Just a hundred yards from Canada in a community that prides itself as the frequent coldest spot in the continental U.S., Pastor Chris Thoresen prays for hope.
Like many small towns, the residents of International Falls, Minnesota, struggle with substance abuse, layoffs, and poverty.
“There’s a lot of hopelessness, a lot of despair,” Thoresen says. “There’s a lot of seeking in the wrong places.”
He moved to International Falls to pastor last summer, thanks to financial support from 57 other Assemblies of God Minnesota District Council churches in sparsely populated areas. Thoresen, 34, will receive a full-time salary for about two years as he and his family establish a presence at Gateway Assembly, formerly known as First Assembly of God. Last spring, the dwindling church of 20 came under district supervision.
Earlier, Thoresen moved to Chicago after pastoring in northwest Minnesota. Then Thoresen says he felt the Lord call him, his wife, Shawna, and their daughters Zoe, 7, and Zelde, 3, back to the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. Northwest Section Presbyter Vern Lathe told him about the opening in International Falls, which is nicknamed Icebox of the Nation.
“We moved in faith, we sold everything we had,” Thoresen says. “We said we had complete peace about it.”
Greg Hickle, secretary/treasurer for the Minnesota District, says the church in the economically strapped community had struggled. The remote town’s population has fallen to 6,000, down from 8,300 in 1990.
Before he retired, Minnesota District Superintendent Clarence St. John called area churches last spring to ask for support so Thoresen initially wouldn’t have to find additional employment.
“We wanted to give a jump start to the next pastor,” Hickle says. “It’s pretty hard on a pastor to work a 40-hour-a-week job, and then minister on top of that.”
All 57 rural churches contacted agreed to send either a one-time contribution or monthly donations to the district to cover Thoresen’s salary.
The church has doubled in size since Thoresen became pastor. He says the outside support has been essential.
“I’ll be able to focus full-time on ministry without being bivocational for about two years,” he says.
Hickle says the district has supported three pastors and churches this way, with the goal of becoming self-sustaining after a year or two.
“They were small rural churches really having a hard time,” he says.
Thoresen has set a goal for Gateway Assembly to reach 1,000 people every year.
“God wants to change lives,” Thoresen says. “People are sensing and knowing that God isn’t done.”
Last fall, the church held a series of community events for kids. One partnership through the school system, Released Time, allows kids to come to the church for one hour after school during the week. Seven kids accepted Jesus as Savior as a result.