Ministry on the frontier


Pioneer attitude characterize life, ministry in Montana

by Myra Holmes


When asked how far a person would have to drive from Lustre, Mont., to shop at a Wal-Mart, Daryl Toews, moderator of the Lustre MB Church, actually laughs. The nearest Wal-Mart is anywhere from 150 to 300 miles away, depending on the direction. Wolf Point, home to the other USMB congregation in Montana, has the advantage of being a bit nearer to city comforts; Wal-Mart is only about 100 miles away.

“We’re not rural; we’re remote,” Toews says.

Mennonite Brethren were drawn to Montana’s wide open spaces early in the 20th century. Lustre MB was founded in 1917, and Gospel Fellowship Church (GFC) in Wolf Point, about 40 miles away, was established in 1956.

Lustre is “more of a feeling than a place,” Toews says. “Lustre community,” as he calls it, is little more than a school system, two churches and the homesteads that fall within a 25-mile radius. There isn’t even a post office. If everyone in the community attended a town meeting, 300 people might be there.

Wolf Point comes closer to being a typical small town, with about 3,000 people, several restaurants, stores, two banks, a grocery store and even three car dealerships. The town is one of four located on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. In an unusual move, the U.S. government opened the reservation to homesteading in the early 1900s, which gives Wolf Point a unique cultural mix.

Not surprisingly, remote location and ministry are interwoven for the two USMB congregations in northeastern Montana.


“We need each other”

Perhaps because they are so far-flung, residents both depend on each other and lend a hand when another has a need. If the power goes out or a car breaks down, neighbors are there to help.  If someone needs financial help because of a tragedy or medical crisis, folks dig deep into their pockets.

Frank Lenihan, pastor of Lustre MB, says, “What I appreciate about Lustre is the fact that everyone who lives here sees themselves as a member of a community. We look after each other and take care of each other.”

For those in the Mennonite Brethren congregations, Christian community takes on new meaning. In worship, it means cooperating on the small things. Worship at Lustre MB includes a mix of hymns and choruses; everyone compromises a little on their music preferences in order to focus on the more important matters. “We need each other,” Toews says.   

For the Wolf Point congregation, working together has taken on new meaning since their building was severely damaged in a fire Nov. 18, 2014.  GFC is currently meeting with Community Bible Church (CBC), a church that belongs to the Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches. CBC is a small congregation of only about 15 people and no pastor, so they welcome the chance to have a pastor and full pews. For GFC, the partnership provides space they need to gather for the time being. Whether the arrangement will be long term remains to be seen. Bruce Bogar, GFC pastor, says GFC plans to rebuild but will likely be displaced for at least a year. He says both congregations voted to continue meeting together after a 30-day trial period, and they will reevaluate again after another 90 days.


A daily witness 

Both Lustre and Wolf Point are highly churched communities. So much so that in Lustre, Toews says, “there’s no one in my community who hasn’t heard the plan of salvation many times.”

Wolf Point has a surprising number of churches of nearly all stripes—Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian—as well as Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Even in such a “churched” town, Bogar says that many people in town are unchurched, attending church as a matter of tradition but having no faith of their own.

The cultural mix of Wolf Point’s reservation community presents an added challenge. Like most communities on reservations, alcoholism, abuse and promiscuity are issues. But the biggest issue, Bogar (pictured right) says, is that “everybody needs the Lord.”

GFC is a congregation of about 85 people, and pretty much all of them are Anglo, so there’s a definite cultural gap—one that’s proven hard to bridge.

For both Lustre MB and GFC, reaching out to their community looks less like an evangelistic program or outreach event and more like daily faithfulness. Attendees of both congregations are deeply involved in the community as business owners, community leaders and school board members. There’s no place to hide in the crowd in a small community, so daily witness becomes especially important.  

Duane Nasner, elder at GFC, says, “We want to emphasize the Bible and the truth, and we do talk about living our lives in a way that would be pleasing in the community.  We hope that’s the best ministry we have out there.”

To augment that quiet witness and reach their Native neighbors, GFC supports a local ministry, The Lord’s Table, which aims to meet the needs of the Native community in culturally appropriate ways.  Ministry leader Danny Lindsay serves as pastor to that community. 


Reaching overseas

Far from being closed off from the world, Lustre MB and GFC have a heart for the world, which shows in generosity toward local ministries and overseas missionaries.

Lustre MB has an additional opportunity for global impact—which Toews describes as nothing short of a miracle—through Lustre Christian High School, an interdenominational school of about 40 students. Although the school isn’t specifically Mennonite Brethren, Lustre MB has played a key role in establishing, supporting and leading the school. While the school began in 1928 for church and community children, it soon began to draw boarding students from other communities. And then it began to draw students from other countries—like Korea, China, Thailand, Russia and Mexico. 

“Any time they come from China to this little part of Montana, it’s a God thing,” Toews says.

Often, the students have minimal English skills and no biblical literacy. Not surprisingly, the remote location and the total immersion in a faith-based school can be a shock. So church members make an extra effort to welcome and love those students. They invite them into their homes for meals or school breaks and allow conversation about faith to happen naturally.

Between that kind of loving support from the church and the Bible-infused curriculum, students leave with a working knowledge of Christianity. Several each year make a profession of faith. And when they go back home, they take their faith with them.

“It’s quite an opportunity,” Toews says. “We’re trying to make the most of it.”


Alive and well on the frontier

While these two USMB congregations might feel like they’re out on the edge of the world, ministry on the frontier is alive and well. They hold tenaciously to Scripture. Faith is woven through their work and interactions in their community, even in the face of something as devastating as a fire. They don’t wait around for others to pick up the ball, but step forward to meet needs, whether that means helping a neighbor or welcoming a homesick international student.

“It’s a different kind of ministry because of where we are,” Toews says. “We still carry quite a bit of that pioneer spirit.”


Photos provided by Lustre MB Church and Gospel Fellowship Church:

Photo 1 by Amy Fast: The wide-open spaces of Montana are captured in this panorama of a cut-across road crossing the Little Porcupine Creek.

Photo 2 by Brooke Holzrichter: The three young Holzrichter girls enjoy visiting the field while their dad, Jared Holzrichter, and grandpa, John Toews, harvest whatever is in season — wheat, peas, canola, lentils of chickpeas. Here Jared catches his daughter Lauryn . 

Photo 3: The Wolf Point congregation Harvest Mission Sunday celebration every fall includes a church dinner, with pie for dessert.

Photo 4: Bruce and Connie Bogar are the pastoral couple at Gospel Fellowship Church in Wolf Point, Mont.

Photo 5 courtesy of the Olfert family: During harvest, families often have a hot meal in the field to give the harvest crew a break from cold sandwiches. The This past year, the Olfert family decided to take their field meal up a notch and they dressed up, ate around a table and even used "real" plates. The Olfert family includes Elvin and Selma, second generation farmers, (the older couple), Ron (white shirt, red tie) and Etta Olfert, who took over the farm as Elvin got older. Three of their five sons and their wives and children help on the farm and ranch. Also in the picture is one of their hired men and his wife, Mark and Renee Adolf.


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