Unemployment is nearly nonexistent in the boomtown of Williston, N.D., enriched by a flurry of drilling in the Bakken oil field that reaches into Montana and Canada.
“I believe God is moving us towards becoming a missionary outpost for this entire region.”
— Pastor Ashley OlingerSchools and the housing market are hard-pressed to accommodate the many families and workers the economy has drawn to Williston, where the estimated population of 30,000 is more than double what it was two years ago.
There’s only one Southern Baptist church in town.
Ashley Olinger, its pastor, sees in the changing landscape an opportunity to plant churches but says he will need resources from across the Southern Baptist Convention to respond to God’s call.
“I’m a truck driver from northern Canada trying to wrap my head around such a spiritual opportunity. I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Olinger, who pastors Cornerstone First Baptist Church in Williston. “It’s daunting, exciting, and I guess my greatest fear is we drop the ball and miss the opportunity that God has placed in front of us.”
Olinger’s not speaking of a short-term evangelistic outreach but an opportunity to plant several vibrant churches in the area that will flourish from an estimated 50 years of Bakken drilling.
“I believe God is moving us toward becoming a missionary outpost for this entire region,” Olinger said. “Ministry goes beyond chaplaincy to single guys, to family ministry, to youth ministry. Church planting and long-term discipleship is a huge, huge part of it.
“I believe that God will not only allow churches to be planted across this region, but those that are here temporarily, we’ll be able to send back to wherever they’re from, hopefully as missionaries back to their hometowns.”
That’s why the church planter who came to Williston from Canada more than two years ago is corralling support by hosting a Bakkan Oil Field Summit Nov. 12-14, hoping to attract partners and support for church planting.
“In our region, there are only two or three of our [SBC] churches located up here,” he said. “The next closest one [to Williston] is 50 miles away, the church in Watford City. The next closest would be in Minot, which is 100 miles away.”
Olinger presents Williston as a rich field for biblical harvest.
“The bars and the strip clubs in town are making an absolute fortune every night. The challenge is that is the only opportunity for social interaction that a lot of these guys — that there is,” he said. “Restaurants are closed early at night because they don’t have staff, which, again, presents some unique opportunities.”
Olinger is inviting to the summit anyone who wants to help the region minister to the growing population. In addition to church planters, he needs manpower for servant evangelism outreaches such as prayerwalking and hosting a Thanksgiving dinner.
“We’re just trying to pull together people that are interested in helping us reach the opportunity that God has set in front of us. I’m pretty open to working with whoever wants to come alongside of us and help us … deal with the influx,” he said. “That’s been a part of my passion for some time. I was a church planter in Canada. I see my role more as equipping God’s people to becoming the missionaries He intended us to be, that together we might be able to reach out into this opportunity.”
Olinger’s congregation moved into a new building in July and has seen Sunday attendance double to about 230, he said, with 10-25 visitors each week. The church is adding a new weeknight worship service to accommodate shift workers and hopes to plant by January a church in Ray, about 30 miles from Williston.
“Our approach to it needs to be long-term. It needs to be far more comprehensive than putting a tract and a Bible in man camps,” he said, referring to the temporary housing facilities built for the oil field crews. “It needs to be much more than that. And that’s in part why I believe God brought me here when I already had a passion for church planting. And so I think it was a natural fit.”
Olinger has the support of the Dakota Baptist Convention and the North America Mission Board, which already have cooperatively placed a church planter in the region.
“We’ve got a lot of people in our church that I believe over the next few years will end up leading some of these small churches as we plant them around the region,” Olinger said. “I’m excited. The workload is huge, but I believe that He’s got some phenomenal things in store for us.”
Supporters may reach Olinger at Aolinger.firstname.lastname@example.org or at 701-572-2724.-BP