COWLEY, Wyo. — God blessed Water of Life Church in its first five years of existence. Despite the most disruptive single event to churches worldwide in decades – the COVID-19 pandemic – the church doubled in size. People were baptized. Ministries started and flourished. All of this happened in a rural context that is among the most difficult in North America.
But when the church sought to build a new building, it seemed like momentum might stall. The church raised enough money to purchase land and begin construction before the aftermath of the pandemic caused prices to soar, leaving the church $100,000 short.
“I had no clue where the money was going to come from,” said church planter Johannes Slabbert.
Yet, God had been faithful so far. Slabbert’s own testimony demonstrated His miracle-working power. Slabbert grew up on a cattle ranch in a rural region of South Africa. Raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, he never had a personal relationship with Christ.
“I was the most dangerous, hardest-to-reach type of non-Christian,” Slabbert said. “I knew the truth; I didn’t want the truth.”
At 19 years old, Slabbert moved from South Africa to West Virginia to take a job training horses. A few years later, after marrying and taking a job with a Christian charity, Slabbert was finally ready to surrender to Christ.
“The second day there, I realized that what those people have is what I want,” Slabbert said. “They had the joy of the Lord. They served with gladness. They had the best time. They had the presence of the Lord. I asked God to save me. Since then, he has continued to work in my life.”
Discipled and sent out by Bald Mountain Baptist Church in West Jefferson, N.C., and partnering with Wyoming Southern Baptists and the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Send Network, Slabbert planted Water of Life Church in Cowley, Wyo., a ranching town of fewer than 1,000, in 2017. Slabbert first planned for it to take five years just to start the first Bible study, but God quickly sped up his timetable.
Even when COVID-19 shut down in-person worship, the church grew. Harkening back to the growth of 19th century Baptist churches in the West, Slabbert preached on horseback for six weeks. Later, Water of Life was the first church in the area to hold outdoor services.
By the time the church could gather indoors again in a rented gymnasium, it had grown to 98 people.
“With the increase, we needed a youth ministry, our kids’ ministry picked up, our adult ministry picked up, and we had nowhere to meet,” Slabbert said. “We needed to build a church so we had a place to call our own, so we can be a lighthouse for the community.”
But with new believers in a new church, resources were limited. After months of hard work, they found land and thanks to the generosity of Wyoming Southern Baptists and other partners, the church was able to purchase it for $75,000. Still, they needed a building.
The task seemed impossible to complete without taking on debt, but Slabbert knew if they could raise the funds to buy the materials, Southern Baptists would provide the labor.
In time, God provided the finances to get started. Volunteers framed the exterior of the building and the rooms inside. But with the surging prices of supplies post-COVID, the entire building account had been drained.
Slabbert asked every partner he knew for money to help cover the remaining $230,000, but even as several checks came in, they remained $100,000 short.
At about that time, Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., invited Slabbert to a prayer event where Slabbert shared how God was moving as well as his church’s needs.
A few weeks later, Olive’s senior pastor Ted Traylor called Slabbert with a surprise: The church was sending a $100,000 check, enough to finish the project. Traylor said one of the church’s lay leaders made a gift and asked if the church would match it, which they did.
“I see these young men, and I know that the ground is hard,” Traylor said, “and a lot of places, our culture has changed from the time I’ve got into ministry, even from the time I came to Olive 31 years ago.”
Olive Baptist, which has had a long experience with church planting, has not only given money to Water of Life, but has sent teams to help as well.
“There’s just hard ground, and you just need friends,” Traylor said. “The koinonia is so very important, and I just love these guys.”
Slabbert knew God could do the impossible but was encouraged to see Him do it again.
“This is just the faithfulness of God,” Slabbert said. “The kingdom advancement and kingdom focus of Southern Baptists [is amazing]. We’re one big family of God. That’s what’s blowing people’s mind – that God came and put on people’s minds to build a church in Cowley, Wyo., debt free. That’s unheard of.”
Slabbert hopes the new building will be ready by Fall 2022. In addition to hosting worship services, the church plans to make the building available to the community and provide plenty of space for adult, youth and children’s activities. With the church’s vision to become a church-planting church within Wyoming and around the globe, the building is expected to become a ministry hub for years to come.
“People come in and out of Wyoming a lot,” Slabbert said. “For us a building is about setting foundations here. There are a lot of people, even after six years, they still wonder whether these people are going to leave us. Setting down roots in this town is huge. It says to the people here that we’re not going to leave them. We’re here to stay.”