A scenic view of Bozeman, one of the seven primary cities targeted by the Montana/Tennessee partnership. Teams also worked in and around Helena, Butte, Missoula, Billings, Great Falls, and Kalispell.
William Johnson, left, church planting missionary for the Montana Southern Baptist Convention, and Kim Margrave, right, volunteer missions specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, visit with Sean Stevenson, pastor of Crossroads Church in Bozeman. The nearly 4-year-pld church has been assisted by Tennessee volunteers since its start.
Volunteers from Ridgeway Baptist Church, Memphis, (from left, Isabella Everett, Carrie Ray, and Kymberly Kirkpatrick) conducted Vacation Bible School at Lakeside Baptist Church in Lakeside, Mont., in July. The volunteers are among thousands who have participated in the partnership between the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Montana Southern Baptist Convention which began Jan. 1, 2006 and will conclude Dec. 31, 2015.
Montana is classified by the North American Mission Board as “a new work state,” meaning that it is a largely unreached missions field.
According to the convention’s website, Southern Baptists in Montana represent less than 1 percent of the population and evangelicals number less than 10 percent.
Despite the distance between the two states, thousands of volunteers from Tennessee made the two to three day trek (by car) to Montana since the partnership officially began on Jan. 1, 2006. It will end Dec. 31.
“Distance was a factor but not an issue,” Margrave observed. She noted that because Montana is a “destination” state, volunteers initially were willing to make the long trip. There is an “intrigue” factor about going to a western state, she added.
After going there once, many of the volunteers saw the overwhelming needs that existed.
For Tennessee Baptists, traveling to Montana was an “eye-opening” experience because it did not take long for Tennessee volunteers to realize they were no longer in the Bible belt, added Margrave. “There were not churches on every corner and, more importantly, there was a definite lack of gospel presence there,” she observed.
“The impact Montana has made on Tennessee has helped us realize that not everyone, even in our own country, has access to the gospel,” Margrave added.
Because of that, “our churches were willing to make the sacrifices needed to travel to Montana because they saw the tremendous lostness in the state and the urgent need to share the gospel there,” she said.
Margrave observed that early in the partnership Montana Baptists expressed the desire that the partnership would be “church to church. We tried to connect a Tennessee church with a Montana church or church planter,” she said. And it worked. The relationships that have been established have been invaluable, said William Johnson, a church planting missionary based near Bozeman.
The relationships formed have had the biggest impact on the state, added Johnson who had just started a new church in Manhattan when the partnership began.
First Baptist Church, Sevierville, “adopted” his congregation and made numerous trips to Montana to assist Gallatin Valley Baptist Fellowship.
TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis was pastor at FBC, Sevierville, when the partnership started.
“As a pastor I had the joy of first getting to know Montana through the eyes of William and Teresa Johnson in the church they planted in Manhattan. First Baptist, Sevierville, helped the Johnsons as they planted that new work,” he observed, adding that the “partnership between our churches was rich, rewarding, and fun.”
Johnson noted that the financial help along with the prayer partners and missions teams supplied by First Baptist were a huge asset to Gallatin Valley.
First Baptist also enabled four members of Gallatin Valley to join them on a missions trip to Haiti. Johnson noted that for a new church start, participating on an international mission trip was viewed as impossible. “It was empowering for us,” he recalled.
After Davis became executive director of the TBC he noted the partnership between the two conventions was in full bloom.
“Long and continued connection has allowed me the privilege of getting to know my counterpart at the MSBC, Fred Hewett. My respect for Fred and his wife Cherryl is deep. “His vision, drive, and competency is so very obvious. We are very thankful that God has allowed churches and associations all over our state to be blessed by our partnership with our wonderful friends in Montana.”
Hewett, who has been in Montana for eight of the 10 years, agreed with others that “the strength of the partnership has been the focus of connecting churches with churches. “Many seeds have been planted over the years. In fact several TBC pastors/church members have followed God’s call to ministry and moved to Montana,” Hewett observed.
Hewett is grateful for the support of TBC and Davis. “He has been a blessing to me and our pastors. We are looking forward to him being with us at our annual meeting in October,” the MSBC executive director added.
In addition to all the churches which traveled to Montana, a number of TBC staff members made the trek to assist their counterparts there. Accounting staff conducted the annual audit for the Montana convention, other TBC staff led numerous conferences, and assistance was provided in helping Montana develop their disaster relief unit, Margrave said.
"We wanted to be responsive to their needs and be a part of what they were doing,” she added.
Other Montana missionaries and pastors expressed appreciation to Tennessee Baptists for their work in the state for the past decade.
Tennessee volunteers were no strangers for Michael Liner, a church starting missionary based near Butte. Liner was reared in Chattanooga.
Liner said teams from Tennessee have helped a number of churches in the area with events ranging from conducting Vacation Bible School and backyard Bible clubs to helping with festivals and prayer walking. “All of the Tennessee teams I have been associated with were good,” Liner said.
Dave Strand, associate pastor of Floral Park Baptist Church in Butte, also has had good experiences with Tennessee volunteers. “The partnership has been good for us. Teams have helped us make connections in the community,” he said.
Connections in local communities have been an important facet of the partnership, Johnson agreed.
“The influence of missions teams in the community make an impact,” he said.
He noted that in Manhattan he would often be asked, “Are your friends (from FBC, Sevierville) coming back?” Johnson said teams that came to Manhattan wore T-shirts with Gallatin Valley’s name on it. As teams did things that benefited the community, residents associated it with Gallatin Valley Baptist. “It gave the church a positive name in the community,” he said.
Darren Hales, pastor of Big Sky Fellowship in Helena, also has been the beneficiary of a number of Tennessee Baptist teams. “I’ve never had a bad missions team from Tennessee. They always came to serve, help, and love,” he said. The fellowship and encouragement provided by Tennessee teams also is important to pastors in Montana, Hales said. “I’m always blessed and encouraged when a team comes. They love on you and help you,” he said.
Johnson agreed that the support from Tennessee has been important. “Ministry (in Montana) can be lonely,” he said. “Tennesseans have reached out to us and the contact has been huge for us,” Johnson added.
B. J. Hallmark, who doubles as both an interim pastor and director of missions in Great Falls, has served in Montana for 31 years and he can vouch that ministry there can be lonely.
Unlike Tennessee where it seems there’s a Baptist church on every corner, that’s not the case in Montana. Distance creates isolation, Hallmark said. He noted that in one of his pastorates, the nearest pastor was 70 miles away. He observed that Tennessee volunteers “have made a tremendous impact.”
Hallmark cited the relationships that have been created because Tennessee pastors have come to lead revivals and churches have helped with construction projects and other missions activities in Montana.
“We’ve had one-on-one church partnerships and some of those will continue after the partnership has concluded,” Hallmark said. “Relationally, this is the best partnership Montana has ever had,” he added.
Did not disappoint
Steve Fowler knew the reputation of Tennessee Baptists before they came to Montana. He had served as a pastor in Michigan while they were partners with Tennessee. “Tennessee Baptists did not disappoint us,” Fowler said.
Tennessee Baptists have helped restart churches in the state and have plugged in virtually every way possible, Fowler continued. Fowler cited the work of a vision team that came to Missoula as one of the most significant results of the partnership.
“Our work in Missoula was almost non-existent,” he recalled. The work there is much stronger today because Tennessee Baptists prayed for that city. “I give God the credit for using that vision team,” he said.
Johnson stressed that the relationship with the TBC has been such a boost for their work in Montana. “We will miss the Tennessee Baptist partnership,” he said.
See this article on the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector
You might also be interested in...
The Tennessee Baptist Convention