Karen Pearce is an IMB worker among European peoples and contributing writer.
RIVERTON, Wyo. (BP) — Eighty-three kids coming to Vacation Bible School at United Baptist Church this year was not the highlight — the pastor noted the real victory was the 42 adults that came on family night, 28 of whom had never been to a church before.
“Our VBS doesn’t focus on children or youth, but on family ministry,” Dean Whitaker, pastor of United Baptist in Riverton, Wyo., said. “Our goal is to reach mom and dad.”
Riverton is a young, upper-middle-class Anglo community nestled between two Indian tribes in the Wind River Valley. It is largely unchurched, with 30 percent of people belonging to the Mormon Church and less than 10 percent identifying as evangelical Christians.
“The reality is that Riverton is between 93 and 97 percent lost,” Whitaker said. “Many people have never read a Bible. Most don’t even own one.”
The church tries to reach people through what Whitaker calls planting and harvesting events.
Planting events are community outreach like the annual Easter egg hunt, the water distribution booth at Riverton Day at the Park, or creating a float for the citywide parade kicking off Fair Week.
VBS is a harvest event. It is effective because of the church’s faithful commitment to planting throughout the year.
“Because we do so much community ministry, when I or one of the people in my church knocks on a door and asks somebody to come to VBS, they already know who we are,” Whitaker said. “They recognize that we have a place in the community. They trust us.”
Anglo Island in a Native American sea
Though Riverton is surrounded by Native American tribes, the city proper, and United Baptist Church, are largely Anglo; but Whitaker’s heart is to reach all people, Anglo and Native. United Baptist planted a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center called Set Free, which also functions as a church for many Native American believers. And Whitaker’s wife Sharon teaches in an elementary school on the reservation, opening many doors for the church. Whitaker also works with a North American Mission Board church planter that lives on the reservation.
Aside from the cultural dynamics, the climate and industry have also been a challenge for Dean and Sharon, who moved four years ago from the Deep South. Only eight to 12 weekends a year are warm enough to plan outdoor activities. And most people do shift work in the energy industry making their schedules erratic, which forces the church to compete with “down” time spent with family and friends.
But these obstacles are nothing compared with the vast secularism.
“The greatest hardship I face is the reality of the overwhelming lostness that surrounds us,” Whitaker said. This lostness includes rampant alcoholism and drug addiction and broken families.
However, despite these challenges, Whitaker has seen the church transform many families and prove that church fellowship is a good choice over other options.
“We have constantly seen people come to faith in Christ and realize that the greatest family investment they can make is faithful participation through the local church for themselves and their families,” Whitaker said. “We have also seen families begin leading Bible studies in their homes with their family, friends and neighbors.”
Never stand alone
Whitaker is the only paid staff member at United Baptist. The other workers are all volunteers, some even taking vacation time to help out with VBS.
“VBS is entirely lay-driven, and I have found them to be the best drivers. Literally three dozen laypeople were involved in helping make this one a success,” Whitaker said.
A big part of this fruit-bearing in Riverton is good honest work.
“We don’t just let things come to us, but rather we go to them,” he said. “Those are values that our people model and they are values that are recognized and appreciated by the community. When we work hard, we convey to the community that what we are doing is important and that it matters.”
This year’s program was especially effective because Tina Gordon, the director, was diligent to staff the team early and to push all of the teachers to attend training provided by the Wyoming Southern Baptist Convention. The church advertised on the local cable channel and used their two New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary interns to knock on more than 800 doors the week before VBS inviting people to attend.
“Collectively that preparation brought dozens of first-time guests to VBS, and they were unchurched members of the community,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker noted, “I emphasized the need to share the Gospel in every class instead of just on the evangelistic emphasis night,” he said.
VBS is a vital harvesting event and though God always works across programs and people groups, VBS is playing a major role in what is happening at United Baptist.
Whitaker tries to focus on a comprehensive evangelism strategy, making all outreach events work in tandem.
“We don’t just count numbers and noses. We try to make sure we understand, okay, this person came into Bible school, we met them at Day at the Park and they came to faith in revival; okay, what did they do in Bible school? Or I’ll have someone come to faith in Bible school that the Lord started working on them during revival. That’s what one of the kids this time did. It’s part of a larger strategy,” Whitaker said.
And that strategy has reaped souls. The VBS ministry has affected every person baptized at United Baptist in the past four years.
“Whether it was a 65-year-old man that I baptized two years ago who attended his first VBS that year or the 9-year-old boy I baptized three weeks ago that came to faith in his ninth VBS, it is an essential cog in what we do,” Whitaker said.