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Church on the Move

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Virtually everyone in Plains, Montana — population 1,000 — knows Jim K. Sinclair, senior pastor of Church on the Move. In fact, 260 residents consider the Assemblies of God congregation their church home.

Yet the Sunday morning service actually is only a sliver of what constitutes ministry at Church on the Move. Locals who aren’t regular attendees recognize the church’s reputation for meeting needs.

Plains is located amid the majestic forests and snow-capped mountains of northwest Montana. Sinclair and his wife of 43 years, Reneé, assumed the pastorate two decades ago, when the church had only 17 attendees. At the time, Sinclair made three times as much money cutting timber for a living. He’s eschewed multiple opportunities to move elsewhere to make more as a pastor.

“I’m pretty happy right here,” says Sinclair, 61. “The driving force of ministry makes it easy to stay. Jesus said the poor will always be with you, and if you really want to serve, you can’t find a better place.”

The median annual income in Plains is $18,000.

“People move here for the amenities of rural life,” Sinclair says. “If they want to get ahead, they don’t stick around long.”

A unique niche that Church on the Move fills is helping residents heat their homes in an area where freezing temperatures can occur nine months out of the year. For the past 15 years, the church has harvested firewood after bidding on parcels of timber sold on U.S. Forest Service land.

Volunteers cut, split, and deliver between 150 and 200 cords of free firewood each winter, especially to the elderly, single mothers, and the disabled. The church has the professional equipment necessary — including a self-loading logging truck that grabs trees and places them on the vehicle — to operate a full-fledged logging operation.

Sinclair, at 6 feet 4 inches, is an imposing figure, a rugged outdoorsman who is skilled at sawing logs. Typically, each year half a dozen Master’s Commission student groups from across the U.S. will help church volunteers with the project.

Many in the region struggle financially and work more than one job in an effort to make ends meet. The Sinclairs empower church attendees to act upon their desires to fill ministry needs, and 40 volunteer regularly. Most of the free services provided by the church — including woodcutting, a clothing bank, pregnancy care, and a soup kitchen — started because someone had a passion that led to action.

“We’ve told our members they can only be sheep for so long, then they must become ranch hands,” says Reneé.

In his first few days as pastor, Sinclair and a few faithful followers went door to door around the town giving away bread. The following week, attendance at the church more than tripled. He found that several elderly residents skimped on food in order to pay for medicine.

Now, a dozen regulars volunteer at the church’s state-certified Shekinah Soup Kitchen, although much more than soup is provided. Free home-cooked lunches are served to an average of 80 people every Tuesday.

Some come not so much because they are hungry, but because they are lonely. That’s fine with Sinclair.

“We’re not just here to serve food but to minister,” he says.

In addition, more than 150 families are fed each month from the church’s pantry. The food bank, supported financially by local businesses and occasionally by Convoy of Hope, has five freezers, containing everything from elk roasts to bear burgers. Game that is confiscated by authorities — such as a moose that sustained a broken leg when hit by a vehicle — is turned over to the church. At the church’s certified kitchen, a moose ground up with beef fat and bacon can yield 400 pounds of meat.

The newest venture for Church on the Move is to try to replicate compassion ministry in Hot Springs, a community of 540 people 25 miles to the northeast on the Flathead Indian Reservation. After nine months of preparation that included distributing wood, holding Bible studies, and forming relationships, Church on the Move in June opened a video campus church in an abandoned Hot Springs bowling alley on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. Around 25 people have been coming to the service, held at 2 p.m., to allow local ranchers and farmers to finish their chores. Church on the Move soon plans to canvass the entire town with a food outreach.

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