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Tentmaker sculpts churches from barren land

EDITORS’ NOTE: The 2005 North American Missions Emphasis is being observed in many Southern Baptist churches this month. Baptist Press will present profiles on the featured missionaries through March 15. For more information on the emphasis, visit www.AnnieArmstrong.com.

PAVILLION, Wyo. (BP)–With the deft skill of a trained artisan, Terrell O’Brien selects a sculpting tool, cutting here, smoothing there, adding clay or taking it away as the design he has in mind begins to take shape.

When he has completed the sculpture in this small version, he is ready to begin work on what will become a larger-than-life version. O’Brien is an artist who produces monumental sculptures for clients across North America involving historical figures, children, western themes, biblical characters or, his favorite, wildlife.

“After completing the clay models, I make the molds which a foundry will use to cast these works in bronze,” he says as he takes a break from his work.

When the phone rings and he begins talking with one of his church members, however, his real love comes into play. His calling to bivocational ministry is what drives his life, and his love of art is what provides his income. Without O’Brien’s studio, it would be difficult to support his wife Vickie and their family in a state where jobs are hard to come by.

The couple, Mission Service Corps missionaries with the North American Mission Board, are featured during this month’s North American Mission Study focusing on the theme, “Answer His Call.”

“I was raised in West Texas, and attended a rural church that had a strong heart for missions. That church gave to missions, taught missions and participated in missions. God used all of this to put a call on my life,” O’Brien says.

In college O’Brien studied commercial art and biology because he wanted to be a medical illustrator. But after graduation he returned to farming while keeping in touch with his artistic side. Today he sees how God laid a foundation for that to be his primary source of income while serving Him.

He and Vickie were married in 1976 and participated in several mission trips. He began sculpting in the early ’80s and eventually decided to leave farming to see where his art career would go.

“God was at work in this career move in a bigger way than I knew,” he says when thinking back through the years.

“I wondered a lot of times why I made that career shift and was discouraged on several occasions, but I never quit. Then my health began to seriously deteriorate with a hypothyroid condition and God used that to confront me with His call to missions,” he recounts.

During a large sculpting project, O’Brien received a call from a foundry in Wyoming.

“God began to point the way very clearly to Wyoming. I think Vickie was pretty shocked when I came home one day with the question, ‘What would you think of moving to Wyoming?’ I called John Herrington, the director of missions and evangelism for the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention, and he encouraged us to come and help.”

During the summer of 1995, he and Vickie applied for Mission Service Corps status as they refined their calling through lay ministry. That’s when they discovered the role “tentmakers” play in missions. As patterned after the New Testament ministry of the Apostle Paul, tentmakers provide their own funding in order to pursue their calling.

At first their four children were reluctant to consider such a move, but they trusted their parents as they, in turn, trusted God. That’s how the family came to live and minister in the small town of Pavillion, and opened O’Brien Studio in nearby Lander.

Wyoming is a beautiful, but harsh land, O’Brien says. It’s a hard place to minister because it is big, wide-open country with a lot of distance between places.

“I was raised in Texas where Southern Baptists and other denominations have churches everywhere you look. But out here so many people don’t want to have anything to do with church. We only have 90 Southern Baptist churches in the entire state,” he explains.

“The people are difficult to reach because they come from so many different backgrounds and share a common western independent mindset. They feel they don’t need anything or anyone – including God – to help them survive.”

The barrier between the Native American and the Anglo culture is very real and is complicated by the Native American religion. The type of welfare system in place on the reservation also offers little in the way of motivation and often fosters an attitude of hopelessness.

“Before I moved here, I felt that most everyone knew the Lord and had some experience in a church family, because of the culture in which I grew up in Texas,” he says.

He was soon to discover that wasn’t so.

The family joined a Native American congregation, the Wind River Baptist Church on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It is the only Southern Baptist work on the reservation populated by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. The couple served as Mission Service Corps church strengtheners for two years before O’Brien was called as interim pastor of Warm Valley Baptist Church, about 30 miles away in Pavillion.

“I had never pastored before, so it was a real step of faith. But our whole journey in Wyoming had been about God showing us where to step and confirming those steps along the way. I have learned a great deal about hearing God speak to me in whatever way He wants and then to follow that direction,” he says.

The church was struggling, to say the least, he says with a gentle laugh. The congregation was down to five members and they were questioning their future existence. But the couple realized they were brought there to begin a needed healing process and began to see a new spirit among the people within months.

The church had $1,000 in a building fund and no Sunday School rooms, so it was obvious they could not grow without educational space. The entire building consisted of a small sanctuary, a kitchen and two bathrooms.

During a business meeting in one of the members’ homes, the struggling group voted to add a fellowship hall that would double as Sunday School space. During the next year the group raised an additional $9,000 and, just before construction began with volunteer labor from Illinois churches, the congregation called a pastor.

“We left just before the construction began, but that was OK with us,” O’Brien says. “We had already poured our spiritual foundation and it was time for the next person to build on that.”

The family then served at Lander Valley Baptist Church where O’Brien was the interim pastor for 18 months. The church grew and stabilized and many came to faith in Christ. When the congregation called a pastor, God called the family back to Warm Valley Baptist Church, but on a fulltime basis, not as interim as when he had left.

“I felt like I was home,” O’Brien says.

In January 2005, the family celebrated its third anniversary with the congregation, which continues to grow. Now, as nine-year residents in Wyoming, they feel they are home and have put down roots. The church is averaging 40 in attendance and is reaching into the community with a variety of outreach programs.

By the end of 2004 the church reached a high attendance of 75. “I believe God is going to do a great work in this place,” O’Brien says.

And he says he could not do it without the help of Vickie.

“For the past two years we have provided school supplies for Wind River Elementary School and that has had a much greater impact than we first expected,” Vickie O’Brien says.

“Many of these children come from low-income families, and their parents cannot afford all of the school supplies. The school secretary has expressed to me how very much the parents appreciate what we do. We supply every item on each child’s list, from crayons to rulers to paper.

“One of the teachers said that it is so nice to ask the children to get out their markers, and every child has them.”

The approach has brought the small congregation much credibility in the community, one pencil at a time.

“When you are in a large metropolitan area with big churches,” O’Brien says, “you may not think of these victories as being monumental, but we are seeing God move in dramatic ways in our church. We have begun another addition to our building, even with our limited resources. God has blessed us every step of the way.

“It’s truly amazing how God has used my sculpting business to provide our income in such a rural area. We don’t receive any funding from the church or any other source, so we are totally self-supporting, which is how tentmakers operate. That’s how the Apostle Paul planted churches, so it’s really not a new idea, is it?”

One of the couple’s goals is to challenge the congregation to greater missions involvement, both financially and through volunteer service. They increased their Annie Armstrong Easter Offering from a plateau of $150 to $500 and are becoming more involved in outreach ministry on the reservation.

“I grew up in a church that emphasized and supported missions, and I’m part of a denomination that emphasizes and supports missions,” O’Brien says. “We are going to mirror that commitment to the Great Commission.”
Mission Service Corps exists to link self-funded missionaries and mission needs across North America. MSC missionaries who have served at least two years currently make up more one-third of the North American Mission Board’s total missionary count. MSC requirements are: Born-again believer age 18 or older, active member of an SBC church, endorsed by their church, called by God to missions. Education and experience requirements are set by the individual ministry. Serving in all 50 states, throughout Canada, in Puerto Rico and American Samoa, MSC missionaries complement the mission force supported by the Cooperative Program and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.

    About the Author

  • Joe Westbury