard Bible clubs, sports camps and various summer outreach activities.
Western North Dakota is as much a foreign mission field as it is an American mission field, Page said.
"You've got people coming from all over the world here," he said. "Two or three weeks ago, a Russian was bagging my groceries. Hardly a week goes by that there's not someone from Africa at Cornerstone. The economy is booming. The people are here and more are coming, and Cornerstone Williston is in the middle of it.
"The idea is that each of these churches we start will at some point in the future ... be self-sustaining churches that will be starting other churches," Page said. "That's God's Kingdom expanding. That's the Cooperative Program at work."
Karen Willoughby is managing editor of Dakota Baptist Connections, newsjournal for the Dakota Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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