Nearly a decade ago, Harvest Church, whose main campus is in the Billings Heights, opened a satellite campus in Lockwood.
Back then, developing satellite churches was part of the church’s strategic plan. Over time it became apparent that the two sites were drawing from the same geographic area.
“Splitting our resources between two locations serving the same area did not appear to be wise, as we evaluated,” said the Rev. Crull Chambless, Harvest’s executive pastor.
After doing research and holding multiple meetings, a decision was made this spring to bring the two congregations under one roof for weekend services. The rest of the week, the Lockwood campus will remain open, keeping the staff and its ministries on site.
The last Lockwood weekend services will be July 8. The first combined service is the next weekend, on July 14 and 15.
The decision hasn’t been easy. But it’s Harvest’s best long-term option for most effectively serving Yellowstone County, Chambless said.
He acknowledged it will be a difficult transition for some of the Lockwood congregation’s 200-plus members.
“Change is hard, especially when you don’t have any ownership in the change, when it’s forced on you from the outside,” Chambless said. “We’re trying to be really sensitive to that.”
Harvest Church, which first opened in September 2000, has an attendance these days at the Heights campus of a little over 2,000 people. Like other evangelical churches in the United States, it has seen a slight decline in attendance.
In an age when the average person attends church 1.7 times a month, “what we are seeing is a higher demand for competing priorities in families” like recreation and sports, Chambless said.
The increasing number of young people who don't attend church, along with the current political climate may also have an effect, he said.
Chambless said Harvest is “faring better than the national average.” Indeed, it remains one of the largest churches in Montana, with satellite campuses in Butte; Plentywood; and Cody, Wyoming.
The Lockwood campus, which opened in October 2008, had an average attendance of 243 in 2009. That figure rose to a high of 328 in 2014 and then dropped to 231 in 2017.
The makeup of the Lockwood church is estimated at 30 percent Lockwood residents, with the rest coming from the Heights and other parts of Billings.
“Both of our campuses in the Heights location and Lockwood are drawing people from all over the city,” Chambless said.
The suggestion for the Lockwood site to become a Harvest satellite campus originally came from the conference superintendent for the Evangelical Church in North America, the denomination to which Harvest belongs.
Eternity Church, formerly Lockwood Evangelical, served a small congregation of the same denomination. The church’s pastor, one of several over the years, intended to retire, and the superintendent approached Harvest about taking it over.
“At that time we had a campus in Plentywood, and they knew we were investigating multisite (campuses) as a strategy,” Chambless said. “So we said we’d be glad to help."
After remodeling the site at 1413 Rosebud Lane, including adding a café, services began in fall 2008. A campus pastor was hired to minister to the flock, with weekend messages featuring the Rev. Vern Streeter, Harvest’s senior pastor, livestreamed into the sanctuary.
A car care ministry was added to the Lockwood campus, as well a biblical counseling department. Through the car ministry, donated vehicles are repaired and then given to people in need, predominantly single mothers.
“We’ve done some really great ministry here,” Chambless said.
More recently, the Heights campus began planning for new construction projected to begin in 2020. The church is in the architectural phase of a plan to add a dedicated worship space, a chapel for weddings and funerals and a family entertainment center.
In January, the Lockwood pastoral staff met with Harvest’s senior leaders to see what effect that project might have on the satellite campus. They wondered if the updated campus might draw some of their members who live in the Heights away.
The question was a catalyst for discussion, to take a step back and look at Billings in general, Chambless said. Leaders studied the situation, including completing scatterplots that showed people from all over Billings attending both campuses and that resources were being diluted.
The children’s ministry department was struggling to find enough volunteers for weekend services at both campuses. At times the Lockwood campus had to close a kids’ room because of a shortage of helpers.
Chambless and others took their findings to Harvest’s church council. Out of that came a decision to engage Lockwood campus members in a focus group.
Sixty people, including leadership from both campuses and specific individuals, met on March 4 to hear the results and share their thoughts and concerns. A second town hall meeting on March 22 was open to all the Lockwood members.
Finally, on May 18, the church council voted to merge the campuses for weekend services. Another Lockwood campus town hall meeting has been slated for June 3 to answer people's questions, Chambless said, and to “process the grief of loss.”
“One of the reasons we’ve taken so long with this decision is compassion for those people we know are not going to understand,” Chambless said.
One of the objections he’s heard is from people who enjoy being part of a smaller congregation. They’re afraid they will lose the intimacy that comes in that setting, Chambless said.
There’s also a comfort level with the staff they’ve come to know over the years. Though no one will be laid off during the transition, some staff members make take on new roles.
Lockwood members also are worried that initiatives connected to their community will go by the wayside. For instance, every fall, the Lockwood campus holds a school supply drive for Lockwood School.
That will continue, Chambless said, but instead of 200 people contributing, it will be closer to 2,000.
“We are not abandoning Lockwood,” he said. “We’re actually structuring to reach Lockwood with more resources more effectively.”
There are no plans to sell the Lockwood church's building, Chambless said. The Heights campus doesn’t have space to house the car care ministry, although that will change once construction is completed.
“If someone came and tendered an offer, like any wise steward, we’d consider it,” he said. “We haven’t done a market study to see what it’s worth.”
Chambless knows a good possibility exists that some members will leave Harvest in the aftermath of the merger. Harvest leaders are doing everything they can to ease the transition.
But the bottom line, he said, is “we’re trying to be wise stewards of the resources we have.”