Modern-day missionaries

The Missoula Project wants to plant a church in a secular wilderness. Can nonbelievers sustain a Christian congregation?


“How many of you have heard of Amway?”

Christian Cryder deftly melts the ice with the 15 Missoulians gathered in his basement on plush leather couches. People laugh and shift in their seats in response to his question, and Cryder keeps the gag going with his best carnival barker’s voice.

“We’re going to tell you about an amazing opportunity where you can start your own little church and make beaucoup bucks!”

The laughter grows, and Cryder smiles wide before continuing.

“This is not Amway—we are not here to sell you anything,” he says. “All of you know we’re here to start a church.

“The church we envision is bigger than an institution, it’s bigger than Sundays…it’s big enough to actually encompass people who say they don’t buy it.”

Now Cryder has the room’s attention. They’ve been waiting to hear this pitch. The first hour of the evening was spent upstairs in the Cryders’ tidy and welcoming home, where Marilyn, Christian’s wife, served up a sumptuous dinner of salmon, rice, bread and salad. After dinner, people refilled their wine glasses or switched to coffee and headed downstairs with equal portions of dessert and curiosity in tow.

Over the course of three nights in late November, more than 50 Missoulians gather at the Cryder home for these “vision dinners,” which begin with supper and small talk and progress to an after-dinner discussion where Cryder and co-Pastor Ryan Sutherland, who both moved here last year with their families to plant a church, lay out their plans for the Missoula Project. The two men have been busy sewing the seeds of their idea over the course of the last year, visiting with anyone and everyone willing to let them into their lives, but this is the first time they’ve brought people together to formally lay out the vision of the Missoula Project. Now it’s time for the seeds to grow.

Most of the people at this basement meeting aren’t Christians, and most are in their 20s or 30s, though older age groups are also well represented. They come with kids, with girlfriends and boyfriends, with husbands and wives. They come because they’ve drunk beer at the Kettlehouse Brewery during the Missoula Project’s regular Friday night get-togethers there, or because they’ve attended Missoula Project parties where wine and music flow freely, or because they’ve sat in on “explorers group” meetings and hashed over the significance of the Gospel of Mark. They come because they’ve heard Cryder and Sutherland talk about the new community they want to build that includes—but ostensibly won’t be dominated by—a church component. They envision a community that connects neighbors and challenges its members to actively enhance their city. Some people here want to be part of it, and some of them think it’s just a bait-and-switch ploy to win them over before the proselytizing begins. It may be too soon to know just where the truth lies, but even so, members of both camps say they’re drawn to the Missoula Project. Regardless of its founders’ evangelical motivations, it seems that their promise of community is winning over the churched and the unchurched alike.

Picture of a project

To quote a good book, not the good book, mind you: “Heavens have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

Many people would rather hear these words from Herman Melville in a great American novel like Moby Dick than heed the same sentiments found within the pages of the Bible. That’s because the problem with the Bible, in large part, is its baggage. More specifically, the problem with Christianity, more often than not, is the people behind it.

As Cryder says, “Most people don’t reject Christianity because of Jesus; they reject it because of Christians. A lot of Christians are jerks.”

Cryder and Sutherland don’t want to be those Christians, and routinely take pains to show and remind those around them that, in Cryder’s words, they’re “not your father’s Presbyterian.” They show it in little ways. When Sutherland quotes from the Bible, as is a pastor’s habit, he doesn’t austerely intone his message but instead prefaces it with a disarming “I hate to get biblical on you but…” And Cryder makes it clear that he isn’t looking for people eager to prop up his understanding of the world. “The biggest thing that screws up churches is they surround themselves with people who agree with them,” he says.

Although Cryder, 37, and Sutherland, 29, are committed pastors working to organize their own congregation, they both have surprising beefs with organized religion.

“I’m more comfortable with people outside the church than people within it,” says Cryder, who says he was raised within a fundamentalist congregation.

Sutherland shares Cryder’s view. “For me, growing up, church was about putting on a good exterior and never being honest about your own struggle,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of organized religion.”

Sound odd for a couple of missionaries? Cryder and Sutherland, who met while attending seminary school in Philadelphia, say there’s a better way to worship.

“I think what repulses people about organized religion is the idea of a few people with a lot of power holding people under their thumbs and using it to their advantage,” Sutherland says. “I think anytime you see that, it’s not what the Bible wants. Jesus never put forward that leadership model.”

Cryder and Sutherland say they want to build more than a church. They intend to build a community, and say that the church or faith component of that community will be merely a subset of their larger vision of bringing together believers and nonbelievers with a common goal of serving and loving Missoula and its masses. They want to create a network that provides practical life support to its members—for instance, helping one another with household projects and basic needs instead of hiring a handyman or turning to institutions like the food bank—as well as friendship and spiritual sustenance. Furthermore, they say they want to cultivate an environment that values and respects major differences among its members, and they promise to never try to convert people who don’t share their religious views.

