Rev. Charley Carpenter estimates that approximately 40 percent of Bozeman, Montana, residents work remotely. This statistic fits the individualistic mentality of the south-central city of 40,000.
Carpenter and his family moved to Bozeman in 2012 to plant Venture Church. Eight years later, the church is engaging the community in unprecedented ways.
All thanks to COVID-19.
Venture Church had optimum online engagement the first month or so after churches closed in March. Leaders were encouraged. But the hardest part for Carpenter was seeing some of the seemingly mature Christ-followers begin to drift away and focus on other things.
“It was hard to see people who seemed solid in their faith disengage, be stricken with fear, walk away, live isolated, become judgmental or get wrapped up in [issues],” said Carpenter. “As a pastor you love people so much. It breaks my heart to see people lose the platform they fought so hard to gain.”
Online church engagement also began to decline after the first eight weeks, challenging Carpenter and the team to regroup and refocus.
They continued to pray and refocused their efforts on how to connect and engage with people, even though “connecting with folks outside the walls of the church, non-attenders, was becoming more challenging,” said Carpenter.
What has followed has been nothing short of encouraging.
Carpenter said, “Numbers are way up from last year, and a lot of folks are engaging and gathering online as well.”
Not only are those who attend in person becoming more engaged, but those who enjoy the online services are engaging more. One such couple lives in Washington state and got connected to Venture through a relative who used to live in Bozeman. Since their own church in Washington is still not meeting (because of COVID), they faithfully attend virtual Venture services each week — and share needs, prayer requests or general comments on their electronic communication cards. Though they are not able to join a service in person, they continue to be a blessing to everyone.
The church has also refocused discipleship, reaching out to those who attend Venture in person (approx. 375) and those who attend online (approx. 100). “We are contacting people in our database to ask people who they are discipling, who is discipling them, what’s the next step in someone’s relationships with God and how we can help,” said Carpenter. The team continues to connect with Christians, whether seasoned or new, to get them plugged into the discipleship process.
“The intensity and focus on discipleship (making disciples, sharing their faith, inviting people to church, inviting neighbors into their lives) is happening more and more,” said Carpenter.
Some of that discipleship is occurring in the lives of new Christians, many people who’ve experienced loss during the pandemic, whether a job or family member. They have been hungry for hope and, in turn, placed their faith in Jesus. Carpenter noted that in six weeks’ time, 17 people were baptized at Venture.
Not only are lives being transformed inside the church, Venture is engaging in the college-town (home to Montana State University), farm and ranch community. From the time they launched, they have been committed to being the hands and feet of Jesus where they live, work and play. Over the last eight years, they have become known in town as “the church that serves.”
Still, the demographic of Bozeman can sometimes make ministry difficult, and encouraging church engagement in a community that also includes transients and tourist can be difficult.
Many people buy vacation homes in Bozeman and are only there for short times. Other year-around residents sometimes move after only 2 ½ years. Turnover and cost of living are high in the city surrounded by Yellowstone National Park, fly fishing locations and Big Ski Resort.
“The church has a role to play in this isolated, transient, individualistic culture of Bozeman,” said Carpenter. “We are committed to reach people for Jesus any way we possibly can.”
In August, Venture hosted a “just because carwash,” washing vehicles for free just to show God’s love and provide reasons for smiles in a city that has been tension-filled and negative and grumpy between COVID, protests and other issues.
They’ve also served area residents by fixing up cars and gifting them to people, chopping and delivering firewood, doing house repairs for widows and elderly, forming Celebrate Recovery (non-profit that helps folks overcome addiction), operating a food truck and other acts of service.
All of this ministry happens in coordination with Greater Impact, a non-profit organization Venture Church started, that seeks to serve the community by “giving people a hand up in their time of need.” Greater Impact is committed to “help families stay in their homes, cars and jobs” as staff members and volunteers serve and are the hands and feet of Jesus. It also oversees the Lindsey House, a “recovery house for women.”
“Giving people a hand up is our opportunity to meet them where they are at,” said John Paszkiet, director of Greater Impact. “Once we get to know those we serve, then we get to share the life that only Jesus can give. When we get to see someone who was outside of a relationship with Jesus step into a relationship with him, we consider this the greatest gift.”
As 2020 continues, Carpenter is encouraged at the work God has done and is doing in the lives of so many.
“God is using COVID — using it to expose our idols (as he has throughout history) and he’s taken away things from people and now they must decide what they will do with God,” said Carpenter.
Sifting and shifting have taken place as the church encourages its people to grow and simultaneously engage with the surrounding community, as they serve and share stories of how Christ has changed their lives.
“Sifting is a beautiful thing and, honestly, as a church, I think we’re stronger,” said Carpenter. “We are younger in our faith, but we are more faith-filled.”
Pictured: Venture Church celebrates recent baptisms.