Our Pioneers for Christ summer witness team chose Dillon, Montana, as the target city for establishing a new church for three reasons. There was an empty church building we could rent; a former Church of God family lived in the town, and Dillon was more than 60 miles from the nearest Pentecostal church, of any denomination.
The former Church of God family invited us to stay in their home for our first night in Dillon. They said they would pay a visit to some of our services; however, they were happily involved in a local Baptist church, so were not interested in being charter members of the new church we were starting.
Dillon was a college town of about 4,000 people, located in the scenic Beaverhead Valley in the southwestern corner of Montana. When we arrived in early June, snow-capped mountains could be seen in every direction from the town. There were a variety of churches in Dillon, but Mormons were predominant.
I was only 19 at the time, having just finished my freshman year in college, and I had full responsibility of the team for the entire summer. No one on the team was older than 20 except for Aaron Lavender, who was in his early 30s. He was a student who had returned to school after he felt called to preach as an adult. Aaron had less experience than I did. Our official adult sponsor was the State Overseer, J. E. DeVore, who lived a few hundred miles away in Billings. He came to visit us only one Sunday during the summer.
On our first full day in town, I found a trailer which we rented for the three girls on the team. At a second-hand store, we bought two used mattresses which the four of us boys spread on the floor of the basement in the church building and that was where we slept. We did not have a bathtub or shower in the church. We took sponge baths during the week. On Saturday afternoons, we went downtown to a hotel where they allowed us to bathe for 50 cents each.
The church building was a small white frame structure, completely furnished with pulpit and pews. The only problem was the roof leaked. We bought a large plastic sheet and completely covered the roof with it. The tarp didn’t look too good, but it kept out the rain.
Although there were no church members, and no immediate prospects for any, we scheduled a Vacation Bible School for our first full week in Dillon. The team went house-to-house throughout the town, inviting kids to Bible School. Our attendance each day ranged from 8 to 12 children and we considered it a great success.
I had a sign painted at a local sign-shop and also put notices on the radio and in the weekly Dillon Tribune announcing that on the week following the Vacation Bible School, we were having an Evangelistic Crusade.
Both during the Bible School and the Crusade, our team spent five hours per day in door-to-door witnessing, trying to lead people to the Lord, and also inviting them out to services. We took Mondays off from our witnessing activities to take our clothes to the Laundromat, and also to do a little sightseeing.
While I was out knocking on doors, someone told me there was a Spirit-filled Episcopal priest in Dillon who spoke in tongues. I had never heard of such a thing before. The Charismatic Renewal in mainline churches had hardly begun yet, and everyone I knew of who spoke in tongues was a member of a Classical Pentecostal church. I took a couple of the team members with me to meet the Episcopalian. We found him in his garden, wearing shorts and smoking a pipe. “Yes,” he said, “I’m filled with the Holy Ghost. I speak in tongues; and we also lay hands on the sick and pray for them in our church.”
Until that moment, I believed a person who wore shorts, smoked a pipe, or violated any other of the legalistic teachings we Pentecostals held dear, could not have the Holy Ghost. I still wasn’t so sure, but it gave me something to think about.
Within a few weeks, our team had knocked on every door in and around Dillon. We had gathered a congregation of about 20 people. We continued holding Sunday services and they were going well. The team then felt free to branch out from Dillon for three weeks, Monday through Friday.
In the towns of Big Timber and Miles City, we conducted Vacation Bible School at the local churches in the mornings, went door-to-door witnessing in the afternoons, and held revival services in the church during the evenings. At the Church of God in Billings, we took part in the Montana State Camp-Meeting, with our team being responsible for three afternoon services. I was thrilled to have my first opportunity to preach in a camp-meeting.
I also left the team in Dillon for one week, with Aaron in charge during my absence, and traveled alone by bus to preach Sunday services in St. Paul Park, Minnesota. From there, I rode with the pastor, Doug Slocumb, to Wisconsin, where I was the evangelist at the Church of God StateYouth Camp.