“We think people should be a part of us because they’re our friends and not because they believe like us,” says Cryder.

That approach appeals strongly to Adam Richards, who says the Missoula Project offers a “novel” outlet for people who might not otherwise take part in a church-based community.

“The reason [many churches] exist is for the people who are already members,” Richards says. “And that’s not the way I think church should be—it should welcome everyone and go out into the community and serve as well.”

Not surprisingly, after Cryder and Sutherland finish pitching their vision for the Missoula Project, some of the first questions drive at concerns about how this community would work on the ground. Sure, in theory it sounds nice to have a bunch of different-minded folks build a community together, but would it actually function?

“How do you plan to keep everyone in line?” asks Michael Hinton, a University of Montana graduate student who’s not religious but has attended a number of Missoula Project events. “You’re going to have worshippers and then all the guys who just come and eat your food.”

His comment is met with laughter, but he has a point: Why would nonbelievers want to hang out with a group of Christians building a church? What would their role be? And even if the believers don’t actively work to convert nonbelievers, isn’t there an undeniable subtext of hoping to help the lost sheep find their way to the kingdom of heaven?

Cryder and Sutherland have answers to all these questions, and at the root their contention is that relationships within the Missoula Project are based not on God or faith but on one another. Christians and non-Christians alike hunger for meaningful connections and discussions with others who care deeply about their shared community, they say, and the people who’ve bothered to show up for the vision dinners are people seeking to expand and improve their world.

“We need all of you because what we really need are people to keep us honest and to point out our failures and flaws,” says Cryder. Sutherland adds that the unchurched stand to gain as much as believers from an honest and mutually stimulating atmosphere. “Having another perspective around challenges the things they believe and helps them articulate the reasons behind their beliefs,” he says.

That aspect of the Missoula Project deeply appeals to Jori Frakie, who’s non-religious but drawn to the promise of community and has participated in a handful of Project events. She says that despite the endless number of opportunities to belong to interest groups and social causes locally, there are precious few forums that offer honest, engaging discussions that are meaningful and challenging. Like many of the other vision dinner attendees who pipe up during the discussion, she’s excited at what the Missoula Project offers but still has questions.

“I’m really yearning for that community, and yet there’s always this rub,” she says. “If you believe Christ is the way to the kingdom of God, there’s some hope other people will accept him and that’s hard.”

In reply, Cryder reiterates that he won’t attempt to convert people, but acknowledges: “Would I love to see you come to Christ? Yes I would. If I didn’t say that I’d be lying.”

The core reason Cryder and Sutherland say they won’t try to convert anyone is because they don’t believe they can. As they say, “only God can change hearts.” The way that Cryder and Sutherland see it, their duty as Christians obliges them to love people the way Jesus did—unconditionally. They’re called to serve their communities and help people in need. As for evangelism, they draw a distinction that will ring true with some and seem merely semantic to others. “Are we trying to change people? No,” Cryder says. “Do we desire to see people’s lives changed? Yes.”

That evangelical impulse gives people like Marc Moss pause. A local artist, Moss just can’t shake off his skepticism about the Missoula Project and its founders. Moss says he was approached by Cryder as part of his outreach to community members and has participated in a few events over the last several months. Cryder and Sutherland are nice guys, he says, but he can’t bring himself to trust them or their motivations. He thinks the talk about wanting to involve people with different opinions is really just a smart marketing tactic.

“I think he invites questions in the same way I would if I were submitting an RFP [request for proposals] in the business world,” he says. “I’d look at the competition and buy them beer so when I present my product it seems more appealing.

“The agenda is, I’m going to recruit you into my church by gaining your trust on your terms—I don’t buy it and I think the last thing Missoula needs is another church,” he says. “They’re fishers of men and none of the flies they’ve cast in my direction look tasty.”

Genesis of a mission

So if the founders of the Missoula Project aren’t “your father’s Presbyterian,” who are they?

Cryder, who grew up in Billings, and Sutherland, raised in Gardiner, first met when they were studying to become pastors. Both say they dedicated their lives to Jesus and developed the notion of working in ministry at a young age. Though Cryder came from a religious home, he says it was Christian in name only, and he turned to the Bible searching for a happy ending in the wake of his parents’ divorce. In ninth grade, he says his youth pastor inspired him to devote himself to Jesus rather than the secular world, which led him to turn down acceptance letters from Stanford, MIT and West Point Military Academy to go to bible college. But just when he thought his life was shaping up perfectly to position him as a pastor, he says, “God very graciously slammed the door in my face,” and he ended up working as a software engineer for 14 years while nursing a lingering desire to attend seminary school. The delay was important, he says, because his initial yearning to become a pastor was based in prideful, self-righteous vanity, but the second time around he saw “how much I needed ministry, not how much I had to offer.”

