In what appeared a throwback to another age, Faith Bible Baptist Church in Greeley hosted an unusual conference, men and their families who are engaged in a ministry going back to frontier days, the circuit riding preacher.
During the settling of the American West, the small towns would often not have the resources or population to sustain a church with a full-time pastor. During this time, the era of the circuit-riding preacher was born. These men were of a particular hearty breed. Their call to God would often mean spending months away from their families as they travelled to towns and conducted church services. The preachers would then leave and the people would not see him again until he completed his “circuit.”
The two denominations most known for sending these types of preachers out into the wilderness were the Baptists and the Methodists. While the Methodists have since abandoned their circuit-riding ministry, among the Baptists the movement is alive and well.
Baptist Circuit Riding Missions (BCRM) was founded in 1992 by Don Giffin who developed a burden after seeing the vast sections of land in the rural west that have no Baptist churches because they are so isolated. BCRM currently has nine circuit riders in several western states including Idaho, Utah, Montana, Colorado and Wyoming.
BCRM recently placed itself under the umbrella of Faith Bible Baptist Church here in Greeley. Matt Walters, FBBC’s pastor explained the ministry was a good fit for the church.
“Although we are in Greeley, Weld County is a largely rural county,” Walters explained. “With our location relatively close to the Wyoming border and the benefits we can offer being in a large city, we can help provide a base of support for these men and their families who spend many days on the road trying to reach farmers and ranchers in the rural areas of the west.”
Walters is no stranger to rural ministries. Prior to his coming to Greely in 2001 he and his family were missionaries to the Ute Indians in Cortez.
The church held a conference this week which served as a time of spiritual recharging for the circuit riders and their families. Many of the preachers spend hundreds of nights a year away from their families as they travel to small towns and individual farms and ranches trying to reach people with the gospel. Colorado currently has 448 small towns with populations under 1,000 and of these only 17 have Baptist churches.
The Baptist church is unique in that historically, contrary to what many may believe, they are not Protestants. Baptist groups existed prior to the Reformation when many of the existing Protestant groups splintered from the Roman Catholic Church.
The circuit-riders form a diverse group of people including Wayne Stark, a 75 year old preacher who has been with BCRM for five years. This summer, Stark put thousands of miles on his pickup, while struggling with high gas prices as he went from town to town. He is equally at home on a horse or in a pickup.
“There were many nights I had to spend the evening sleeping in my truck because there was not any other place to stay,” Stark said. “However, when you have a burden for the lost it is well worth it for the cause of Jesus Christ. This is what our Baptist forefathers did during the settling of America.”
The group has recently been invited to conduct services at Fort Laramie, Wyoming. “They told us there is no restriction on what we are allowed to preach. All they ask is that we wear traditional garb for a circuit rider,” Stark said.
Christian Coker, 20, is an associate pastor with BCRM in Butte, Montana. Coker has been with the organization for two years and while many people his age are interested in the latest video game or action movie, Coker said what he does is exciting.
“There is nothing greater than knowing I am doing what God wants me to do. There is such a need to reach this part of America with the gospel. It has almost been forgotten,” he said.
At Thursday evening’s meeting, BCRM honored one of their newest additions, John Lang, 22, who is a senior at Hyles-Anderson College in Indiana.
“Don Giffin came to college and spoke during our chapel service about BCRM. The Lord got ahold of my heart and told me I needed to be a part of this ministry,” Lang said.
A key part of the ministry is the Scratch Rally. During these rallies the circuit-rider and several other pastors who assist him go into a town to organize a series of meetings. They go around to the rural areas and attempt to gather people for the meeting. Afterwards they will attempt to start a church.
The ministry has even had a meeting in the smallest town in the world, Lost Springs, Wyoming with a population of one. However, a few years ago they conducted a meeting and 55 people showed up.