The highlight of the summer came when our team, along with about seven other Pioneers for Christ summer witness teams, descended upon Dallas, Texas, the third week in August. Each team worked out of a different Dallas area church. We were assigned to Oak Cliff, the largest Church of God in the city. Our team conducted a five day Pioneers for Christ Invasion at Oak Cliff, doing door-to-door witnessing, teaching soul-winning classes, and leading in special weekend services.
That Sunday morning, I was the designated preacher. Most of the denominational officials of the Church of God were already in town for the General Assembly, which would begin on Monday at the Dallas Convention Center. That Sunday, the entire Executive Committee and also numerous church department heads and State Overseers came out to be in our morning service at Oak Cliff. It was the first time my dad ever heard me preach.
After the General Assembly, Aaron Lavender returned to Dillon to become the first pastor of the new church we had started. I caught a ride to Erie, Pennsylvania, where I had been invited to conduct a revival during the last week of summer. Then, I returned by bus to Cleveland and to Lee College.
During my second year at Lee, my grades suffered as I devoted more and more time to ministry. Hardly a weekend went by when I was not traveling somewhere to preach. I did not have an automobile, so I had to go by bus, borrow a car, or find a friend to take me. I longed for summer to come when I could travel further and preach more.
I had invitations to preach revivals that next summer in many places, including some of the larger churches in the denomination. Also, the State Overseer of the Church of God in the Dakotas, John D. Nichols, asked if he could schedule me to preach in South Dakota. Charles Beach wanted me to meet him in Utah to witness to the Mormons. I turned down the offers from the bigger churches and headed west, where the churches were small and far between. My motives in doing so were mixed. For the same reason that I chose Montana over Hawaii the summer before, I felt God’s will was surely the hard place. However, the prospects of traveling and preaching on the high plains and in the Rocky Mountain states was very alluring.
On the Thursday following the last day of school, I caught a Trailways Bus with a one way ticket to the tiny town of Mound City, South Dakota.
Preaching in the Dakotas was a different experience for me. The people there obviously loved the Lord, but they were much more reserved in their worship style than I felt they should be. I tried my best to teach them to clap their hands, pray louder, and be more enthusiastic in their praises to God. They just tolerated me as an overzealous young man from the South.
I preached in a total of seven churches in South Dakota, all of them Church of God, except for a German speaking Assembly of God in Shelby. I learned that these reserved Dakotans of Scandinavian stock might not be as expressive as we Southerners were, but they were every bit as conservative.
At the Church of God in Tolstoy, I heard the story of a rancher who had begun to wear a wedding ring following the General Assembly of 1958. A short time later, he had jumped down from the loft in his barn and caught his ring on a protruding nail. The fourth finger on his left hand had been yanked off. The whole church was sure that despite the new Church of God ruling, God was showing them He still didn’t approve of wedding rings.
The greatest lesson I learned in South Dakota was that there is more to being a Christian than just getting saved and then winning others to the Lord.
I was scheduled for a week-long revival in Coal Springs. I had looked Coal Springs up in an unabridged atlas before I left Cleveland and it was reported to have a population of 5. When I arrived, I found only one person living there, Dan Black, a single young man who was the pastor. I asked him about the population of five and he told me that the former pastor and wife had 3 children.
Coal Springs consisted of a “T” junction in the highway, with a Lutheran Church on one corner and a Church of God on the other. The Church of God had a parsonage for their pastor, attached to the church. The Lutheran church was pastored by a man who drove in from a distant town.
The next closest building to the two churches was a ranch, about a mile away. This was the high open plains, where ranchers measured their spreads in square miles, and where antelope (pronghorn) could be seen racing over the endless prairie. Amazingly, we had good crowds of 60 to 70 people at the Coal Springs Church, all of them ranchers from the surrounding area.