Sutherland was also raised in a vaguely Christian home but says he didn’t consider himself such until he was 17, when he became best friends with a pastor’s son. Subsequent service work with his church group in Mexico opened his eyes to the poverty and struggles of the world and convinced him that God wanted him to become a good steward of his life. Although he graduated from Montana State University with a history degree, he says he always planned to attend seminary and become a pastor. He developed the notion of planting a church—instead of just being sent to preach at an existing church—after he met Cryder and realized that creating a new church offered the opportunity to build a more genuine community.

“I was starting to get fed up with the trajectory I was seeing in contemporary evangelical churches,” he says. “That propelled me into church planting.”

Sutherland says he’s also drawn to missionary work because he disdains the self-congratulatory air that frequently develops in groups of like-minded Christians. He prefers to be around ordinary people who don’t have it all figured out.

“What the Bible’s calling us to do is be among those people and value them and learn from them and try to rub off on them also,” he says.

Both Cryder and Sutherland seem to genuinely enjoy their work, so much so that it seems like play. They’re quick to make fun of themselves, and they relish the good things of life: rich food, good beer and fine wine, a nice cigar.

“One of our goals is to be a church that has great parties,” says Cryder. And so far, they’ve done an admirable job of it. At the first annual Missoula Project Christmas Party Dec. 14, David Boone played at the Cryders’ packed house and the organizers used the opportunity to raise $840 to give away to single mothers having a rough time during the holidays. They’ve got a blog ( that regularly updates people on Missoula Project events and happenings. And their vision of slowly developing more connections in the local community seems to be progressing as planned. Besides parties and informal gatherings, the Missoula Project recently organized a community group that meets every Sunday to discuss ways to manifest Christ-like love and service in the community. It hosts ongoing “explorers groups” that bring people together to analyze the Gospel of Mark, and Cryder and Sutherland plan to launch formal worship sessions in fall of 2008.

But the Missoula Project isn’t just a vision cooked up by its founders. It has the financial and organizational support of one of the nation’s major churches behind it, and it’s just one of its many church-planting efforts nationwide.

The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the second largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, sent Cryder and Sutherland to plant their church in Missoula. There are currently two other PCA churches in Montana, one in Bozeman and one in Billings. Besides the Missoula church-planting effort, the PCA also recently sent a family to Helena to grow a church.

Originally a group of Southern churches, the PCA broke away from the nation’s largest Presbyterian denomination—the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA)—more than 30 years ago in opposition to growing liberalism within the PCUSA. Specifically, the PCA holds a literal and more conservative interpretation of scripture and differs from the major Presbyterian denomination in that it does not permit women to be ordained and insists that homosexuality is a sin. These beliefs are manifested differently by each congregation; for example, says Cryder, some churches don’t allow women to have any input in church decisions while others involve women in nearly every role except that of preaching.

With more than 300,000 members and about 1,500 churches, the PCA places a large emphasis on its missionary work, and as of December 2006, according to its website, it had sent 590 missionaries around the world and supported 450 church planting projects within the United States.

Paul Dietrich, director of religious studies at the University of Montana, says the Missoula Project fits into a long continuum of missionary work that first reached Montana in the mid-1800s and continues today. In the latter part of the 20th century, he says, mainline churches such as the Presbyterians that had long focused missionary efforts in foreign lands reinvigorated their efforts in the United States, particularly in relatively unchurched regions like the Rockies.

The Missoula Project’s vision of building a community that differs from traditional religious groups by incorporating nonreligious members and activities likewise reflects a common approach for modern missionary efforts, Dietrich says.

“I think every denomination tries to find strategies to reach out and to appeal to both younger believers as well as to the unchurched,” he says. “Since we live in the most unchurched part of the country, when young seminarians are sent out to Oregon, Washington and western Montana, they’re warned they’re entering mission territory where a substantial part of the population belongs to ‘none of the above,’ and therefore they couch their message in a way that’s intended to appeal to those people.”

Conflicting convictions

The financial and organizational links between the Missoula Project and the PCA offer stability to the budding church, but they also create a hurdle for some of the nonbelievers that Cryder and Sutherland want to attract.

One Project participant, Frakie, fundamentally disagrees with the PCA stance on gender roles and homosexuality, two issues vital to her sense of social justice. She foresees that if she remains involved with the group, the ideological conflicts will be a barrier, though not necessarily a deal breaker. “I think we can and should develop friendship and bonds with people we disagree with. We might help each other grow even if we don’t shift on these fundamental differences,” she says. “But I do think that wall will always be there.”

