REENOUGH - It's a church in the middle of nowhere.
Only a lonely gas station, bar, rest stop and a few homes, each sitting on 20 acres of land, are within shouting distance of the Clearwater Alliance Church, located just off of U.S. Highway 200 near Clearwater Junction.
The dark wood exterior and green roof resemble a barn more than a church. But it's still a work in progress. There are no sidewalks. No entryway. No landscaping. No gold crosses adorning the outside of the building. No bell tower (though, there's talk of building one).
The only thing that hints at the structure's true identity is a small sign propped up in the dirt at the turnoff to the church parking lot that advertises the time of Sunday worship service.
Yet, despite its remote location, the Clearwater Alliance Church attracts a crowd.
The 10:30 a.m. service Sunday allows everyone time to get there. Average attendance is 50 men, women and children - many wearing Wranglers, jean jackets and cowboy boots.
People come from all directions, some driving 40 miles to listen to Pastor Bruce Williams' sermon.
Though it may seem like the Clearwater Alliance Church is in the middle of nowhere, it's actually at the geographic center of a spread-out congregation, and representative of something that's central to these Christians' lives.
Four years ago, Evelyn Holbrook, 73, hosted the first worship service for the local Christian and Missionary Alliance group at her home in Potomac.
Several families, inspired by Williams' sermons at a nondenominational church in Ovando, decided to start a church of their own - even without a building. Williams, who earlier had worked as a pastor for a Christian and Missionary Alliance church for 12 years in Wisconsin, agreed to come on as their pastor.
"We didn't know who would come," said Holbrook about the first gathering.
Thirteen people showed up. The next week, two more came. The week after that, six more people.
"We started looking for more room almost immediately," Holbrook said.
The growing congregation played musical chairs for several years, jumping from one spot to the next. In June 2004, services were held at the Sunset School in Greenough. That lasted for five to six weeks, Williams recalls.
"We outgrew that fast."
The congregation then alternated between renting space at Lubrecht Experimental Forest and the community center in Potomac.
When Lubrecht was overbooked, the churchgoers held services in a small, side recreation room with cement floors and no heat. When the mercury dropped below zero during the winter, there was only a small fireplace to keep people warm, Williams said.
"We were a church on the move," Holbrook said.
The motto was "we meet where we meet," said Cosie Johnson, 66, of Helmville. "It was word of mouth."
Wherever the group met, Williams transformed the room into a temporary place of worship, hauling chairs and tables for refreshments, and sound equipment for singing hymns.
Today, most of the members look back fondly on this period of quasi-homelessness. It allowed them to mature as Christians.
"They get the idea that they are the church and not the building," Williams said. "The building is so secondary."
Though the congregation was content bouncing from one place to the next, it became apparent that this church needed a permanent home. No matter where they looked for land, they always found themselves back at the same location near Clearwater Junction.
The Clearwater Alliance Church got a good deal on four acres of land in a 20-acre subdivision in 2002.
Unlike most churches, there was no capital campaign. Private donations and a small grant from Christian and Missionary Alliance national organization allowed the construction to begin.
Volunteer labor reduced much of the cost. Everything but the concrete and drywall work was done by volunteers.
Nail by nail, the congregation grew closer together. Christians flocked from the Bitterroot Valley, Missoula and even Wyoming to help build the Clearwater Alliance Church. Some camped out for weeks on site. Others gave up vacation time to pound nails, paint or cook for the hungry crew. People were there every day, Williams said.
The crew broke ground July 2007 and the church opened its doors in November.
A beautiful, large wooden cross hangs in the front of the sanctuary. It was donated by a retired Lolo man who has a passion for woodworking and is a member of the Missoula Alliance Church.
Construction and furnishings for the project cost a total of $180,000.
"It changes people," said Williams, referring to how far the church has come. "People got more involved in each other's lives. It's a very warm, very loving feeling."
Sundays are often the only day the entire church gathers. Williams leads Bible study groups during the week across the valley at people's homes, but it's too far for everyone to drive to the church for midweek activities, he said.
Johnson wouldn't miss Sunday worship for the world.
There are churches closer to where she lives, but she enjoys the pastor at Clearwater Alliance Church.
The choice is not without sacrifice, of course. Increasing gas prices are a concern to Johnson and her husband, but there are other ways to trim the household budget, she said. Church is a priority.
Sitting in the sanctuary, the place still smells new.
As Williams preaches, a large round window at the front of the sanctuary allows the congregation to gaze out on Boyd Mountain and the Game Range. It's the kind of place that doesn't pass an offering plate, but places a fishing creel at the back of the room in case anyone wants to drop in a few bucks.
Since the church opened its doors, the average attendance at Sunday worship has climbed from 30 to about 50 people.
Its sister church, the Missoula Alliance Church, has a congregation of 1,400 people. Though Greenough is an area slated for future growth, it's not really about how many show up, but who shows up.
"Growth happens because the church goes into the world," Williams said. "It's about touching people's lives."
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com.