A Bootlike Fit: Penetrating Lostness on the Western Frontier
Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the Summer 2010 edition of the Southwestern News. To view the magazine online, visit www.swbts.edu/swnews.
The city of Green River stands like an oasis in Wyoming’s High Desert Country, where wild horses prance among stunning rock formations. Once a stop along the Oregon Trail, this county seat epitomizes the rugged and individualistic nature of the frontier, both culturally and spiritually.
Only 170 miles from Salt Lake City, the vast majority of Green River’s 13,000 residents associate themselves with the Mormon Church; however, most are only nominally affiliated and rarely attend church. State convention representatives estimate lostness in the state of Wyoming exceeds 95 percent. Although Southern Baptists represent the largest evangelical denomination, they make up only 1.5 percent of the population.
Deane Graves, a Southwestern graduate, believes God has uniquely gifted and called him to minister in this land of cowboys and miners.
“I’m from Colorado, and so I really have a heart for the people out here,” Graves says. “The people of the West think differently from the people in the Bible Belt; Christianity is not really a priority at all.”
Graves wanted to be a cowboy from an early age and over the years has raised cattle and horses, competed in rodeos, and shod horses. Often called “Cowboy Deane” by his friends, Graves’ laid-back demeanor and cordial manner befit his cowboy persona.
Yet, another passion rivals his maverick spirit. As a young adult, shortly after becoming a Christian, Graves gained his first experience working with youth in a church setting while attending college in Missouri. He immediately knew that God was calling him into youth ministry, and after graduation, he traveled south to Fort Worth to pursue a master’s degree at Southwestern.
Graves credits Southwestern with helping him wed biblical faithfulness with practical experience. He says his seminary studies helped him answer big ministry questions like “What’s the goal? How do I lead a youth group to be more focused on Christ? How do I stay more focused on Christ and keep my ministry focused on Christ rather than focused on numbers?”
Following his time at Southwestern, Graves served as a youth minister in Oklahoma for several years but carried a continual burden for churches in the West. Eventually, the Lord opened the door in 2005 for his family to move to Green River, where he became youth minister and associate pastor at HillTop Baptist Church. Along with the youth ministry, Graves also disciples men through accountability groups and the church’s weekly men’s group.
Southwestern continues to impact his ministry today. Each year, he returns to Fort Worth to attend Southwestern’s Youth Ministry Lab, which serves as a time for him to recharge and reconnect.
“The speakers that they have—Richard Ross, Wes Black, and Johnny Derouen—those guys have an insane wealth of knowledge,” Graves says. “To get to sit at the feet of guys who, in my mind, fathered youth ministry and hear what they have to say is such a blessing.”
HillTop Baptist Church sits at one of the highest points in Green River and overlooks the city as a beacon for the lost. Graves feels blessed to be able to work with young people and point them to Christ in this environment because he recognizes the relatively small sizes of the churches in Wyoming, which precludes most from being able to afford a youth minister. Until recently, he was the only youth minister in the county.
“It is interesting to me how God works,” Graves says, “because with a lot of guys, their desire is a big church. That’s not where my heart is. My heart is in these small churches. My heart is in these small towns. It just fits me.
“If you’re looking at youth ministry from a career aspect rather than from a ministry aspect, this is not a place you’re going to get well known.”
Graves’ humble spirit and friendly persistence have opened doors for him to minister in the community. Initially, the school district would not allow him to join his youth for lunch. However, since his daughter was a student in the school, he went in as a parent. At the conclusion of each lunch, he began helping the custodian wipe down tables and eventually started bringing lunch for the school secretaries. His church even sponsored a cookout at the end of the year to express appreciation to the teachers.
Over time, the administration warmed to his presence and noticed the impact he had on the students. They gave him free lunch and even asked him to write an article in the school newspaper about the importance of parents eating with their kids. Even more impressive, the school selected him to serve on the search committee for a new principal.
Graves credits God for this complete turnaround. In a culture that generally comes off as distant, God has shown him that building relationships over time draws people in.
“You don’t see it, like in other countries, where people are knocking down your doors after somebody accepts Christ,” Graves says. “It’s a lot more difficult than that. You spend a lot more time for individual salvations because they’ve heard it all, and a lot of them are running from it. We have a lot of people here from the South. What I’ve seen is that they’ve heard it all and don’t want any part of it.”
Recently, in addition to his ministry responsibilities at the church, Graves was asked by Howard Daniel, the associational director of missions, to lead the Baptist Student Ministry at Western Wyoming Community College in nearby Rock Springs as well as help get a cowboy church started. Through these three ministries, God has woven together Graves’ passions for people in the West and for ministry to fit him like a well-worn pair of boots.
“I just think he’s a perfect fit,” says Daniel, a two-time graduate of Southwestern. “I’ve heard Deane’s testimony, and I think God has uniquely prepared him over the course of the years for this time in his life and ministry.” He says Graves’ “tentacles of ministry” stretch in every direction.
Daniel notes the need in Wyoming for more pioneer pastors like Graves, including those with bilingual abilities in English and Spanish.
“You have to consider Wyoming like you would an international mission field to really understand it,” Daniel says. “You have to understand that the progress sometimes is slow, and if you don’t view it that way, I think it’s a disservice to those who serve in the field of Wyoming here. That’s not an excuse for not continually having vision, reaching people, sharing the Gospel, and doing more. It’s just reality; the field is just harder here.”
Mark Hensley, pastor of HillTop Baptist and also a two-time Southwestern graduate, appreciates Graves’ pastoral heart and servant attitude. He, too, prays that God will call more ministers to Wyoming and other pioneer states.
“Wyoming is an untapped frontier for missions and outreach,” Hensley says. “We really need people who are willing to sacrifice, willing to come and realize the benefits outweigh the obstacles. We need more pastors who will come and stay. There’s a tendency in the West for folks not to stay as long, and I would hope that they would come and stay because the need is great.”
In the meantime, Southwesterners like Graves, Daniel, and Hensley continue to penetrate lostness one person at a time. From the former meth addict in Graves’ accountability group to the couple he led to Christ through pre-marital counseling at the cowboy church, each person reflects the redemptive work of the Gospel in a dry and barren land.