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Where Have All the Cowboy Churches Come From?

There aren’t that many cowboys anymore, and yet cowboy churches seem to be everywhere. What gives?

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Photo by Maurice Chammah

On Father’s Day, nearly a thousand worshipers arrived at the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, the largest “cowboy church” in the world. After being greeted by four men perched on horses, they filed into the massive warehouse space, a metal building that sits next to the nearly identical Ellis County Expo Center in Waxahachie, just south of Dallas. They drank coffee out of small Styrofoam cups and snacked on doughnut holes. A country band played a mix of secular hits like Brad Paisley’s “He Didn’t Have to Be” and Christian country songs with lyrics like “I met Jesus down in Texas, west of Abilene.” Several in the crowd tapped their feet and sang along, but most sat quietly, as if at a classical concert. A few ignored the music, choosing instead to read their Bibles.

As the band finished, Pastor Gary Morgan walked up to the altar, which was decorated like a theater set for a western play, with a wagon and several fake trees. Along the walls, wood fencing was tacked up, draped with saddles, ropes, and ponchos. Morgan, dressed in jeans, a cowboy hat, and a bright belt buckle that glinted in the fluorescent lights, informed the congregation that the day’s service would feature a baptism. A nineteen-year-old girl was plunged into a small stock tank. The congregation applauded. Morgan then began his sermon, and the congregants dutifully turned to different verses of scripture as he quoted from them. He lamented the decline of church attendance in America, arguing that it stemmed from a division in American life where Sundays were for church and the rest of the week was for everything else. “It’s like we were living schizophrenic lives,” he said, waving his arms and letting his voice rise and fall. “God wanted a full-time relationship.”

The sermon would have been familiar to a follower of Rick Warren or Bill Hybels, evangelical pastors who urge their massive congregations to incorporate biblical teachings into their daily lives and espouse the idea of meeting new worshipers on their own terms. This trend, often called “seeker-sensitive” or “low-barrier,” looks to strip away all of the traditional trappings of church—fancy clothes, unfamiliar rituals, esoteric analysis of scripture—that might scare newcomers away. There are no offering plates, altar calls, or hands in the air during songs.

And this strategy has been serving the rapidly growing group of cowboy churches exceptionally well. As the Cowboy Church of Ellis County’s website puts it: “The novelty of a new kind of church directed at cowboys attracted them, but the warm accepting atmosphere kept them coming back. Finally, here was a place where they could come ‘just as they were’ and hear what God might have to say to them.”

“When I pastored traditional churches, I would go to Walmart, and I’d run into church members,” Morgan told me. “When I came out here . . . I’d see them at feed stores and roping arenas. You have a whole subculture of people that moves in a totally different circle than many other Texans do, and our goal was to reach them.”

A few decades ago, there was no such thing as a cowboy church. Today, the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts at least two hundred churches among its ranks, and there are surely hundreds more, though they can be difficult to count. There are a few in Canada and Australia, and at least one in almost every state in the U.S. In Texas, the epicenter of the movement, the Baptist General Convention claims that 40,000 people attend cowboy churches weekly. And that’s just the Baptists.

Cowboy church services are held in barns, sheds, and rodeo arenas. Many of the congregants wear cowboy hats. Some of them work on ranches. A few bring their horses to church. Baptisms take place in metal stock tanks. The worship bands play country music, often featuring pedal steel and fiddle.

But looking around at the congregation in Ellis, it was clear that this church attracted more than the traditional rancher. In fact, it didn’t look much different from any suburban mega-church crowd, save for a few extra cowboy hats. As the number of literal cowboys in Texas dwindles, one begins to wonder, how do you grow a church based on a way of life that hardly exists anymore?

Although the lifestyle choices we often associate with the cowboys of western films—drinking, gambling, staying single—don’t square with church, other values, like self-reliance, and conservatism, are just as familiar to cowboy culture as they are to born-again Christianity. In the 1940’s, a country singer named Carl Stuart Hamblen, inspired by the famous preacher Billy Graham to give up drinking and gambling, hosted a radio show called “Cowboy Church in the Air” and wrote twangy songs about giving his life to Christ.

This contemporary movement of the cowboy church unwittingly borrowed its name from that radio show and grew out of the rodeo culture of the seventies, a world better known for drugs, alcohol, and sex (think Dallas Buyers Club). Rodeo circuit riders competed hard on Saturdays, drank and partied late into the night, and seldom made it to church Sunday mornings.

