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Oilfield Influx

North Dakota congregations grow as a result of outreaches to residents moving to drilling areas near new boomtowns.

Sitting atop the Bakken formation, the once quiet community of Williston, North Dakota, is now home to a shale revolution. Dubbed "America's New Gold Rush City," the area is producing around 1.2 million barrels of oil a day with 12,000 wells drilling for oil.

The lure of wealth has brought an influx of people from all over the world, causing a population surge from around 14,000 only five years ago to near 50,000 today.

The diversity of people in the community poses a great challenge for churches and fuels momentum to keep growing and reaching out, according to Chris Walstad, lead pastor of LifeChurch Assembly of God in Williston.

"God has brought the mission field to Williston and this is our opportunity to strike while the iron's hot," he says. "We have a short window of time to make a big difference."

The church began reaching out to people four years ago when a housing shortage forced many oil workers to sleep in their cars in parking lots and on the streets. The church offered Saturday night dinners that drew 125 people a week.

The congregation has since quadrupled in size, prompting the addition of a second service. LifeChurch also added a Sunday afternoon African service that is led by a pastor from Ghana.

The combination of men and money has brought with it elements of organized crime, human trafficking, and prostitution. However, Walstad believes many of those coming to Williston looking for work are desperate for the Word of the Lord.

"Life somewhere else has fallen apart and they come here as a last-ditch effort," he says. "When they came here looking for hope, they came looking for a job. It's amazing how many of them find Christ."

Desperation is what brought Brande Ogle and her family to nearby Watford City, where the population has mushroomed from 1,744 in 2010 to more than 15,000 in 2015. The Ogles moved to the area two years ago from Almira, Washington, after her husband, Jason, lost his job in the town of 284.

Hanging onto the promise of the oilfields, the Ogles made the big change in an effort to keep from losing their car and home.

"It was hard and it was scary," Brande says. "We didn't know anybody. I was very homesick. I mourned the loss of our church and our friends and family."

Desperate to connect, they attended Watford City Assembly of God one Sunday. Ogle says family members were greeted with open arms and immediately felt the presence of the Lord.

Lead Pastor Sheldon McGorman urged existing church members but to embrace newcomers and the size of the congregation doubled. Attendees adopted what he calls a "parade mentality" of ministering to whomever God places in front of them for that moment.

McGorman says the greatest need for new residents is loneliness. Many people coming to the area have left family and support structures.

The church holds a Tuesday night Oilfield Christian Fellowship, which draws 50 men from churches citywide. In addition, women whose husbands work in the oilfields gather weekly to have coffee with other moms while their children play in the church's preschool area.

A Spanish-speaking service also has been added, and the size of the church building has tripled to accommodate the growth.

"What God is doing in this region right now is so unprecedented," McGorman says. "We believe that it's not an accident that God put oil under the ground. The reason why people are coming to this region is not oil or money. We believe that it's for Jesus."

 Image used in accordance with Creative Commons license. Photo credit: Tim Evanson, Flickr

Shannon M. Nass

Shannon Nass and her husband, Greg, are credentialed ministers with the Assemblies of God and live in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, with their twin daughters, Naomi and Charlotte. Shannon is a freelance writer and special education teacher who also serves as coordinator for Beyond Survival Ministries, a Christian nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the gospel.