EMMET, Neb. (BP)–The sweat from Joel Wentworth’s brow is seeping through his wide-brimmed cowboy hat. A casual western shirt, blue jeans and scuffed up cowboy boots complete the rest of his outfit.
Wentworth walks toward a man coming out of a weathered barn, the day’s labor showing on the front of the rancher’s overalls. Wentworth introduces himself and offers the man a free gift, a copy of the “Jesus” video.
“Nothin’s free,” the man says, hoping Wentworth is not a salesman.
“I can promise you, this one is, with no strings attached,” Wentworth says encouragingly.
Slowly a calloused hand reaches for the bag that contains a few brochures and the video. Wentworth smiles and for a moment changes the subject to raising cattle and horses and growing up in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The gray-haired man relaxes a bit, becomes slightly animated and realizes Wentworth knows a thing or two about farming and ranching.
The conversation is slow, easy, relaxed, but with purpose. This conversation says a lot about Joel Wentworth. Nothing fancy, but dedicated to doing one thing, reaching people just like him with the message of Jesus Christ and his love.
Sand Hills Baptist Association, which Wentworth serves as director of missions, covers 22 counties and has a population of nearly 67,000 people in the rural hills of north-central Nebraska. Not only are Baptist churches few and far between, so are the number of churches, period. Some counties in northern Nebraska have no evangelical witness at all.
Wentworth makes his home in Emmet, Neb., in the heart of this ranching area and home to swift rivers, windmills, grain silos and open land. These are his roots, these are the people he knows and wants to meet the Jesus he serves.
“It’s who I am and where I grew up and people I relate to,” Wentworth said.
“These are people I feel gifted to reach.”
Wentworth is referring to people who work the land, raise cattle, ride horses, people whose lives revolve around agriculture. A place where the days are long, the work is hard, but where people still care for each other.
In a time when family farms are being lost, and people are leaving small towns and farming communities, Wentworth firmly believes there is still a need to share the gospel in these types of settings.
“Major denominations are moving out of small towns and leaving huge spiritual voids,” Wentworth explains. “I feel called to rural work. That’s my heartbeat, to win rural people to Christ,” he said.
The joy in the ministry is the variety of it all; no two days are the same, Wentworth says. It’s relational ministry, holding their hand when they are crying and clapping when they are happy.
Not only is life a little different in this part of Nebraska, establishing churches sometimes takes unconventional methods and approaches. Wentworth is pastor of Countryside Baptist Fellowship, which just by the name sounds pretty simple. But, when the truth is known, Countryside is actually eight churches in one, covering three counties.
Not all of the groups meeting that make up the fellowship are established churches; some are Bible studies while others are actual congregations. Wentworth travels to each town and preaches, helps encourage new believers and lead in Bible study. Once a small group is established and he is able to teach and nurture another Christian well enough to lead the group, he moves to another area to start the process all over again.
“It’s one body that meets in different fields or places,” Wentworth said. “We are a church of fields, not a field of churches.”
The landscape is changing and a faster way of life is catching up to rural America, Wentworth said.
“There are a lot more distractions and church is not the center of people’s lives,” he said. “Having a revival and thinking that will bring people to church is not the way necessarily.”
Delivering mail into the rural countryside and raising cattle as well as a variety of crops keeps Keith Cline very busy. However, after giving his life to Christ several years ago, he always makes time for leading a small group Bible study and telling his rancher friends about Jesus.
“We need to put out the truth and let the Spirit convict them,” the soft-spoken Cline says. “We have a good community, a religious community, but not many people who know the Lord. I see this Bible study as a light for the Lord in a place where people are hungry for the gospel.”
Relationships are the key to reaching people up here, Wentworth said.
Another avenue for success has been the Jesus video. In this part of the state where many towns are less than 500, canvassing an entire town in one afternoon or evening can be done with a relatively small group of people.
“At first, people in the Bible study were apprehensive about giving out the video to their friends and family,” Wentworth said. “But at the first meeting after giving out videos, a miracle happened and it changed the group. Some who had never prayed publicly began doing so.”
Leading a Bible study is a lot like ranching, said Curt Gotschall, a third-generation rancher and leader of the Bible study in Stuart, Neb.
“Things are tough and you struggle through blizzards and storms as a rancher,” Gotschall said. “It’s the same way with a Bible study and reaching people, but you have to persevere.”
The sun begins to fade into the western sky and Wentworth and his group from the Bible study prepare to leave their meeting place after handing out 300 Jesus videos on this Monday evening. He picks up his cowboy hat sitting on a box full of Jesus videos and heads to his car. Today has been a good day, different from the day before and not the same as tomorrow, but consistent in what he does everyday, telling his neighbors about Jesus.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JOEL WENTWORTH.