There are local Southern Baptist associations, and then there is Oregon Trail Baptist Association in Nebraska, where North American Mission Board missionary Doug Lee works to plant new churches. His association takes up the whole western half of Nebraska.
For the last twelve years, Doug — supported by his wife, Brenda — has served as director of missions for the vast association, based in North Platte, Nebraska. Geographically, the Oregon Trail Association is huge — spanning four hundred miles by two hundred miles.
In the east, there are farming communities. Ranching is king in the northwest — the Sandy Hills region-the western panhandle, and in the southwest corner of Nebraska.
North Platte, where the Lees 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, who typically puts sixty thousand ministry miles a year on his red Toyota Camry.
On Thursdays, he and Brenda make the 300-mile trek to lead a Bible study in Hastings. Every Sunday night, the couple travels one hundred 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," said Lee, "not just for me but for the others planting churches out here."
So, what does the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering mean to Doug and Brenda Lee?
"AAEO provides part of my salary and helps to cover our expenses, enabling us to minister to pastors, churches, and do hands-on church planting in western Nebraska," said Lee, whose goal is to plant at least ten new churches in his association over the next ten 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 people he calls the "shift workers," those who may work in restaurants or retail and can't come to church on Sunday mornings.
And instead of force-fitting 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 will turn into a Sunday school and worship service.
"The people living out here in western Nebraska have a strong work ethic," says Lee. "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. There are the Native Americans in Nebraska who got there first. Nebraska's first Hispanic immigrants arrived years ago to work in the soybean and potato fields. A second wave came in later to work in the meat-packing 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 — churches meeting the needs of various people groups, 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 fifty miles west of North Platte.
Lee first heard about Terry from a mission team doing door-to-door surveys in Ogallala about five years ago. The mission team came across Terry, who at the time had a beer in one hand and a six-pack nearby. But Terry, in the home remodeling business, told them he was interested in the Bible.
"Terry Howell is an awesome story," recalled Lee, who soon launched a Bible study the pastor 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.
But now as professing Christians, Terry and Virginia had some unfinished business to handle: 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 received Christ that day.
Terry'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, according to Lee.
"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."
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Doug grew up in tiny Valentine, Nebraska, located almost on the South Dakota border in the far north part of the state. He graduated from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He's served as a church planter/pastor in Kansas, Nebraska, and North Dakota.
Brenda holds a bachelor's degree from Baylor University and also earned an M.Div. degree at Midwestern Seminary. Doug and Brenda have two sons, Andrew and Adam.
Mickey Noah is a member of First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia, and is a writer with the SBC North American Mission Board.