Small-Town Church Planting & Alpacas


Calvary Chapel Craig, CO, Pastor Returns to Minister to His Hometown

Story by Sean Labar
Photos contributed by Calvary Chapel Craig

On a remote third-generation family ranch nestled in the Elkhead Mountains of northwest Colorado, Johnny and Laura Ilko spend their days herding alpacas, stacking hay bales, and handmaking hats, socks, children’s toys, and a wide array of products for their family business. The rest of the time, Johnny is the pastor of Calvary Chapel Craig, CO.

“We live and work in a valley—between Baggs, WY, and Craig—where you see absolutely no one, no roads, no houses,” Johnny said. “All we hear is the sound of silence and God’s creation.” For the couple, running and operating a family business completed one of their dreams since getting married after graduating from college.

Pastor John

In 2015, Pastor Johnny and his wife Laura abandoned the comfort of their lives in Wyoming to tackle the challenges of planting a church in small-town America.

Returning to His Roots

“Our story begins and ends with honoring God in all that we do,” Laura shared. “In May of 2015, we moved back to Johnny’s hometown and family ranch and started the church that Johnny now pastors. Shortly thereafter, we had the opportunity … of finally having our dream, a family-owned business we could both work in.”

In 2015, Pastor Johnny and Laura abandoned the comfort of their lives in Wyoming to tackle the challenges of planting a church in small-town America. For Johnny, the decision was an easy one. He felt a calling to return to his roots—to make available to his community the same teachings that shaped his own faith growing up on the ranch. Johnny vividly recalls listening to Pastor Joe Focht of Calvary Chapel Philadelphia, PA, teach God’s Word on the radio as he grew up.

“I knew God was calling me to serve the church but kept looking for signs of how exactly that would look,” Johnny explained. “After months of discussing options with my wife, it became clear. One day she came in and said we were moving to Craig to plant a church, so that made it easy.”

In the days that followed, Johnny and Laura relied on God and never looked back. Though they didn’t have specifics in place, the couple sold their home, gave up their stable careers, and made the trek to the remote town of Craig to share God’s Word.

Lady with alpaca

Laura Ilko enjoys looking after the alpacas and handmaking hats, socks, children’s toys, and a wide array of products for their family business.

Small-Town Challenges

Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.
2 Timothy 4:2

While Pastor Johnny acknowledges the need for overseas missions, the return to his hometown was eye-opening. “If anyone believes they are called by the Lord to serve in the ministry and in missions, consider small towns in the United States before going to the outer parts of the world,” Johnny challenged. “There is a major need to minister in small towns.”

He added that Craig is nothing like the “Mayberry” of the famed Andy Griffith show of the 1960s, the seemingly perfect small town depicted on television. Drugs and violence have become commonplace in the community and an “old-school” attitude toward religion have created massive roadblocks for Johnny, even though he grew up there. “People don’t want to welcome newcomers or change at all,” he observed. “They are stuck in their ways. They don’t want to hear [the message of salvation], even from a hometown boy like myself.“

Alpacas with red barn in back

Johnny and Laura have given their alpacas biblical names.

On a typical Sunday, the Calvary Chapel Craig congregation is comprised of up to 12 attendees. That number is a major increase from 2017, when Johnny and Laura were the only two people showing up to services.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Johnny said. “Three years ago, for the entire year, nobody came to the Bible study each week. “God simply told us to remain faithful and show up to the location every Sunday, regardless if anyone joined us or not.”

After meeting in coffee shops, homes, and offices over the last five years, Calvary Chapel Craig opened its permanent home in a building in the heart of town earlier this year.

Johnny has prayed that the Lord help him remain faithful, even when there are only a few people in attendance. “It’s not about numbers,” Johnny stressed. “It’s never about numbers. It’s not about filling the pews or having all the programs and the gimmicks and themes to bring people in. It’s about preaching the Gospel … chapter by chapter, book by book. Preaching God’s word faithfully—that’s all we’re bound to do. And that’s what has encouraged me. All God asks [us to do] is to be faithful. Even if [only] one is saved, our life’s [work] is worth it,” Johnny related.

“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” John 7:38

Alpaca facing to the right

Humming is the most common sound that Alpacas make. Alpacas hum when they are curious, content, worried, bored, or fearful.

Balancing Ministry & Work

Though they didn’t have a place to live or means to generate income when they made the decision to move back in 2015, both Johnny and Laura say that God has answered their prayers. The 100-acre family ranch 17 miles from the Craig city limits doubles as Johnny and Laura’s business. A herd of alpacas—all given biblical names—serve as the Ilkos’ primary source of income. Johnny and Laura launched Living Waters Fibers and Alpacas in July of 2016, and the couple handmakes a wide array of products they sell online and to local vendors. “We prayed and searched out the options of what business we could work together in and strike a balance with our ministry,” Johnny stated.

Five years after making a leap into the unknown and relying on God alone, Johnny and Laura have found a balance between work and life. “I absolutely do not regret anything about our decision,” Laura declared. “Looking back and seeing how much we both have grown during this time has been so precious to me. Sure, it can be hard balancing work, the church, and family life, but it’s all been worth it.”


Alpaca with fluffy fur looking at you

One of the alpacas that Johnny and Laura Ilko tend. Johnny also shepherds people as the pastor of Calvary Chapel Craig, CO.


All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version.

© 2020 Calvary Chapel Magazine. All rights reserved. Articles or photographs may not be reproduced without the written permission of CCM. All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.® Used by permission.


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