CASPER, Wyo. (BP) – It’s morning in central Wyoming and Tyler Martin is trying to keep his nose hairs from freezing.
The Cowboy State’s winters are notoriously brutal, and not so much for the cold and snow, but the winds that cut across your face and can literally take your breath away. They aren’t particularly bad this day, even though the mercury has settled at 1 degree, minus 11 with the wind chill. Temperatures have remained low enough that what’s left of the 500-lb. elk Martin harvested two weeks ago has remained in the bed of his ‘03 Ford F150 with little fanfare.
“It hasn’t even started to stink,” Martin said, laughing. He was able to get 125 pounds of meat from the animal for him, his wife Ashley, and children Ava Grace, 3, and Michael Tyler Jr., 1.
Martin has had to learn to work within his surroundings since arriving two years ago from Fort Worth, Texas, to plant Outfitter Church in Bar Nunn, a town of 3,000 just north of Casper. If it’s not the cold, it’s working in an environment with a frontier mindset and very little biblical literacy. Like other pastors, he’s tasked with taking a timeless message and communicating it in timely ways.
One example of that in Wyoming is through WindCity Church in Casper. Planted only seven years ago, the church has since planted six more – including Outfitter – throughout the state under the leadership of North American Mission Board catalyst Chris Sims. On Feb. 3 Sims met with two dozen people at a community center in the town of Shoshoni for the launch meeting of a seventh church plant, Wind River Church.
“They were spiritually hungry,” he said. “Most of them are from local ranches and are seeking a place to worship.”
A native Arkansan, Sims had a management career with Walmart and Sam’s Club before sensing a call to the ministry. He had lived in Casper in the mid-1990s to open a Sam’s Club, so he had knowledge of the area and culture.
From its early days meeting in Sims’ basement, WindCity set apart 50 percent of its offerings – about $500 per month – for church planting. That continued as the congregation grew and changed locations to a recreation center, then a Boys and Girls Club, then a Holiday Inn, and then the outdoorsman store at Casper’s Eastridge Mall, where metal tubs served as baptistries.
“Church planting has been pretty intentional in our DNA from the start,” Sims said. “We want to be useful to the kingdom and see ministry leaders discovered, developed and deployed.”
Quin Williams, executive director for the Wyoming Southern Baptist Missions Network, was pastor of Boyd Avenue Baptist Church in Casper when Sims arrived to plant WindCity. Boyd Avenue served as the sponsoring church.
“It is a part of who they are as a church,” Williams said of WindCity’s emphasis to start other churches. “This would be true if the church plants were in close proximity or at a distance. When Chris goes through a community, any community, he sees the opportunities to plant a church or churches there. This is just the way he is wired.”
Last fall, for the first time in history, Wyoming Baptists added a line item to the budget for Wyoming dollars to be used towards church planting in their state.
“We have always depended on our partnership with NAMB to be the primary source of funds for church planting. While this is still true, we are embracing our responsibility in the church planting process,” Williams said. “Historically, we have invested dollars in church plants … on an as-needed basis. In 2021, that is changing. We see the partnership we have with WindCity as a significant part of what we will be doing in Wyoming church planting.”
In addition, the state convention is sponsoring the Wyoming Contextualized Leadership Development/Advance program. Through it, a partnership with Gateway Seminary provides seminary-level training to students in Wyoming as well as other states. Many of those students, Williams noted, are now pastors and/or church planters across Wyoming, including some who serve through WindCity.
Don Whalen, church planting strategist for Wyoming Baptists, cited the unique challenges of establishing new churches throughout the state.
“The distance of our communities is often measured by hours of travel rather than miles,” Whalen said. “And while mainline denominations once held some influence in many of those areas, that influence has dwindled.”
Whalen counts more than 60 communities with no church at all. Approximately 55 have no Southern Baptist Church.
“We are actively seeking to plant Wyoming Southern Baptist churches in these communities because we are confident that these churches will faithfully share the Gospel and push back darkness as lives are transformed,” Whalen said.
Southern Baptist work in the state began largely with those moving from the South. Being unable to find a Southern Baptist church, they simply started one.
“Planting is still an important part of our WSBMN strategy,” Whalen said. “Nearly 25 percent of our Wyoming Southern Baptist Mission Network churches are, or were, new church plants within the last 15 years. Many of those plants have become strong, multiplying churches, actively planting even more new churches.”
Of course, not all of the Wyoming pastors are southern transplants. Justin Wollerman, 36, was born and raised in Casper. He knows what it’s like to push through a playoff soccer match in the snow, as he did for Kelly Walsh High. When a student at Casper College, he was “a full-blown atheist” before a Christian couple began to witness to him.
Saved at 23 years old, he worked in ministry with teenagers because he saw their brokenness. He stepped into student ministry and served in that role for eight years at College Heights Baptist Church in Casper. In February of last year, he accepted the call to become lead pastor at WindCity.
“Our church is set up in a way that’s simplified,” Wollerman said. “We want there to be a freedom and flexibility so people are released for ministry.”
That flexibility can be seen at Outfitter Church. Bar Nunn is one of the wealthier areas of the state. Most driveways have a combination of a four-wheel drive, camper and four-wheeler or snowmobile – perhaps all of the above. Many residents see weekends as the time to get away to the lake, mountains or campground, especially in the summer.
To that end, Outfitter Church has its regular services on Wednesday nights. “It’s your regular Sunday morning-type service,” Martin said. “We have music, preaching and everything.
“We wanted to fish when fish were in the river,” he said of the unorthodox meeting time and local residents’ habits. Since starting with 10 people on Oct. 16, 2019, the church has grown to 50. In that time, they have baptized 14 people, with five more scheduled for next week.
“We’ve seen significantly more professions of faith than that, but we want to be patient with our baptisms and see the fruit,” he said. “There is a lot of biblical illiteracy here and much confusion as to concepts like repentance and salvation. When I ask if they want to repent and follow Christ, many will say ‘yes’ but have no concept of what that really means.”
That process reflects the name of his church.
“I wanted it to relate to the culture and be a place any lost man would feel comfortable being at. Everybody hunts in Wyoming, and I felt this would connect with lost men in our community. That’s been the case 100 percent,” he said.
“The whole purpose of an outfitter is that if someone isn’t equipped to hunt, the outfitter equips them for it. Our church is equipping people to pursue Jesus relentlessly and make disciples.”