Every sermon in my repertoire was either geared toward winning sinners to the Lord, or challenging Christians to go out and witness to the lost. In Coal Springs, everybody for miles around was already saved.
I asked Pastor Black what was the possibility of our finding a sinner. He knew of only one man within 30 miles who didn’t go to church. That man lived in the small community of Meadow, population 12, a few miles away. Dan and I went to visit the suspected sinner, but he wasn’t interested in what we had to say.
In Coal Springs, I developed my first sermons that were designed to encourage the saints, rather than just win the lost. It was my first faltering step toward developing a pastoral ministry.
Lemon, South Dakota, was the highlight of my ministry in that state. On the North Dakota border, and with a population of just over 2000, Lemon was the largest town in the region. It was also the largest church I preached in all summer, with more than 200 people attending services. They had a fine building on a prominent corner of town and even had a trained robed choir. Two well known Church of God preachers, David Bishop and Paul Walker, have roots in that church.
One night during my revival in Lemon, a young Lutheran boy came to the service with his Church of God friends. He told me it was his first time to ever be in a Pentecostal church. That young man came to the altar, was filled with the Holy Ghost, and spoke in tongues. He became so excited he ran all the way around the auditorium, jumping, shouting, and praising the Lord.
That kind of unbridled expression was something I had never done myself in church, but I saw others do it often -- except in the Dakotas. I personally didn’t shout simply because God had never done it to me. People testified that when the Holy Ghost got a hold of them, they lost all control and shouted in spite of their best efforts to hold still. I wished God would take control of me in that way, but He never did.
I took this young man’s demonstration as proof that running the aisles and shouting was a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. How else would this Lutheran, who had never even seen anyone shout, have done what he did unless it was the Holy Ghost working through him?
After a revival in Gettysburg, South Dakota, I had a two-week revival scheduled in Hastings, Nebraska. I could not make bus connections to Hastings. So, I decided to hitchhike. I arose at daylight on Monday morning and thumbed several rides totaling 438 miles, just making it to the church in time for the service that evening.
I enjoyed hitchhiking. I was given rides by policemen, drunks, traveling salesmen, hippies, and even a truck that was painting the line down the middle of the highway. I saw every ride as an opportunity to witness for the Lord. Some of the people who gave me rides were religious fanatics who picked me up so they could try to win me to their particular brand of Christianity.
One of my rides was with a cowboy driving a pick-up truck and wearing a wide-rimmed hat and boots. When I told him I was an evangelist on my way to preach a revival, he drawled, “Well, Son, I wouldn’t feel too bad about that if I was you. I’ve preached before, and I suppose if times got hard I’m not too good to try it again.”
The church in Hastings was very small. It met in a neat but nondescript building with no sign outside identifying it as a church. The pastor, Buford Lingerfelt, told me they couldn’t afford a sign.
On my second day in town, with the pastor’s permission, I went to a local sign painter and ordered a new sign for the church at a cost of $52. That night at church, I announced what I had done and said I was going to pay for the sign myself out of my love offerings, but I wanted to give the people a chance to help. I placed an empty offering plate on the altar and said anyone who wanted to contribute could come by and drop in their offering after the service. The total amount given came to $2.37.
The pastor in Hastings lived with his wife and baby in a small apartment in the basement of the church. Because of their cramped quarters, they had arranged for me to stay with some church members for the duration of the revival.
Since I had no transportation, the good people I stayed with were kind enough to give me the use of one of their automobiles. It was an old 1950 Chevrolet which had once been green, but now was more of a rust color. The man said he had bought the car about a year earlier for $25.
Preaching in Hastings was hard, not only because of the small crowds, but also because I didn’t have enough sermons to last two weeks. I had to dig to come up with new material.
When the revival ended, my offerings for the two weeks totaled just a few cents over $50. That was a little less than the sign had cost me, but I was glad I had helped them get it. I was proud of the Church of God and wanted the whole town to know who we were. The sign, with its blue and gold Church of God shield, looked good on the front lawn of the church.
