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Hungering for God in Hungry Horse

HUNGRY HORSE, Mont. (BP)–Nestled in a canyon between two rugged Montana mountain ranges is the town of Hungry Horse, population 800. With one traffic light, two grocery stores and three gas stations, Hungry Horse is the epitome of small-town America. But for North American Mission Board missionary Lloyd Crabtree and his family, the town with a funny name became the unexpected mission field where God would ask them to serve.

It was only three years ago that Crabtree, his wife Brenda and their three sons traveled with Peachtree Corners Baptist Church in Norcross, Ga., to the canyon town on a short-term mission trip to help Canyon Baptist Church with Vacation Bible School. As leaders in their own church and frequent volunteers in the children’s ministry, the Crabtrees went on the trip thinking they knew what to expect.

“We thought we’d go and check it off the box,” Lloyd Crabtree recounted. “But while we were here we fell in love with Hungry Horse, and we fell in love with the kids specifically here at the church.”

The family returned to Georgia changed by their time in Hungry Horse and eager to return. Several months later after taking a second trip to Montana at Christmas, the Crabtrees felt certain God was calling them to make the permanent move and embrace Hungry Horse as their mission field.

“God put it out there pretty clear that it was time for us to go,” Crabtree said. “We knew it would be a challenge to move 2,300 miles away, but we worked through all the details and then in August of 2007 I quit my job. We headed out here in September with all the kids in tow and the rest of the family behind back east.”

Needless to say, the move to Hungry Horse and the transition into full-time ministry presented challenges for the Crabtree, his wife and teenage sons Sam, Robert and Derek. As a former CPA and executive in the hotel industry, Crabtree went from operating with an office, a budget and a skilled team of employees to a small church with little financial stability and only a few local volunteers to assist in the ministry.

Another challenge was the church’s unique demographic: The majority of the congregation was under the age of 18.

“On a regular basis we had probably 50 kids from first grade to high school and no parents — no adults — so it was all kid-focused and very basic.”

To meet the unique needs of the church, Crabtree and his family had to come up with an equally unique ministry strategy to reach not only the kids attending but also their parents and others in Hungry Horse and surrounding communities. To support their endeavors financially and spiritually, Lloyd and Brenda Crabtree became Mission Service Corps missionaries and developed a team of supporters to assist with the growth and expansion of the ministry.

In order to grow the congregation and expand its reach, the church partnered with other mission teams outside the community, inviting them to lead Vacation Bible Schools, sports camps and construction projects at the church. Working with another couple, Lee and Joy Swafford who made the move to Hungry Horse months prior to the Crabtrees, they slowly saw their ministry begin to grow and their numbers multiply.

“My relationship with most of the adults is through their kids,” Crabtree said. “I will sit down and we’ll have honest discussions about stuff in and outside of their kids’ lives.”

Lee Swafford preaches during worship services and teaches a weekly adult class while his wife heads up the children’s ministry. Crabtree’s wife works with the local teenagers while Crabtree, who also works with the children and youth, draws on his past business experience to handle the administrative side of the church.”

“Kind of upside down from your typical church, the ‘pastor’ of the church actually not being the one preaching to the adults,” Crabtree acknowledged, “but until recently the church was upside down, demographically.”

Over time, the Crabtrees have been able to develop strong relationships with folks in the community through their dedication to the youth and subsequently their families.

“They’re much more frank about what’s going on and it’s easier to minister that way when you know the need is there.” Crabtree said. “It works … when someone you know is willing to call you at 1:30 in the morning and say, ‘I’m having a problem,’ as opposed to acting like everything’s fine when they show up at church on Sunday.”

The calling to Hungry Horse still sits strong on Crabtree’s heart in leading the town toward Christ. No matter where God leads next, Crabree said he aims to be an advocate for the needs of Canyon, the Glacier Baptist Association and the Montana Baptist Convention.”

“God has a plan for the people of Hungry Horse,” Crabtree said. ” I think this is the time He put us here … to witness to the people that He has here and for us, to hunt and find them and bring them in where they have fellowship, where they can grow and become disciples and not just believers.”
Sara Shelton is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To view a video about Lloyd Crabtree and missionaries like him, visit the video gallery at www.namb.net.

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  • Sara Shelton