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Amid energy volatility, Wyoming Baptists undaunted

[SLIDESHOW=42187,42188,42189,42190,42194,42192,42193]TORRINGTON, Wyo. (BP) — Former bison rancher Marty Rostad said he and his wife Nancy “don’t consider ourselves church planters but God told us to start a church and we did.”

Lifeway Church in Torrington, Wyo., is at its five-year point, with about 120 people in Sunday morning worship. Rostad also planted Lifeway Church in Fort Laramie a year ago, with 40 now attending.

“We moved here unfunded; didn’t know anybody,” Rostad said. “I think God was going to start working here and we got to be part of it. We’re just tickled to death to be here.”

Newer pastors like Rostad as well as those with longer tenures in the state known for its boom-or-bust energy-based economy attest to the satisfaction they feel in serving God in a challenging environment.

“I love pastoring in Wyoming,” said Mike Cooper, pastor since 2002 of College Heights Baptist Church in Casper, one of the state’s largest churches, where about 320 people worship on Sunday. “It’s a place where people for the most part are honest and open.

“It’s not always easy to share the Gospel — like everywhere else, some people don’t want to hear it — but it’s a level playing field at least,” Cooper said. “If you’re honest with them, they’re straight-up with you.

“There’s also a real hunger for truth,” Cooper said. “For believers and for lost people to some degree, there’s a real spiritual hunger out here.”

Southern Baptists have been feeding that spiritual hunger for 65 years, when a transplanted Oklahoma oil field worker called a friend from college, Benny Delmar, to come and help plant a church in Wyoming.

Delmar told his friend he would come “for three weeks,” but he never left. Before he died in 2007 Delmar had started more than 140 churches in Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota. The state missions offering which carries his name is a major source of the state convention’s funding.

From that mid-century phone call to today, Southern Baptist ministry has been entwined with Wyoming’s massive deposits of energy-producing resources. Though its energy industry is volatile, the state is No. 2 in the nation in total energy production, according to U.S. Energy Information Agency data, ranking No. 1 in coal, No. 5 in natural gas and No. 8 in crude oil.

The light of the Gospel, meanwhile, shines in 106 churches across Wyoming, from churches of perhaps two dozen to the largest, Laramie Valley Chapel, where 450 gather each week for worship. Paul Martin has been pastor since 1984 of the church started in 1964.

First Southern Baptist Church in Casper — which in January 2016 changed its name to Hilltop Baptist Church — was the first. Started in 1951, the church noted nearly 1,100 members in 1980, giving more than 10 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program channel of support for Southern Baptist missions and ministry.

Showing the transitory nature of Southern Baptists in Wyoming who work in the energy industry, the Caspar church’s rolls were purged in 2001 of those who had come and gone, with its membership more accurately revised to 125.

Never has a year gone by at First Southern/Hilltop without at least one baptism. The most was 48 in 1981.

An emphasis on evangelism — typical among Wyoming Southern Baptists — results in many churches baptizing at least one each year, despite an almost inherent resistance among Wyomingites to embracing Christ. Churches statewide reported 349 baptisms in 2015.

There’s a willingness to listen and study the Scriptures but it often stops short of a wholehearted commitment to becoming a Christ-follower — which is both refreshing and frustrating for Chris Sims, planter/pastor of Wind City Church in Casper, which started in September 2014.

It’s refreshing because “those who follow through with baptism are really serious about their decision,” said Sims, who moved to Wyoming from a successful pastorate in Arkansas.

“This is just completely different from the ‘Bible Belt,’ the South,” Sims said. “I truly believe the ‘western,’ the ‘cowboy’ or ‘mountain’ culture says, ‘I’m not going to say I’m committed to something unless I’m really committed to that.'”

Sims made one final point: “As a church plant in Wyoming, you don’t have a baptistery. You use the river or lake, and it’s cold. We baptized two in October in the North Platte [River], and it was, using a typical Wyoming understatement, chilly.”

Lifeway Church in Torrington (population 6,800) has baptized at least 60 people, most all adults, plus another eight at a 720-inmate medium security prison where Rostad ministers. Illustrating the length of time some people take to make a total commitment to Christ, “We had a guy 90 years old accept Christ about four years ago and I had a guy 81 three years ago,” he said.

Wyoming Southern Baptists currently have 15 ongoing church plants, including three new ones in 2015, and 13 “seed” congregations in pre-plant mode. Among them are cowboy/country-style as well as recovery-style churches and Bible studies and even a new work on the Wind River Indian Reservation — the first in several years.

“Historically, Wyoming is a rough place to do ministry,” said Dale Bascue, evangelism director for the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention and area missionary for the western part of the state. “The attitude of the people is, ‘I’m going to make it on my own.’ People in Wyoming are very self-sufficient, very independent. They pretty much do it their way regardless of if it will work or not.”

