Maybe you’ve watched an episode of the ABC’s show Blood and Oil? The whole country seems captivated by the North Dakota oil boom—everyone I speak to has heard of The Bakken and “Fracking” for shale oil. The tag line for the show is, “Sometimes you have to play dirty to get filthy rich.” It’s not a very flattering view of my new home! When I arrived in Watford City in December 2010, the oil boom was just getting started. The town’s population was 1700, give or take a few man-camps. Within three years that number was estimated at over 10,000, with RV parks, apartment complexes and new shopping centers springing up all over the county. One RV Park is completely enclosed and climate controlled!
A huge mission field was opening and new churches were needed. Living Faith Lutheran Brethren Church was already planted thanks in large part to Pastor Burton Bundy’s vision, but no one foresaw the magnitude of the coming oil boom! In September 2009, after more than two years of planting seeds and gathering a core group, Living Faith was founded. Most of the core families had attended a Lutheran Brethren church before, some in Jamestown, Sidney or Bismarck, but most had been driving to church an hour away in Williston. God gathered them using Burton to get it all started, but his failing health prevented him from continuing. The church was growing and a shepherd was needed. I first met with the team from Living Faith at the 2010 CLB Biennial Convention in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Accepting the call, I started in December of that year. My wife Karen and her mom joined me in November 2011. At first it was a struggle to find housing, but God provided.
One of the first things I saw when I arrived was a wooden cross on a hill overlooking the town. I started praying that God would make a way for our church to build there. Seeing that cross each day was a reminder that God was at work. I prayed that he would show us how we fit into his plan. The harvest was indeed ripe. The man who put the cross up eventually made a gift of land to the church. As I sit now looking out of my new office window I see that cross directly across the street.
There is a vast reservoir of oil deep in the ground under us here called the Williston Basin. Extracting it has caused a modern day “gold rush” as people from every state and many nations have come here hoping to become rich. The infrastructure lagged way behind the boom; services like water, sewer, roads, schools, law enforcement and affordable housing were overwhelmed. The churches experienced tremendous stress too. One pastor told me that over a thousand new people came through the front door of his church last year, but many were gone within the year.
That puts a great strain on resources and volunteers. Many local landowners with mineral rights benefited, but for most of us, as we watched the land around us radically transform, it felt like an invasion on our small town. This “mission field” arriving from across the country was messy and inconsiderate and oh so different.
Our small church has a core of families who have lived here for generations. It has been great to see how welcoming they are to the new families. People are coming here on a song and a prayer with nothing but what they can fit in their car. So we have aligned ourselves with ministries that meet the great needs of these newcomers.
Friends of ours, Jim and Kathie Konsor, started the Bakken Oil Rush Ministry that operates a Mobile Free Thrift Center in a retrofitted RV. Our congregation has been one of their biggest supporters, lending our time, talents, and resources to meet this great need. We have also helped Pastor Robert Newberry and his wife Stephanie who came here to start a Celebrate Recovery ministry. Both Karen and I are ambassadors for the Chamber of Commerce, which is very active promoting the many community events taking place here throughout the year.
Each of us is called to be God’s ambassador as he continues to lead us and reveal our place in his plan. People are arriving here in search of a new beginning, putting the old behind and reaching for new opportunities. Christians understand what it means to have a fresh beginning, the new life that comes as we place our trust in God: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Being “in Christ” means that God has revealed himself to us and given us the gift of spiritual discernment, ears to hear and eyes to see: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18,19). He entrusted this Good News of reconciliation to us. God has called us here to a ministry of reconciliation, both for those in the church and those on the outside; both the locals and the “new” locals here in boomtown Watford City.
In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul identifies us as ambassadors: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” An ambassador is an authorized representative or messenger, one called to represent his or her own government while living in another country. North Dakota seemed like another country to me and Karen at first. However, the warm welcome and hospitality extended to us, as well as the beauty of the west, has won us over. We can relate to the many new people who are moving here. God has big plans for our congregation and the new building with which he has blessed us. We are just where he wants us to be!
We look forward to our future working alongside Jesus Christ: “As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:1-2).
Rev. Bob Lawson serves as pastor of Living Faith Church in Watford City, North Dakota.