NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (BP)--There are local Southern Baptist associations, and then there is the Oregon Trail Baptist Association spanning the western half of Nebraska, where missionary Doug Lee works to plant new churches.
Lee, director of missions for the association based in North Platte, is jointly funded by the North American Mission Board and the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists.
Geographically, the Oregon Trail Association is huge, covering 400 miles by 200 miles.
To the east, there are farming communities, while ranching is king in the northwest, the western panhandle and the southwest corner of the state.
North Platte, where Lee and his wife Brenda are based, is the sixth largest city in Nebraska but only has 24,000 people. The only other "major" cities in the Oregon Trail Association are Grand Island and Kearney.
"We range from very desolate places to little tiny towns to North Platte," said Lee, 58, who typically puts 60,000 ministry miles a year on his red Toyota Camry.
On Thursdays, he and Brenda make a 300-mile trek to lead a Bible study in Hastings. Every Sunday night, the couple travels 100 miles round-trip to Ogallala, where Lee is pastor of Ogallala Community Church. During harsh Nebraska winters, he drives through blowing snow on icy roads with temperatures as low as 25 degrees below zero.
"One of the biggest challenges we face out here in western Nebraska is distance," Lee said, "not just for me but for the others planting churches out here."
The Lees are two of the 5,000-plus missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. What does the offering mean to them?
" provides part of my salary and helps to cover our expenses, enabling Brenda and I to minister to pastors, churches and do hands-on church planting in western Nebraska," said Lee, whose goal is to plant at least 10 new churches in his association over the next 10 years.
Lee's overarching strategy is to meet the people where they are, on their terms and turf. For example, he holds Bible studies or worship services on Sunday nights for shift workers, those who may work in restaurants or retail and can't come to church on Sunday mornings.
And instead of forcing a new church plant on local folks regardless of their needs, wants and circumstances, he begins with a Bible study at the home of a "family of peace." Once that group blossoms and grows, it turns into a Sunday School and worship service.
"The people living out here in western Nebraska have a strong work ethic," Lee said. "A lot of that comes from the early days when the settlers came. There was nothing here -- no towns, no schools, no railroads. They built things from scratch, so people here are very independent and self-sufficient."
But Anglos are not the only ones here with a pioneering spirit and strong work ethic. Native Americans arrived in Nebraska much earlier. Nebraska's first Hispanic immigrants arrived years ago to work in the soybean and potato fields. A second wave came later to work in the meatpacking plants.
Add an influx of Sudanese, Indians and city-dwellers moving out of Omaha and Lincoln to rural areas, and Lee's mission field suddenly becomes very diverse, requiring the planting of diverse new churches to meet the needs of various people groups, including cowboy churches and churches in mobile home parks and apartment complexes.
"The diversity opens up an opportunity to minister to people in a number of ways," Lee said. "For instance, one of the things the Hispanic folks like -- especially the kids -- is soccer. All we have to say is we're holding a soccer camp and they show up. This gives us the opportunity to share Christ with not only the Hispanic kids but the Anglo kids as well, who are getting more and more into soccer here."
Lee is ever mindful that western Nebraska is sparsely populated, and time, money and energy is limited. So why should he even bother? Lee, a former police officer, has a quick response.
"Well, there are not many people here and I guess it would be more cost-effective to go to heavier populated areas. I'm all for reaching the urban areas. But we can't forget the rural areas. Jesus died for the individuals in the rural areas as much as for those in the cities."
As he drives across Nebraska's vast plains, pastureland and hill country, Lee knows he may only encounter a person once or twice, so he intentionally and boldly makes it a high priority to witness for Jesus Christ wherever he goes. Lee is particularly proud of one convert, Terry Howell in Ogallala, about 50 miles west of North Platte.
Lee first heard about Howell from a mission team doing door-to-door surveys in Ogallala about five years ago. The mission team came across Howell, who at the time had a beer in one hand and a six-pack nearby. But Howell, in the home remodeling business, told them he was interested in the Bible.
"Terry Howell is an awesome story," said Lee, who soon launched a Bible study he hoped would attract Howell. Terry and his girlfriend Virginia attended. The couple, committed to each other but still unmarried, would ultimately rededicate their lives to Christ.
Then, as professing Christians, Terry and Virginia faced some unfinished business: They needed to be married. Lee would later marry them and at their suggestion even share the Gospel at their wedding. Thanks to the newlyweds, five guests at the wedding accepted Christ that day.
Howell's transformation from a beer-drinking, swearing, hard-working, hard-playing, good old Nebraska boy into a leading member of Ogallala Community Church was nothing less than a miracle, Lee said.
"You don't hear him swearing anymore. He really works on it. We've seen that change in his life. He's at church even if Virginia has to work. He comes early to set up and is the last one to go. Terry's not only a good church man, he even alerts me when it's time to go visiting if I don't contact him first....
"When I see a person like Terry changed, it's rewarding and brings excitement to me. It helps me realize what it's all about. And when it's slow out here, I know to keep pushing because there's another Terry coming down the road. Terry is making a real difference in Ogallala."
Lee, born in Tulsa, Okla., grew up in tiny Valentine, Neb., almost on the South Dakota border in the far northern part of the state. He graduated from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and has served as a church planter/pastor in Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.
Brenda holds a bachelor's degree from Baylor University and also earned a master of divinity from Midwestern. The Lees have two sons, Andrew and Adam.
Mickey Noah writes for the North American Mission Board.
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