Bighorn Baptist is the only church in town

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By Karen L. Willoughby, posted May 4, 2023 in Cooperating for the GospelCooperative Program

FORT SMITH, Mt. – Bighorn Baptist, the only church of any kind in this town established a mere 63 years ago in 1960, does what it can to minister in its community.

Fort Smith is on federal land surrounded by the 2.2 million-acre Crow Indian Reservation. The unincorporated community expands from 40 year-round residents in the winter to 300 mostly retirees in the summer because of the lure of oversize rainbow and brown trout fly fishing in a pristine setting at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains in south-central Montana.

“It’s a transitional town but a lot of the people sold their homes during COVID so we have a lot of new home owners,” said Josh McCraw, pastor since May 2015 of Bighorn Baptist Church. “We hope to reach them [new seasonal residents] here so they can go back home and get involved in a church there.”

Bighorn Baptist wants “to be a beacon of hope to the Bighorn Valley through the love and power of Jesus Christ,” according to its website, The church shows this in several ways:

It’s illegal to host fly fishing tournaments on the Bighorn River, which flows from the Yellowtail dam in south-central Montana, so Bighorn Baptist hosts fly-casting and distance-casting tournaments.

Men also gather every other month for a men’s breakfast, with the pastor as head chef. A Mississippi native, McCraw specializes in bacon, sausage, biscuits ‘n gravy.

McCraw’s wife, Mandi, graduates this month from Montana State University in Billings with an associate’s degree in general business. Her plan: to open the town’s only coffee shop, as a place where townspeople and visitors alike can gather and build relationships. She also homeschools twin daughters, Presley and Paige, 15, and participates in the women’s Thursday evening Bible study.

Mandi McCraw also is in her second year as president of the Montana WMU organization, and was on mission in Missouri the week Baptist Press talked with the pastor.

Bighorn Pastor Josh McCraw leads a class.

The Fort Smith Elementary School has 19 students, including the McCraws’ 8-year-old son, Bracyn. Bighorn Baptist Church draws 15 of the students to Wednesday evening Kid’s Club. A Texas church – Abundant Life Assembly in Commerce – donated a van that picks up the youngsters each week.

Children – both Native and white – who live some 15 miles from town are drawn each summer to the activities (VBS and sports) hosted by the church and led by four or more mission teams from Texas, Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Abundant Life first connected with Bighorn Baptist in the winter of 2015 when Kathy Hall, a member at the Texas church, called to offer to lead VBS in Fort Smith the following summer. (The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention was in a partnership with Montana at the time.)

That request came just in time for the McCraw family, who had begun to feel the isolation that comes from living in a small town with dangerous winter roads. Fort Smith is at the end of Montana Highway 313.

Today, Kathy Hall and Mandi McCraw are best friends, as are their husbands, Elmer Hall and Josh McCraw.

“We’re a small congregation and most of our people work in tourism in some way, so they are busy during the summer and not able to help a lot with our outreach events,” McCraw said. “This leaves the church with a great need for other Christians to come along and partner with us to fill in the gap during those summer months. 

“I love it here,” pastor and Mississippi native Josh McCraw said of Bighorn, Mt. “Just the way it involves my family together; we have just gotten to be so close.”

“Seeing Christians coming together from all over for the common goal of sharing the Gospel is so encouraging,” the pastor continued. “It amazes me to see how God brings certain groups into our ministry in particular times of need and to see them being blessed spiritually while they are here blessing us with their help physically. We have made some wonderful friendships through our mission teams from both within the state and beyond.” 

McCraw works bivocationally. He is the community’s water and wastewater operator, a far cry from the UPS truck driver he was for 10 years before entering the pastorate.

“I worked at a trout shop the first two-and-a-half years I was here,” McCraw said. “The president of the water board offered me this job.

“I think he couldn’t find anybody else to do it,” the pastor added with a grin. It took McCraw two years of study to become a certified operator of the computerized equipment.

Among McCraw’s secular employment duties, he checks the water quality coming into the community the last thing each day, including Sundays. While on call 24/7 – just as he is in his role as pastor – his time is flexible.

In addition to knowing probably every person in town, he brings an expositional message each Sunday morning – at the moment he’s focusing on the Sermon on the Mount – and leads Kids Club every Wednesday evening.

Kids Club involves virtually every Bighorn Baptist member. Two women cook a hot meal for the children. Two additional women help with games and other activities. Mandi McCraw works where needed. One man helps bring the lesson, using Lifeway Christian Resources’ Gospel Project curriculum.

“I love how it’s just to the point and a great story line that goes from the Old Testament to the New, and how it shows how the Old Testament points to Jesus,” McCraw said. “We started at the basics: Genesis 1:1. Most kids here had never heard the Bible stories. It (The Gospel Project) shows how all of the Bible points to the Gospel, the way God rescues people from sin’s consequences.”

Fishing is a way of life in this part of the world. Pastor Josh McGraw participates in the local pastime and also helps protect it in his day job as a water and wastewater operator.

Kids Club started this year, the first Wednesday in January. One young boy showed up the first week. Now 15 attend regularly, relationships are being built with parents, and plans are in place to provide Kids Church Sunday mornings starting this fall. 

For Sunday morning worship services, there is a pianist; Mandi McCraw leads the music; and the McCraw twins take turns using the computer to put words on the screen.

“I love it here,” McCraw said. “Just the way it involves my family together; we have just gotten to be so close. But then, I fell in love with the place as soon as we got here, solidifying the feeling God called us here.” 

Bighorn Baptist was in the early stages of developing a Facebook presence when COVID made it necessary to move to online services. That aspect of the church’s ministry continues, with usually three watching online during the service, and another five or more watching during the week.

“We have used Facebook very successfully but other than that, our church really tries to be involved with the school in town,” the pastor said. 

McCraw, in his first pastorate, has expanded on experience gleaned as a 17-year layman at Endville (Mississippi) Baptist Church. He is in his fifth semester at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, which, he said, “has made study so much more productive, especially to get the background to what was taking place.”

Not everything has worked. A food pantry and a clothing closet seemed not to be needed, so what had been collected was given to a ministry elsewhere on the reservation.

A free movie night wasn’t needed either.

“People are here to fish and after a long day of fishing they’re ready to call it a night,” McCraw said. “One of the biggest obstacles here is that there’s no unity, no camaraderie. People come here to get away. We’re trying different ways to offset that.”

Mission endeavors of the church, Montana Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention also are important to members of Bighorn Baptist, which allocates at least 10 percent of undesignated offerings to missions through the Cooperative Program, the way Southern Baptists work together locally and globally.

“I grew up independent Baptist,” McCraw told Baptist Press. “When I came here the church was Southern Baptist and I very quickly saw the benefit of being Southern Baptist, working together for the sake of the Gospel. I love that.

“It’s so beneficial to have that network of churches,” McCraw continued. “We try to get involved with the pastors in the other towns in this part of the state and we’ve even shared mission teams.”

Bighorn Baptist gives between 10 and 11 percent of undesignated offerings through the Cooperative Program because of the principle of tithing, and in addition the church helps support independent missionaries, the pastor said. 

“We like the way the Cooperative Program works, how the money is used,” McCraw said. “It’s the best way to reach the most people with the Gospel.”

Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press

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This article originally appeared on the Baptist Press News website.