Earnest but unchurched souls like Frakie aren’t just imagining the wall separating the nascent church from its progressive constituents. The profound depth of the theological gulf between believers and nonbelievers shows up in the unmistakably evangelical rhetoric of the Missoula Project’s Christian backers. A Missoula Project brochure that’s targeted at PCA members and was written before Cryder and Sutherland moved to town—two disclaimers offered and duly noted—reflects a kind of spiritual condescension that is starkly different from their frequently professed affinity for differences and disagreement:

Nestled in the heart of the mountains, Missoula, Montana, sits like a crown jewel in the last best place. It is a beautiful city to live in, but it’s a barren wasteland spiritually. Nearly 70% of those who live here are completely unchurched. Many have rejected modern religiosity and are looking elsewhere for answers. Burned out ex-hippies, liberal intellectuals, rugged individualists, and bulletproof college students—all are on a quest for meaning and fulfillment. These people hunger for something more but they are not finding it. Very few have any real understanding of how Christ and the Gospel can quench their thirst. We want to plant a church that speaks to people like these.

It’s statements like those that can make a nonbeliever feel more like a project than a friend, and more like they’re being patronized rather than truly respected. But many of those involved with the Missoula Project say they are hungering for something more—not necessarily religion, but definitely a dialogue about the meaning of community and life, and a joint attention toward improving both.

Adam Richards, who considers himself a Missoula Project member, says the Project’s appeal rests in its inclusiveness. While many churches exist only for the sake of their members and aren’t very involved with their larger community, the Missoula Project actively strives to welcome everyone, regardless of where they’re coming from. It fills a gap that could be found in any community, he says: “That would be people being able to get together, show grace to each other, and build relationships not built on belief but on the fact that you’re part of the same community.”

Grad student Michael Hinton offers a more critical perspective of the Project’s effort to involve nonreligious people, questioning why the church really needs the perspective of nonbelievers. Cryder says it’s important to encourage the presence of people who disagree with him because he wants them to point out his failures and keep him in check. But what does that say about the founders’ self-awareness and self-control?

“What is the state of your church and your religion if you must come to non-believers to keep your irrational mind in check?” Hinton wonders. “That religion and organized religion are filled with assholes and that religious people are incapable of being self-critical? While doing good service is enticing, why would I want to help these people?”

That remark cuts to the heart of what could prove to be a troubling conflict as the Missoula Project develops. But Hinton quickly follows up with another statement revealing what Cryder and Sutherland have done right, and how the Missoula Project has already begun filling noticeable gaps in local dialogue.

“The answer is because there is no other game in town,” Hinton continues. “This group is the most honest about their intellectual dishonesty despite their inability to acknowledge it.”

Praying for guidance

At 6 a.m. on Monday mornings, the founders of the Missoula Project show a different side of themselves. The sessions at the Kettlehouse, parties with live music, and lively dinner-table discussions about the meaning of community reveal a lot about Cryder and Sutherland, but not all.

In Sutherland’s living room in the pre-dawn darkness, Sutherland’s wife, Rachel, and Cryder’s daughter, Rebecca, join the two men in a small prayer service before a roaring fire in Sutherland’s living room.

Sutherland leads the ritual today, reading from parts of the Bible and then following each section with a personal prayer that relates to scripture. Each person in the room takes turn voicing their own prayers, asking for patience, love and healing. They appeal on their own behalf, as well as for those in their lives who are needy and broken. Parts of their prayers seem to speak to their efforts launching the Missoula Project.

“Lord, I confess it’s easy to give lip service to this community we want to create,” Sutherland says softly. “I pray to be more honest and authentic. I pray you will bring people into my life to challenge me, people who are hard to tolerate and love.”

Later, he thanks God for the friends who’ve come into his life and prays that he remains a good steward of their friendship.

“Even though they aren’t on board spiritually, they’ve made deep commitments relationally…I pray for more people to connect with one another, both Christians and non-Christians. This community is only possible if you build it.”

But in many ways, it doesn’t matter who’s building the community called the Missoula Project. Sutherland may thank God for the effort while Hinton points to Cryder and Sutherland for stimulating a dialogue he’s found absent in Missoula, but they all agree that something relevant and appealing has begun to emerge.

Like any community—whether spiritual or secular—it is starting to take on a life of its own. And just as the God of the Bible lost a measure of control over creation once the universe was up and running, as the Missoula Project picks up speed week by week, it exhibits not just the religious convictions of its founders or their denomination but also the personality and drive of the nonbelievers it has engaged.

It remains to be seen whether the unusual community flavor that Cryder and Sutherland are cultivating within the Missoula Project continues to develop. It could easily collapse into one of the navel-gazing churches that Sutherland and Cryder see dominating the religious landscape, or it could evolve into a true bridge connecting secular and religious pursuits in service of the larger community. Not even its founders know whether it can be done. They’re taking it one day at a time, and taking time along the way to consider their progress.

“Sunday morning is a long ways away,” says Cryder. “We need to actually learn to be a church and a community first.”

Comments (16)

Showing 1-16 of 16

Add a comment

Add a comment