Words by Katie Smith
JACKSON, WY – It’s somewhat ironic that Pastor Aaron Wronko, his wife, Sarah, and their four kids live in hot, dry Texas. The Montana natives, and high school sweethearts, are avid fans of all things snow and cold. Aaron and Sarah felt called to Gateway when it was just a small church meeting in a local school in Southlake and have served here diligently for 16 years. But the call of crisp mountain air and something akin to destiny has slumbered in their hearts for many years.
For some reason, Aaron’s had an interest in Jackson Hole as far back as he can remember. In elementary school, he would do reports on Jackson Hole. After he and Sarah got married, they started their honeymoon there. “I’ve even been joking around with people for years saying we needed to plant a Gateway campus in Jackson Hole so I could move out there and still have Gateway,” Aaron says. And in late 2018, it became official—Gateway was adopting a small church in Jackson, Wyoming. And Aaron was one of the first on board.
It’s Sunday morning in mid-March, and the lobby of River Crossing Church is filled with new faces, some looking chilled to the bone. The regulars are used to newcomers—Jackson Hole is a huge tourist destination. Everyone is greeted with a warm “Welcome home” as they walk through the doors, and there’s no shortage of friendly smiles, handshakes, and hugs. In the Lobby, warm donuts are stacked high on a plate next to carafes of hot coffee that many people happily indulge in before heading into the Auditorium, and children go from person to person, getting hugs and pats on the head before their children’s ministry begins. There’s a hint of nostalgia and warmth in the Lobby that is unseen in many places, especially places as cold as Jackson Hole.
The massive window in the Auditorium displays a stunning view of the majestic Grand Teton mountain. That view alone draws the masses to Jackson Hole, but there are even more reasons that approximately 4,000,000 tourists visit the area every year—it’s the premier spot for snow sports enthusiasts, nature junkies, small-town connoisseurs, experienced hunters, and real-life cowboys. In the winter, the air is crisp, and you’ll often see moose in the road. Snow covers everything from the mountain tops to the streets below. Sprigs of evergreen pop through and little animal footprints can be seen on otherwise immaculate waves of white. It’s enchanting. And it’s with this backdrop that a momentous church service begins.
The worship team plays Gateway’s song “Greater Than” and given this setting, the lyrics take on new meaning: “Greater than the mountain that’s in front of me / You are greater, so much greater.”
Afterward, Pastor Mike Atkins, the well-loved leader of River Crossing Church, stands on the platform to initiate something he has been praying about for several years. “I feel like a father walking his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day,” he says to the congregation as he begins to speak.
“About five years ago, I started sensing there was a change coming. My vision for what God wanted to do here in Jackson Hole was increasing, but I was sensing that my role was diminishing,” Mike says. “I couldn’t understand why the Lord was showing me both of these things at the same time.”
Then, a year and a half ago, at his daughter’s urging, Mike joined her on a last-minute trip to Jerusalem for the dedication of the US Embassy. Coincidentally, they sat down next to an American couple whom their family had been friends with for many years: Pastor Tom and Jan Lane. Mike and Tom reconnected, and Mike was reminded of Gateway’s immense apostolic influence and mission. “I later called Tom and told him that something was stirring. He suggested I come down to Texas and talk with him,” Mike says. Soon after, things began to click in a way that Holy Spirit–led things do, and the Lord started speaking to Gateway’s elders about the possibility of merging with River Crossing to become a new Gateway campus.
“After a few months of significant prayer and conversation, the elders of both churches had a unanimous vote,” Pastor Jimmy Evans says. “This is our first campus outside of the Metroplex, but we believe it’s also the first of many campuses God will have us plant all over the country and the world.”
The people of River Crossing Church always knew the property had a much bigger calling on it—a global kingdom calling. So when Mike first shared the vision of a union with Gateway with his congregation, he asked them to stand if they agreed with it. Without hesitation, everyone in the room stood.
It was a powerful, significant moment, especially for Mike and his wife, Patty. “For years, I felt like I was a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines. I felt like God had told me: ‘Hold this bridge. Don’t let it fall into disrepair. Don’t let it fall into the hands of the enemy. I have great purpose for it, and a great army is coming,’” Mike says. “Now I know what that purpose is—it’s Gateway. Gateway is the army that’s come to use it to its full potential.”
