COWLEY, Wyo. (BP) – To the outside observer, Johannes Slabbert has the perfect analogy for sharing the Gospel with the ranchers and cowboys near this Wyoming town eight miles from the Montana border. But his knowledge of and appreciation for the local ministry context tell him otherwise.
Before Water of Life Church, where Slabbert is pastor, held its first service in October 2017, he had to provide for his wife and children training horses – in particular, breaking mustangs. For $125, he could “adopt” one from the Bureau of Land Management and if within a year it was trained, he could keep it.
It’s a process centered around getting the horse’s trust. “It’s hard to describe,” he said. “The horse is a herd animal and there is always a leader. You keep working with them and when they drop their head it shows they want to ‘talk’ with you. If they let you touch them, that’s huge.
“From that point you just love on them and show them you want to work with them.”
The comparison to submitting to Jesus and the lordship of Christ is easy to make. However, Slabbert prefers a different path to sharing the Gospel among ranchers and cowboys in this town of fewer than 800.
“These are hard-core guys,” he said. “You have to work alongside them to get that platform. I work with a lot of horses now and in that process get the chance to share the Gospel with a lot of people.”
The method works more like a campfire stove, not a microwave. A group of Mormon settlers arrived in the area in 1900 to establish a town, which would be named after one of their leaders, Matthias Cowley. Water of Life is the first evangelical, Bible-based church in Cowley’s history. Talking through the Gospel that Water of Life presents doesn’t happen without several conversations.
“It’s a slow bake, ya know,” Slabbert said. “It takes a while.”
That said, the church has seen 25 make professions of faith in Christ. Last year during COVID-19, its attendance doubled from 45 to 90, including approximately 30 children and 20 students.
Raised on a sheep and cattle ranch in the high desert of South Africa, Slabbert came to America as a 19-year-old with $1,000 in his pocket and a gym bag of clothes. The plan was to train horses and make a lot of money doing it.
Things happened that didn’t exactly derail the plan, but gave it a greater purpose. A blind date with a West Virginia preacher’s daughter went so well that he later married her. The couple moved to Boone, N.C., when Slabbert took a horse-training job and his wife, Mary Beth, was hired at Samaritan’s Purse.
For Slabbert, ministry had been a big part of his married life. However, he had grown well-adjusted at playing the part of a Christian.
“When I was 13, I said a prayer, but it didn’t mean anything,” he said. “I had people fooled that I was a Christian. I tell folks today that if you think you know somebody, you may not.”
His wife had her suspicions, and her job ended up being the difference.
In 2008 Samaritan’s Purse deployed its Disaster Assistance Rapid Response Team (DART) to historic flooding in Iowa. Slabbert joined the team as a short-term contract worker and saw something different in those believers.
“I saw the joy they had in their faces. They loved Jesus and it showed,” he said.
Slabbert ended up joining Samaritan’s Purse full-time after working amid the devastation of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. More important, he would make an earnest profession of faith in Christ, which led him to answer a call to the ministry.
By that time, he had all but dropped the idea of training horses for a living. That changed when his 3-year-old daughter, Vivian, asked him to borrow a neighbor’s horse to give her a ride.
“God told me He was going to use my horse-training abilities the second time around for Him,” Slabbert said. “I wrestled with it because I didn’t have the money for horses.”
The plan changed at a Christmas 2014 family dinner. Slabbert’s brother-in-law had heard about the need for evangelical churches in Wyoming.
“He shared with me the lostness of Wyoming from an evangelist who had attended cowboy camps out there,” Slabbert said. “He said they were looking for people who could relate to horses, sheep and cattle.”
Slabbert and Mary Beth went to SBC.net and did some research on Southern Baptist churches in the state. They originally felt called to the ranching town of Lovell, population 2,300. Someone suggested they take the short drive to Cowley as well.
“I saw cows grazing and farmers working,” Slabbert said. “It looked just like my home in South Africa. My family back there see pictures of Cowley and joke that they didn’t know I was home.”
The Slabberts were sent out of their home church, Bald Mountain Baptist in West Jefferson, N.C. Johannes then had a one-year internship with WindCity Church in Casper, Wyo., before moving to Cowley. Since then, he’s been a leader among pastors in the Wyoming Southern Baptist Mission Network, preaching the convention sermon at their annual meeting last year.
Water of Life received initial funding from the North American Mission Board and is part of its church planting network. Slabbert’s original goal after moving to the area in October 2016 was to start a Bible study over the next five years. The Bible study began in their home in March 2017. The schedule moved up considerably, with Water of Life holding its first service that October, one year after the Slabbert’s arrival.
“God blew our five-year plan out of the water,” he said. “But He’s put an incredible team together at Water of Life. MaryBeth and two amazing volunteers lead our children’s ministry. Mitch Lambeth moved from Florida and is leading our student ministry along with Chris Hoellwart while Katie Alvarez heads up our worship team.”
In addition to the inroads Slabbert has made among ranchers through training horses, the church has also hosted a rodeo.
“We want to show the community that we’re here to invest in them and live alongside them,” Slabbert said. “We work cattle with a lot of folks who don’t know Jesus. After five years we’ve gotten to share with them through many conversations.
“We will not reach the West unless folks come to places like Wyoming and are willing to live in and become part of small communities. People want to know that you care and are committed for the long haul.”