God made my gift up to me. The people, whose car I had been driving during my stay in Nebraska, felt led of the Lord to give the vehicle to me to help in my ministry. I couldn’t have been more proud as I drove my very first car back to South Dakota and from there to Colorado. I even liked the rust on it because I thought that was befitting the humility of a true servant of God.
I was scheduled to preach in three churches in the Denver area, including one which had services in Spanish. Since most of the people there understood English, I preached without an interpreter.
From Colorado, I drove to Sandy, Utah, a suburb on the south side of Salt Lake City. This was the site of a small Church of God which met in a storefront, complete with folding metal chairs and a homemade plywood pulpit. The Sandy church had been started just a couple of years earlier by a Lee College summer witness team.
The pastor in Sandy supplemented his income by keeping four retarded foster children, which also boosted the church attendance. He lived several miles away, so I spent the week sleeping on a cot in the back of the church. I was responsible for providing my own meals, out of the $17 the church gave me in love offerings that week.
Utah was a highlight of my summer because it was there I met up with Charles R. Beach, the Professor from Lee College who had started the Pioneers for Christ Club. Brother Beach was my mentor; he had a far greater impact on my ministry than anyone, including my own parents. He was a true believer, who was convinced that the world was on its way to Hell without Jesus, and it was up to him to rescue as many souls as possible before it was too late. For several months during the previous school year, he and I had talked about going to Utah to witness to the Mormons.
Brother Beach was in 3 or 4 of my services in Sandy. On those nights, he played the piano. Although his ability as a pianist was very limited, it was better than anyone else in the church. One night while he was playing and the congregation of about 15 people were singing, two young ruffians threw open the door of the little storefront chapel and tossed some trash down the aisle. “You’re False! You’re False!” they shouted. “If you were the true church, you would have a nice building like the Mormons!”
That made my day; I felt ten feet tall. I was being persecuted for righteousness sake. I knew, according to God’s promise, my reward in Heaven would be great.
From Sandy, Brother Beach and I went to Ogden, to the only other Church of God in Utah. The Ogden church had a woman pastor, and was housed in a large brick building which had formerly been a Mormon church. There were about 35 people in the congregation.
One night during my revival in Ogden, a journalist came and took photos of the service. She was doing an article on the Pentecostals. I was excited to think that God was using her to help us spread the truth in this Mormon dominated state.
A couple of men from Pocatello, Idaho, visited the meetings in Ogden, and invited me to come to Pocatello for the Sunday evening service at their church, after my meeting concluded in Ogden on Sunday morning. They said they could not afford to pay me, but I could stay with one of them and the other would give me a free haircut. I was excited about preaching in Idaho. I also needed a haircut.
After the service in Pocatello, I had five days before I was due in Washington State, where I had meetings booked in Pasco and Prosser, in Washington’s Yakima Valley. In ten weeks, I had only had two nights off, so I welcomed the break. I was also very glad I had an automobile. I headed for Yellowstone National Park, where I camped two days in my car. One night, I stayed beside a natural hot spring. I warmed my Vienna Sausages for dinner by making a noose of my belt, wrapping it around the can, and dangling it into the spring.
I also got much too close to a black bear in Yellowstone. I had the front window of my car cracked open just an inch, on the passenger side, and was poking Pecan Sandies between the teeth of a very large bear, his claws hanging over the top of the glass. That was great fun until the glass collapsed. I suddenly had the bear’s entire head and forearms inside the car. I scooted over to the driver’s side as quickly as possible, started the engine, and took off. I was going about 20 miles per hour before the bruin dropped out.
The motor of my car blew up near Twin Bridges, Montana. I had it towed to a garage but the mechanic said it couldn’t be fixed. The only thing worth salvaging on the car were two almost new recap tires. The mechanic offered me $15 for the tires and said he would put the car in the junk yard.
