Near Yellowstone, 6-member church impacts the world

by Karen L. Willoughby, posted Wednesday, August 15, 2018 (3 months ago)

GARDINER, Mont. (BP) -- Most churches would consider closing their doors if their active membership dipped to six people, but Gardiner Baptist Church is holding steady.

Britton Gray, Yellowstone National Park's structural fire chief, responsible for 1,600 buildings, including lodging for 20,000 guests, serves as bivocational pastor of Gardiner Baptist Church near the north entrance to the nation's oldest park. Here he rests with his near-constant companion, fire dog Magoo.
Photo by Karen Willoughby
The debt-free church -- located near Yellowstone National Park's north entrance -- is raising money for a two-story community building on its two acres to serve as a food pantry, thrift store and medical clinic, with emergency housing upstairs, to the town of 875 people.

Other ministries include supporting the local food bank; providing space to the town’s physical therapy center and counseling center along with community use of its playground; and the GBC House Band (as in Gardiner Baptist Church) -- with pastor Britton Gray as lead vocalist -- performing once a month in the basement of a local gathering spot and tourist attraction called the Two-Bit Saloon and Grill.

"We're trying to connect with those who think they're unworthy to go to church," said Linda Gray, the pastor's wife. "We've worked really hard at being a place for the down and out."

Though Gardiner Baptist has both an internet and Facebook presence, the church's building and its playground on the town's main thoroughfare -- U.S. 89 -- often is the first awareness visitors have that Southern Baptists minister year-round to local residents, hundreds of seasonal workers and multiple thousands who venture to Yellowstone each year through the north entrance.

Five to 10 people visit Gardiner Baptist Church each week during the summer months -- more when a mission team is in town -- so in 2017 the average Sunday worship attendance was 22. Members, mission teams and Yellowstone visitors help the church conduct block parties, outdoor concerts, Bible distribution, five-day kids' camps and other outreach activities.

Linda Gray and Sue Oliver check some of the stuffed animals that have already been given for Gardiner Baptist Church's 2018 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. Gray is the wife of pastor Britton Gray; Oliver is the Montana church's supplies coordinator for the yearly project.
Photo by Karen Willoughby
"We want to expose people who are lost to the truth of the Gospel, and the only way to expose someone to the truth is by having a relationship with them," Britton Gray told Baptist Press. "If we're not out there meeting and greeting people, how are we going to lead people to Christ?"

Gray is bivocational, serving as structural fire chief responsible for the 1,600 buildings in Yellowstone, including lodging for 20,000 guests, and vehicle accidents on the park's 466 miles of roads traveled by about 4 million visitors a year.

Church members often find people in vulnerable moments, such as the middle-aged man with medical issues, the recent retiree new to town, the Yellowstone employee farther from God than she realized until God used Gardiner Baptist to get her attention.

Gardiner Baptist's ministries start locally but reach out globally. One Yellowstone visitor from Bulgaria was so impressed with the Gardiner food pantry -- started in 2005 by Linda Gray and daughter Ayla (who was 5 at the time) -- that the visitor started one in her home country.

But perhaps the church's most far-reaching effort is acquiring items to fill shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child (OCC), a Samaritan's Purse ministry.

"Each year God seems to incrementally increase the number of boxes we fill," said Sue Oliver, a church member who coordinates the OCC ministry. "We've gotten better organized, and in 2017 God filled 502 shoeboxes through us." That's up from 40 in 2011, the first year Gardiner Baptist Church participated in the international effort, and twice the number typically packed by churches of all sizes according to an Operation Christmas Child spokesperson.

Elk hold court at Montana's Gardiner Baptist Church. With just six members, the debt-free church -- located near Yellowstone National Park's north entrance -- is raising money for a two-story community building on its two acres in the town of 875 people.
Photo by Sue Oliver
Gardiner Baptist Church allocates 20 percent of its undesignated offerings to missions: 5 percent through the Southern Baptists' Cooperative Program for state, national and international missions and ministry; 5 percent for the cooperative work of the 32 churches in the Treasure State Baptist Association; 5 percent for Child Evangelism Fellowship -- this summer Ayla Gray is the first-ever CEF intern from Montana; and 5 percent for local missions and ministries.

"One of the things Southern Baptists do really well is cooperate together in God's Kingdom work," Britton Gray said. "We've seen that here at Gardiner Baptist Church with the volunteer teams who come and help do ministry, and we want to do our part too, cooperating with our association, state convention and all Southern Baptists."

Not that it's easy, being a church with just six active members, though that number fluctuates as people move into and out of town.

The church, built in the late 1970s, may be spacious but its repair and renovation needs are constant, as are those of the parsonage next door.

"We have rooms we close off in winter because we can't afford to heat them," Sue Oliver said. "We stay on our knees constantly, asking God to move people's hearts and help us reach this lost community.

"Then God provides," she continued. "Miraculously, at the last minute.... We are on a shoestring budget and pray each week for the doors to stay open."

Alongside the challenge of staying open are the needs of people dealing with the financial struggles of living in a high-value area, Linda Gray said.

Many rentals that once were affordable have been turned into high-dollar vacation rentals by new owners, meaning that local people often work two or more jobs to make ends meet to avoid losing their housing.

"When they ask for help, Gardiner Baptist Church is there to help them," Linda Gray said. "We've given people rent money, money to pay for dental work for a young girl being teased at school. We've kept the heat on, paid for medications...."

When asked how that was possible in a church with such limited resources, she shook her head and smiled.

"God does it," Linda Gray said.

"We're Gideon's Army," Britton Gray said. "God gets the glory. It's just amazing how God works."

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, online news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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