“There is no one I would trust this congregation to more lovingly and more freely than I would Pastor Robert Morris,” Mike says to the congregation during that service in mid-March.
In this moment, the gravity of Mike’s 24-year tenure at River Crossing Church is palpable. This congregation, many of whom have been attending for decades, have learned from, worshipped with, and prayed for the man in front of them now. Just like the resolute Teton Range makes Jackson Hole unique, the long-standing members of River Crossing make this place special. Many drive an hour or more to church each Sunday. Many arrive a couple of hours before service each week to serve in children’s ministry or attend Sunday school just to hear Mike teach more. One man felt so welcome the first time he came to the church a couple of years ago, he’s been back every week since and now serves as a greeter. One woman has served at the welcome desk for 20 years. Another has served as a Spanish translator for 15 years. One man comes to the church building and prays every day. These people, young and old, have found their home in River Crossing Church and in Mike and Patty. Although excitement coats the room, this is still a bittersweet day.
“Pastor Robert, you come as an answer to many hours of prayer for many years, and I’m deeply grateful to you and the entire eldership of Gateway for hearing the voice of the Lord and accepting this challenge. We welcome you with open arms and sincere love and respect,” Mike says. “May this holy marriage of Gateway and River Crossing produce great fruit for God’s kingdom for generations to come. And may Christ’s name be exalted. Welcome home, Pastor.”
As Pastor Robert approaches Pastor Mike on the platform of River Crossing Church, now officially Gateway Jackson Hole, the congregation stands amid uproarious applause and cheers to honor the two men: the one who led them thus far and the one who will lead them from now on.
“Although we are often asked, Gateway has only adopted three churches: our Frisco Campus, our Grand Prairie Campus, and now, our Jackson Hole Campus,” Pastor Robert tells the congregation.
“We only do it when God speaks, and He has spoken clearly to our elders. We know this means He’s doing this for our good. We are so excited about this opportunity to merge our ministries to make a larger impact in this area and the world.”
During this time, the new campus pastor, Jim Hall is also introduced. A seasoned leader who spent many years pastoring in Minnesota before coming to Gateway, Jim and his wife, Sheree, were initially reluctant to make such a change. “After all that time in Minnesota, we learned we really don’t like the cold! And initially, we both thought, No way.” Jim says with a laugh. “But we prayed, and God started speaking.” One morning, right after a preliminary visit to River Crossing Church, Jim and Sheree looked at each other over their morning coffee and said yes to the Lord. “We want to be in a place where whatever the Lord tells us to do, we obey,” Jim says. “And the moment I said yes, I felt the Lord say that a new season and a new anointing was coming. We couldn’t be more excited about what God is going to do.” To see Jim and Sheree at this launch service is to see a picture of pure joy in obedience. In a way, their obedience in coming to River Crossing mirrors that of Mike and Patty in leaving, for it seems this church is destined to have humble, God-fearing, obedient leaders at the helm.
After introductions are made, elders and staff lay hands on Mike and Patty in an emotional farewell prayer. Then, Jim and Sheree, and Aaron, the new community pastor, and Sarah are welcomed with equal applause and fervent prayer. The bridge was held, and a new season begins.
Earlier this year, before the union of Gateway and River Crossing was announced, Aaron called his parents to have them pray about whether he and Sarah should move to Jackson Hole to be part of the new Gateway campus launch. “My mom told me that when she was pregnant with me, she and my dad went on a trip to Jackson Hole,” Aaron says. “My dad climbed the summit of the Grand with a friend, and at the top, while overlooking the valley where my mother was pregnant with me, he prayed and dedicated my life in ministry to the Lord.” Aaron’s call to Jackson Hole started before he was even born. But what Aaron’s dad didn’t know on that mountain about 40 years ago was that as he was dedicating his unborn son to ministry, down in the valley, a wealthy man was getting ready to gift 17 acres of land to a burgeoning church where Aaron would one day minister—the land was given to the church the same year Aaron was born. God set up history for this moment, and this is only the beginning of what He has in store. “Something is starting here that is perhaps bigger than any of us know,” Mike says. “I believe the greatest days for Gateway are ahead.”