I was thankful for the $15, and also for the use of the car for the six weeks of the summer that I needed it most. Taking my suitcase and stepping out to the highway, I stuck my thumb in the air and soon caught a ride heading west.
Two days later, after spending the night in a $2 room above a bar somewhere in the panhandle of Idaho, I arrived in Washington. The church in Prosser was a good place to culminate my summer’s ministry. It was a relatively strong church, with about 100 people in attendance each night. Two students that I knew from Lee College were there, so I was among friends.
During my revival in Prosser, I preached at night and worked during the day harvesting grapes. The man who owned the vineyard made me a supervisor over a group of migrant workers and gave me a fair wage. Harvesting grapes paid better than preaching. As I worked in the vineyard, I prayed that none of the grapes I picked would be made into wine, but would only be used for grape jelly and communion juice.
The Lee students in Prosser were more than happy to take me back to Cleveland, in exchange for sharing in the gas expense. We broke down in Rawlins, Wyoming, and had to spend an unexpected 24 hours there. We stopped in Bonner, Kansas, to pick up another Lee student. Otherwise, the trip home was uneventful, but fun.
From the beginning of my junior year at Lee College I was very restless. My mind was on ministry far more than it was on my studies. During that year, I served for several months as Associate Pastor of the Church of God in Dayton, Tennessee, while taking classes. I also had an agreement with the Dayton church which allowed me to go out and preach one week per month in evangelistic crusades.
In one of those crusades, at the Spring City Church, we had a water baptismal service on Sunday afternoon. It was in a rushing mountain stream coming off of Walden’s Ridge. I lowered a very large sister under the water, and just as I did she either got happy and started shouting or got scared and began doing the back stroke. I never was sure which it was, but the swift current was carrying her downstream.
I had to dive under that woman and push her back up to where she could get a footing on the slippery rocks. God saved her soul and I saved her life.
I felt I was wasting my time in school, especially considering the imminent return of Jesus to earth. I thought it was more than likely He would come again before I graduated. Souls were at stake, and time was short to reach them.
I dropped out of school to enter the ministry full time.
In August, 1965, I was in Dallas, Texas, to attend the Church of God General Assembly. I went to lunch one day with Robert White, State Overseer of the Church of God in Montana and Wyoming.
Brother White told me there were two churches open in Montana. He said he was having a difficult time finding pastors and would be very pleased to appoint me to either one of them. Then, as an afterthought, he told me there was also a church without a pastor in Casper, Wyoming. Brother White was very honest with me and said either of the Montana churches would be a much better appointment. The Casper congregation had declined to the point of becoming inactive. No services had been held there for several months. What few members were left in Casper had scattered, and he wasn’t sure if any of them could be persuaded to return. The church had a white frame building, a former Church of the Nazarene, but they were in arrears in payments and the bank was threatening to foreclose.
I told Brother White that Casper was where I wanted to go.
Looking across the table at me, he said, “Stephen, I’m not asking you to go to Casper. I wouldn’t ask anyone to go to Casper. There’s nothing there. But if God tells you to go to Casper, I won’t stop you.” He also said he wasn’t in a position to offer me any financial assistance, but that he would give me all the prayers and moral support he could.
Just two days earlier, my dad had been elected General Overseer of the Church of God, the highest executive position in the denomination. Some of my friends told me that now I had it made. With his influence, I could really go places in the Church of God.
My emotions and motives were mixed. I wanted to see souls saved; I also wanted to get as far away from my daddy as possible. Deep down inside, perhaps more than anything, I wanted to go out and prove him wrong for all the times he said I would never make it in the ministry. I wanted to build a great Church of God, in a part of the world where the churches were few and small and far between.
One week later, over Dad’s adamant objection and prediction that I would fail, I loaded up the few possessions I had into a small U-Haul trailer, and moved to Casper.
Childish things were behind. New adventures lay ahead.