CASPER, Wyo. (BP)–A boom in the natural gas and oil industry in states like Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico has led to a similar surge in Southern Baptist ministry among the men and women who drill for those natural resources.
Don Whalen, a church planting and evangelism strategist for the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention in Casper, was serving as a director of missions in the southwestern part of the state a few years ago when he noticed a large influx of people into the area as oil companies set up new drilling rigs.
“The population just began to explode, and we saw obviously that God was opening a door to ministry among folks that were coming into the area,” Whalen told Baptist Press. “Many of our churches are not real large, and yet they had a great heart for reaching some of these people. They came to me as the director of missions looking for some advice as to how to make this all happen.”
The churches began developing a strategy to reach the oil rig workers in an unconventional way.
“We realized that they weren’t going to come to us,” Whalen said. “We had already tried to invite them to church and include them in our established works, but they were not very responsive.
“Every once in a while, one or two would stop in for a Sunday and visit, but no real connection was made and we realized that we were really going to have to go to them,” he said. “So we began praying and seeking the Lord’s direction, and one of our ladies saw an oilfield Bible put out by the Oilfield Christian Fellowship.”
The Oilfield Christian Fellowship is a ministry that started with a breakfast for oilfield workers at First Baptist Church in Houston in 1991, and they distribute compact copies of the Bible that include testimonies of oilfield workers. Whalen and the Wyoming churches ordered some of the Bibles, and in the process he developed a relationship with John Bird, the fellowship’s cofounder.
“He and I were thinking and kind of dreaming and came up with the idea of putting a chapel in one of the man camps out here,” said Whalen, who joined the state convention staff about a year and a half ago. “These men come and they’ll work 12 hours on and 12 hours off, and while one crew sleeps, the other crew will work. They’re just kind of stacked in there like corkwood in these trailers.
“It’s kind of a difficult situation. They’re away from their families. There’s a lot of alcoholism, drug addiction,” Whalen said. “There’s just not a lot of good, positive influence for them in these man camps. So we thought if we could put together a chapel and get it into the man camps, it might have an impact on these folks spiritually.”
Soon an oilfield company in Texas donated a building and installed it in the Big Piney man camp, where it would serve as a chapel operated by Mission Service Corps missionaries from the North American Mission Board.
“Folks come in, there’s a large screen TV, they can watch sporting events together. There are computers that they can connect through e-mail and whatnot with their families,” Whalen said. “It’s just a place for them to come and relax in a good environment. While they’re there, we’re able to share the Lord with them.”
Many of the larger gatherings involve food, Whalen said, such as when an invitation goes out inviting men to the chapel for free pizza.
“They’ve been able to build relationships with these men, and we’ve been able to see some of them come to know the Lord,” Whalen said. “Some of them were believers but were very disconnected. They don’t have a local church that they’re a part of, but they really are believers. But the environment is so negative that they don’t often know that there’s a believer just right down the road from them. They think they’re all alone out there.
“But through this ministry, they’ve been able to connect and build relationships amongst each other. We’ve been discipling them and they’re growing spiritually,” he added.
In addition to focusing on the man camps, the MSC workers connect the men’s families with local Southern Baptist churches in their hometowns.
“These men come from all over the country, sometimes from all over the world and certainly all over Wyoming, and whenever we have the opportunity, if we can minister to Dad at the oilfield, we try to connect the family, wherever they might be, with a local Southern Baptist church so that the family can be ministered to as well,” Whalen said.
Following the success of the Big Piney chapel, NAMB helped purchase a mobile ministry unit consisting of a truck and Toy Hauler trailer that can travel to the heart of the oilfields in Wyoming. Later the oilfield fellowship helped purchase another. The mobile ministry units also are manned by MSC missionaries and now are being utilized in the Jonah field and the Wamsutter field, Whalen said.
“They’ll set up alongside of the road and put out a sign that says ‘free biscuits and gravy,’ and folks stop in and in the process of having a meal together or a cup of coffee, they’ll share the Lord with them and build relationships and witness,” Whalen said.
“They’ve discovered several believers out in the oilfield that they’re now able to disciple. One MSC worker puts together Scripture cards, and the men in the trucks will stop by to pick up their Scripture card for the day,” he said. “They’ll stop for a few minutes, have a cup of coffee, get their Scripture card and head out the door. It’s just a way of connecting with other believers and providing a discipling opportunity. We’ve seen some neat things happen as a result of it.”
Last July, an oilfield worker named Carl Felts stopped by the mobile unit after being out of prison only three weeks. He was gone a while after that and then returned in December. Felts told Drew and Pam Crabtree, the MSC workers in the unit, he didn’t have time to come in but wanted to give them a message.
Since his first stop at the unit, Felts had married his girlfriend who was a new Christian, and the two of them were reading the Bible. The pages were falling out of his oilfield Bible, and he asked the Crabtrees for a new copy.
“You don’t know how many people you influence just by coming out here each day,” Felts said, according to a paraphrase by Drew Crabtree. “I have seen you out here many days since that first time and not stopped, but just seeing the mobile chapel here reminds me to pray, and sometimes I start praying after I drive by.
“Sometimes I fall off the wagon and don’t do things as I should, but when I see this chapel out here it is a reminder to me and I climb back on the wagon. I know other people are like me, so you need to know that just being here in the oilfield helps a lot of us even if we don’t stop.”
Felts also said he was attempting to visit the men he was imprisoned with in order to share the Gospel with them.
Oilfield ministry, Whalen said, is “just one of those missional ministries that we recognized that there are people groups out there we were not reaching, and the only way to reach them was to go to where they were — just to obey the Great Commission and go.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press. To access a video called “Drill Here, Drill Now” highlighting the Wyoming oilfield ministry, visit namb.net and click on the video gallery.