Brawler-turned-pastor transforms Mont. church & town

NOXON, Mont. (BP) -- There was a petition circulating to remove violent brawler Jim Webley from town when God intervened and changed not just Webley's life but, years later, the course of a church and a Montana community.

Jim Webley, pastor of Baptist Mountain Church in Noxon, Mont., is an outdoorsman who, before being "taken aback by the Word of God," was a notorious brawler and drug dealer before he drove by a little white Baptist church and "could feel God pulling me in that direction."
Photo courtesy of Jim Webley
In his early 20s, Webley was working in the gold mines of Nevada, entrenched in a rough lifestyle of drugs and alcohol, and through weekly fighting he had "put some people in the hospital," he told Baptist Press. People just wanted him to leave town.

One Sunday morning, Webley was driving his young daughter Sara to get milkshakes when they passed a little white Baptist church building in the Nevada community.

"I absolutely never went to church down there, but I could feel God pulling me in that direction," Webley recounted. "He was telling me I needed to get into church."

Webley had an 8-inch jet lift on his '78 Chevy, so he parked behind the church in hopes his buddies wouldn't drive by and see his recognizable truck.

"I remember walking into church with Sara and every person in that congregation knew me, and I think they were flabbergasted to see me coming through those doors," Webley said. "The pastor was probably 10 minutes into his sermon and he just kind of stopped preaching and stared at me.

"I was wearing an Ozzy Osbourne shirt with the sleeves cut off. On the front he's holding a dove and on the back he's got the dove's head in his mouth."

Webley and his daughter quickly sat down, and he remembers being disgusted with the pastor. "He'd be preaching and he'd be trying to be funny, but it just made me madder. But then he said, 'The Word of God says,' and he would read from the Bible, and I remember sitting there going, 'There's such power in that.' I was taken aback by the Word of God."

One of the disciples Jim Webley is nurturing is his son, 14-year-old Jared. After Webley turned to God from a lifestyle of drugs, alcohol and fighting at age 28, he later found himself as a pastor changing the course of a church and a Montana community.
Photo courtesy of Jim Webley
After the service, no one approached Webley to talk. When he got home, his wife Melissa didn't believe he had been to church. But he went back the next Sunday, as well-dressed as he could manage.

Soon he acknowledged he needed to clean up his life -- no more selling drugs, no more fighting. "I was going to try to be a better person," Webley said. He moved his family up to Montana where he was raised, so he could escape the influence of his friends in Nevada.

The Webleys had lived there about six months when Melissa asked if they were going to look for a church. Webley replied, "Why would we go to church? We're doing so good." He had stopped selling drugs. There was very little fighting. And he was only "smoking pot and drinking."

"I thought God would be pleased with me because I cleaned up my life so well," Webley said. "I thought church was just where you learned to clean up."

At Melissa's insistence, they drove around and found Troy Community Baptist Church in Troy, Mont. There they heard the Gospel for the first time, and Webley realized it wasn't his works that mattered but what Christ did on the cross.

He went to church for a while and grilled the pastor, Cam Foote, with questions, but he still wasn't convinced God even existed. A few months later that changed when he was sitting in church and became convinced God was real.

"I thought, 'I've been fooling myself, pretending that I don't understand or I don't know,'" Webley said, having realized his options were to stop going to church, live the life he wanted and go to hell or give his life to Christ and serve Him.

"It was kind of a no brainer at that point," so Webley went forward that Sunday and gave his life to Christ at the age of 28. When he went home, he went through his house and gathered up his heavy metal shirts and CDs -- anything he thought God wouldn't want in his house -- threw them in a burn barrel in the backyard, dumped gas on it and lit it.

"I told God, 'Whatever You want to do with my life, I'll do it.'"

The pastor suggested Webley might be helped in his walk if he met with the youth on Sundays rather than the adults. One Sunday the teacher didn't show up, and Foote asked Webley to teach the lesson. He had no idea what to do but simply went by the lesson plan. Before long he became the youth pastor.

Seven years later, Foote began nudging Webley toward leading a church plant in Noxon, about an hour south of Troy. But Noxon was the last place Webley wanted to go. When he passed Noxon on the interstate, he couldn't even bear to look over toward the town because of bad memories.

He had lived in Noxon while in elementary school, but it's where his parents' marriage unraveled and a man intentionally burned their house down. Noxon had a bad reputation for being home to a militia and later a white supremacist group.

Webley had been teaching the youth to surrender to God's call on their lives, and he knew he had to do it too. He agreed to speak with the pastor search committee at the church plant, Baptist Mountain Church.

At the end of the meeting, a woman said two things were particularly important to the church. First, they had a potluck every Sunday after church and wanted his assurance that the potlucks could continue. Second, they "didn't want a lot of new people coming in."

"She said, 'There's a bad element here in Noxon and these people that come in ruin the fellowship and ruin the unity of the church, and we just don't want a whole lot of these people coming in,'" Webley said.

Webley told the search committee that he expected the church members to give up their seats for new people, and if they called him as pastor they would not have another potluck until the spiritual issue was cleared up. They called him as pastor, and the first Sunday, when he told them that would be their last potluck, "that pretty much destroyed the church."

The congregation went from about 25 to six people in one week, Webley said, but he was going to preach to an empty room until God told him to stop. From there, God started adding families, and the church has seen a steady increase not only in numbers but in maturity.

During the summer months, the church averages more than 100 on Sundays, and in the winter closer to 65, Webley said. The church was about $150,000 in debt with no congregation when Webley started as pastor, but they were debt-free within a few years. This summer they built a new worship center.

The community of about 300 people has changed as well. A few years ago there was a bad drug problem, "but we ended up getting that cleared up," Webley said.

"That church has a tremendous impact on that town," Foote told BP. "It has radically transformed that town, and Jim's ministry there is phenomenal."

Webley is a bivocational pastor, also working in carpentry and as a guide for deer and elk hunting.

Barrett Duke, executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention, told BP Webley is a perfect example of the Saul-to-Paul disciple.

"Before Christ, he fought with his fists against his fellow men with a terrifying ferocity," Duke said. "Today, he fights with spiritual weapons for his fellow men with God-glorifying determination."

Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville.
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