On its surface, the assignment was painfully simple: Pick some kind of faith-based establishment, any one at all, and write 400 words about whatever it is you find. The establishment need only be local and the essay should, ideally, connect to the holiday season. That's it. Godspeed, and hit your deadline. Try not to burst into flames during your research.
The fireworks, thank heavens, were avoided. Not avoided, however, were analogies to "The Simpsons," Lord of the Rings, Jane Austen and Home Alone, nor countless plugs from the pulpit for Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. One choral director even spoke at length of an upcoming flash mob featuring the entire church choir (we'll let you know if we ever find it on YouTube.) Our largely non-religious writers were introduced to The Wonderworker and the Cowboy Church, "buffet-style" beliefs and a Sunday talk on the process of carbon sequestration. We prayed for some interesting scenes, compelling characters and diverse takes on what the holidays are all about, and our prayers were largely answered.
Yellow Book lists more than 100 churches in Missoula alone, and there are more than a hundred more congregations stretching across the Flathead and Bitterroot valleys. We couldn't cover them all. But what follows offers at least a snapshot of the season from, for us, a slightly different perspective.
First Presbyterian Church of Missoula
201 S. Fifth Street W.
Dan Cravy, co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Missoula, holds a loaf of bread in his hand and recites the Prayer of Consecration before delivering communion to a packed house of parishioners. But before the bread is delivered, Cravy interjects with a quick aside: "And for those of you with bread allergies, remember that we have gluten-free wafers." Apparently Kettlehouse isn't the only local business making accommodations for the gluten-averse these days.
Old school literary traditions converge with modern sensibilities here at First Presbyterian, just south of the Hip Strip. This is, of course, the church led by Rev. John Maclean—father of Norman—from 1909 to 1925, and a new stone memorial near the front steps credits the pastor as the inspiration for both A River Runs Through It and the construction of the current church here on Fifth Street.
But this is also the church where co-pastor Brian Marsh delivers a sermon using far different literary references: Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. The topic is the expectation of love, and Marsh manages to tie together Tolkien's hobbits into a message of unwavering love and devotion, noting Sam's refusal to let his master continue the journey to Mordor by himself. Marsh also notes the similarities to running the church as co-pastor with Cravy, though he notes the roles of Sam and Frodo are constantly switching back and forth.
If the fantasy genre references are lost on some parishioners—the average age at this 9:30 a.m. service appears to be about 65—they hide it well, chuckling throughout the sermon. That's not to say the church lacks a younger audience—just about every kid between 3 and 12 years old is in Sunday school. And you can bet there will be a more youthful crowd for the 11 a.m. service, when the Chancel Choir is replaced by the Worship Band. In the meantime, Cravy invites one of the few teenagers in attendance to help light the second candle on the Advent wreath, which he does with a shy smile.
In light of the sermon, it's mildly surprising that Rev. Cravy doesn't thank the teen with a fist bump. That's Cravy's move, according to Marsh. When conversations end or a problem has been remedied, Cravy often favors the bump over a handshake. And if that seems odd, just remember that President Obama is also a fist-bumper. It's safe to say that the move has gone mainstream.
The cowboy way
Flathead Valley Cowboy Church
Hwy. 93, 1.4 miles north of W. Reserve Drive, in Kalispell
Montana has an answer to the rollicking, soul-filled gospel of the South. It rests just off Highway 93 north of Kalispell in a dimly lit box church resembling something off the set of HBO's "Deadwood." The cold may cut right through wool in the parking lot, but inside the Flathead Valley Cowboy Church, if the giggles of children running circles around dogs don't warm the spirit, the hot coffee and high-stepping music of a four-piece band certainly will. Even strangers are greeted with a neighborly smile and a firm handshake before the chow bell summons them to worship. The plates of fresh cookies are merely a bonus.
Pastor Margie Arends starts a recent evening service at the Cowboy Church with a simple invitation: "Feel at home with us." Though all denominations are welcome, God is a Christian one here. And He's always in a good mood, she says. The congregation is mostly made up of local farmers, ranchers and horse fiends who subscribe to a fundamental teaching of the Bible—when they aren't busy singing, that is. As Senior Pastor Paul Arends so passionately puts it, "There's a war going on."
"No, not the one in Iraq or Afghanistan," he explains. "This war is going on in the spiritual realm."
Arends preaches that the Lord has a pretty big beef with Satan, and the stakes are our lives. You can't be shaken loose "from the things God has for you," Arends says, lest evil steal you. Satan's warfare can come in many forms, from a lost job to an empty checking account. That's why the congregation prays for "jobs," "raises and bonuses," and "checks in the mail." Hallelujahs ring out from the horse-blanket draped pews.
But Christmas isn't solely a time for fire and brimstone. It's a time for a celebration of friends and family, for compassion, for embracing identity and faith. That's why Arends plugs the church's upcoming February mission to Thailand, the "largest, most aggressive outreach" this congregation has undertaken since forming almost a decade ago. It's also why he breaks from hard-line preaching in favor of a more informal, joke-filled sermon. It's the cowboy way.
More than anything, however, this is a time for singing at Cowboy Church. Arends invites onstage a full complement of country-style musicians, all decked in hats, boots and vests. Voices carry loudly through the spacious hall as the band leads uplifting renditions of "God is Good All the Time" and "Rock of My Salvation." Hands sway through the air and eyes close. Come Christmas Eve at 7 p.m., the warmth and melody of the Cowboy Church will be a sight to behold.
If the Blues Brothers ever came West—and had a taste for folksy music—they might well have felt at home here.
A warm place to rest
First Baptist Church
308 W. Pine Street
At the prompting of the pastor, dozens of churchgoers stand up from well-worn wooden pews and cross the aisle inside First Baptist Church. Congregants scatter beneath stained-glass windows and, in a flurry of activity, take part in the regular Sunday morning ritual of introducing themselves to others in attendance.
"Hi, I'm Linda," says Linda Thur, a petite woman with short gray hair and glasses.
Recognizing a newcomer, Thur is eager to spread the good word about First Baptist Church. She's clearly sold on the congregation and explains that the church frequently hosts members of the local homeless population during services. First Baptist is uniquely positioned to do so, largely because it's located kitty corner from the Missoula County Courthouse, a block away from the state's largest homeless shelter, the Poverello Center, and a quick walk from the Mountain Line Transfer Station.
Thur moves in closer to her guest and continues her pitch. The church welcomes anyone during services, she whispers. It also offers free Sunday morning breakfast. The generosity, she says, is a reflection of Christian principles.
"It's a community of faith within the community," Thur says. "I've been impressed by the warmth."
As greetings come to a close and people return to their pews, First Baptist Church Pastor Curtis Privette addresses the room from a raised stage beneath a stained glass representation of the Last Supper. He's flanked by red and white poinsettias and a massive Christmas tree. The young pastor with a tidy brown goatee discusses tools his flock may use to find God during the holiday season.
Privette lays out a list of 13 things taken from the Sermon on the Mount, and the list includes caring for others, mercy and generosity. As he speaks, a large woman seated in the back and wearing faded blue jeans grunts and rocks back and forth. Her body language and appearance peg her as a likely candidate for Thur's down-and-out category.
"The map to righteousness is far more confusing than the map to Bozeman," Privette says, betraying a trace of his fading North Carolina accent. "We need help to be forgiving, kind, generous."
It's not always easy to fulfill those directives, says Privette after the service. Yet, he calls upon the spirit of the season, the spirit of generosity, despite the fact that those huddled here might not be attending services solely to receive God's word.
"I know we get folks who come in Sunday morning," he says, "simply because it's a warm spot that doesn't kick them out."