NEW LIFE AND NEW HOPE
Down to less than two-dozen mostly older worshippers, the only Assemblies of God church in Laramie, Wyoming, nearly shuttered its doors in the summer of 2017.
The once optimistically named New Life Church had lost hope, according to Wyoming Ministry Network Superintendent Alan Schaberg. “It seemed clear that if we didn’t get the right person as pastor quickly, the church’s future was definitely in jeopardy.”
Then, Schaberg received a résumé from Matt Baumgartner, a longtime youth, social media, and associate minister in the AG North Texas District. Schaberg conducted a video interview with Baumgartner — seeking his first calling as a lead pastor — and came away believing he might be a good fit.
So did Baumgartner, 36. He had grown up an AG missionary kid in Equatorial Guinea — and he saw Laramie, a city of 32,400, as his new mission field. His parents, Mark and Kelly Baumgartner, served 25 years in Africa before becoming U.S. missionary candidates in 2018 supporting churches with biblical literacy and education programs.
Still, Baumgartner knew hard work — both by him and his devoted but few parishioners — would be needed for New Life Church to revive and thrive. Baumgartner, his wife Melanie, and their children, John, now 15, and Faith, 11, moved from Round Rock, Texas, to Laramie in September 2017. They found a congregation of 20 souls.
“We felt strongly that there was potential, that God wasn’t through with this church,” Baumgartner says. “We were prepared for a long road and prepared for what could really be a difficult first several years before there could be any turning of the ship.”
Yet Baumgartner envisioned dedication and divine favor ahead. The church now averages 110 congregants.
For a building with a capacity of 75, the attendance surge first meant putting up overflow seating in the foyer, and then going to two Sunday services. The growth has revolutionized the congregational demographics, too. Beginning with a remnant of mostly senior citizens, New Life Church today is made up of worshippers of all ages — including dozens of children and youth, the latter incorporating students from Laramie’s University of Wyoming campus.
The key, Baumgartner explains, is a commitment — supported by those faithful elders from the beginning — of pastoring not just those inside the walls of New Life Church, but the community of Laramie at large.
The church joined the Chamber of Commerce right away as a first step toward engaging the community.
“When a new business comes, we help welcome them, and that has led to many relationships, some with people now coming to our church,” Baumgartner says.
An appreciative Laramie C of C asked the new pastor to open its recent annual banquet with prayer. However, New Life Church’s community pastoring initiative goes well beyond that.
The church also connected with the Chi Alpha Campus Ministries chapter that is active at the University of Wyoming. With the help of a $5,000 grant from I Heart Wyoming, a multichurch outreach network, New Life Church bought a commercial-quality grill and started tailgating at U of W sporting events.
“We serve up free hamburgers, hotdogs, water, and sodas with no agenda other than just introducing ourselves,” Baumgartner says.
New Life Church also has reached out to dozens of other congregations in Laramie to cooperate in other community activities, including a well-received “Back to School Bash” where needy students receive backpacks and classroom supplies, snow cones, and, of course, hamburgers and hot dogs from the grill.
Until recently, the church had not been able to pay Baumgartner a full-time salary. He initially sought extra work, which led to additional opportunities to minister: as a full-time hospice chaplain for his first year, and occasionally driving an on-campus bus for physically challenged students and area residents.
In September 2018, Baumgartner also became director of men’s ministry for the AG Wyoming Ministry Network.