Southern Baptist churches in Wyoming exhibit that same streak of independence, Bascue said.

“We have two kinds of churches: Southern Baptist churches in Wyoming, and churches that are Southern Baptist in Wyoming,” Bascue said. Some churches operate as if they were in Texas or the South. Others “reflect the culture and are more in tune with the community and the unique flavor of what it is to be in Wyoming.”

Wright Baptist Church is an example of the latter. It began in 1979, the same year the town itself was started by the ARCO energy company, which needed homes for its coal-mining employees. Southern Baptists, hearing of plans to start the town in the Powder River Basin some 90 windswept miles northeast of Casper, bought land at a pre-town price for the church start.

Almost from its inception, the church has averaged 40 to 80 people in worship in the town of about 1,800 that is pegged to the energy industry.

“Things are slowing down in the area, with oil prices down, but it’s not a catastrophe yet,” said Shane Stone, new as Wright Baptist’s bivocational pastor. His other employment: instructor in criminal justice at the University of Wyoming-Casper.

Longtime member Glen Huseth, who works in equipment maintenance at one of eight Powder River Basin open pit coal mines that are the nation’s largest, said the Obama administration’s “war on coal” has taken a toll. Another factor: “The price of natural gas … has plummeted. It’s our main competitor.”

The boom-and-bust of the energy industry affects churches financially, and by extension the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention, Huseth said.

Wright Baptist started life giving 7 percent of its undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program, but soon increased that to 10 percent because of a commitment to give a tithe of its income. In 2013 that was increased to 11 percent, but this year it has moved back to 10 percent to provide more support to the state convention.

“The way the wind’s blowing now in the national organization, [Southern Baptists are] spending Cooperative Program money in densely populated areas and cutting funding to rural areas,” Huseth said. “We decided to go back to 10 percent on Cooperative Program and [increase to] 5 percent for the Benny Delmar missions fund. … We’re not going down in our giving; we’re just redistributing it a little.”

That being said, Wyoming Southern Baptists have increased CP giving most years since it became a state convention in 1984, with exceptions during years of heightened economic downturn.

A total of $748,242 is projected in the 2016 Cooperative Program giving of Wyoming churches, up from $742,201 budgeted for 2015. The CP percentage passed on to Southern Baptist national and international missions and ministries remains unchanged for the fifth year at 32.75 percent.

“The Cooperative Program is the lifeline of cooperative ministry and missions in Wyoming and beyond,” said Lynn Nikkel, executive director of the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention. “And, it is one of the greatest connections for direct involvement in the Great Commission for churches of any size.”

As a result of a new state convention strategy and structure approved by messengers at the Wyoming convention’s 2014 annual meeting, all eight Baptist associations in the state voted last year to dissolve and realign with other churches in three regions of the convention.

Pastors previously in different associations are getting to know each other and to plan joint ventures, area missionary Bascue said. Learning of shared challenges tightens bonds of fellowship, he added.

“Oil backed off in Wyoming a couple years ago,” Bascue said. “We’ve seen several of the energy companies do a lot of laying off, closing down certain fields, closing down local offices. That’s presented a real challenge for a lot of our churches because they’ve lost people who had been actively participating.

“The response of our churches is that some will struggle and wait for the next boom; others realize God is not limited by whatever the economic situation is. The Gospel doesn’t change regardless of the number of tithers in a church. They’re going to continue to fulfill the Great Commission as God continues to move,” Bascue said.

Wyoming is the least populated state in the nation, with an estimated population of 586,000 residents in 2015. About 2 percent are Southern Baptist, according to state convention officials.

“Our research also indicates that only 5 to 6 percent of the state population is evangelical,” Nikkel added.

Wyoming’s largest city is the capital, Cheyenne, with about 62,500 residents a couple hours north of Denver. Casper, in the center of the state, has about 60,000 people. The two other “large” cities (by Wyoming standards) are energy-rich Gillette and college-town Laramie, both with about 32,000 residents.

The rest of Wyoming consists primarily of wide open spaces across the state, from flatlands rich with coal beds up to 100 feet thick, to mountain ranges and Yellowstone National Park. The state has fewer than 100 scattered incorporated municipalities, such as Lost Springs, with a 2014 population of 4.

“Our vision as a state convention is that as cooperating churches we are working together for the expansion of the Kingdom of God by making disciples in our communities, in our state, and in our world,” Nikkel said. “Convention staff are emphasizing this year — 2016 — increasing the intentionality and strategy for transformation in disciple-making.

“Lostness in Wyoming is great — more than 90 percent — and the workers are few,” Nikkel said. “But God is able and we pray will use Wyoming Southern Baptists for His glory, and for bringing people to be committed followers of Jesus Christ.”