Despite its rough reputation, that world didn’t escape the wave of born-again, evangelical Christianity that swept through the U.S. at that time thanks to megastar preachers like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Jim Bakker. A few men started to gather for nondenominational prayer in rodeo arenas on Sunday mornings. In 1970 a few prominent rodeo athletes started “Cowboys for Christ,” according to Jake McAdams, a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin University who wrote his thesis in 2013 on cowboy churches. Others started the “Rodeo Cowboys Ministry.” The Fellowship of Christian Athletes started a “Cowboy Chapter.” “Every rodeo you’d go to you’d hear about people giving their lives to the Lord,” Jeff Copenhaver, who was president of the chapter at the time, told me. “It was like a wildfire.” Leaders of the new groups held services wherever they happened to be touring. Then the college rodeo scene caught on. In 1976 Russ Weaver, the son of an Assemblies of God preacher, held a service at the College National Finals Rodeo. They’ve been held yearly since then, and Weaver has gone on to pastor at other cowboy churches.

In 1985 Copenhaver preached at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. He was then invited by Billy Bob Barnett, owner of Billy Bob’s Texas (“The World’s Largest Honky Tonk”), to start regularly holding church at the bar’s rodeo arena in Fort Worth, thus creating the world’s first stationary cowboy church. Others, inspired by Copenhaver’s success, began cowboy churches around the state and in Nashville. A Canadian minister started a cowboy church in Calgary, Alberta.

These churches grew slowly and steadily throughout the 1990s. Then, in 2000, the Baptist General Convention of Texas got into the game, founding the Cowboy Church of Ellis County. With their institutional reach and church-growing chops, the church grew quickly. Pastor Morgan, who comes from a traditional Baptist church in the Panhandle, was tapped by the church’s founder, Ron Nolen, in 2001 to lead the congregation, though he stresses that the church governs itself and does not utilize a traditional hierarchy of leadership.

Nolen began to receive requests for help from other aspiring churches, so he launched the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, which is now known as the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches. The organization teaches courses on how to start and operate cowboy churches. At their website, you can download a document with “the top five most important steps to take to ensure the success and longevity of your Cowboy Church.” These include scouting the proposed location “to determine potential in the western heritage culture” and “stirring up all the dust you can” with your first service.

Because of the American Fellowship’s roots, a large number of cowboy churches follow Baptist practices and theology. But dozens of others were founded by the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination. Still others are Methodist, Nazarene, and nondenominational. What binds cowboy churches together is a desire to reach people who have never gone to church, or at least have not been recently. “It just seems like people love to come and be in a relaxed atmosphere,” Copenhaver told me. “You don’t feel uncomfortable like you would if it’s your first time in a ‘real’ church.”

Morgan and other cowboy church supporters would say that getting new people to be more involved in church should be the priority, and meeting them halfway is a worthy compromise. This tactic has opened cowboy churches up to criticism. Morgan told me that people used to call his cowboy church the “Beer and BBQ church” where “they just do anything.” (That kind of talk has subsided as other churchgoers have come to see just how theologically traditional most cowboy churches are.) And there is a deeper current of unease among some other religious leaders. “I think marketing church to subcultures is a bad, unbiblical idea,” Brad Williams, a pastor from Alabama, wrote on the blog Christ & Pop Culture several years ago. “I fear individuals risk spiritual stagnation by only being around people who look like them, sing the same songs as them, and live the same life as them.” But a more diverse church might not make newcomers feel as much at home.

Still, as the movement has grown, it has inevitably been diluted. Throughout the country, even non-cowboy churches hold western-themed services in which they plop hay bales on the altar and stick a fiddle in the worship band. Some cowboy churches, unlike Morgan’s behemoth, feature more traditional fare like choirs and offering plates. “They have just taken the traditional church model and put cowboy boots on it,” Morgan explained.

The irony, of course, is that there aren’t that many cowboys left to attract, depending on your definition of “cowboy.” Professional rodeo riders make up a smaller and smaller percentage of cowboy church congregations than they did at the outset. McAdams, the graduate student, sees the churches as a primarily suburban phenomenon, finding that “many male Cowboy Christians work in factories, petroleum or natural gas drilling operations, law enforcement, real estate, or government bureaucracies,” while “female Cowboy Christians are teachers, nurses, accountants, administrative assistants, or other service technicians.” A guide prepared by the Church of the Nazarene stretches its list of potential congregants to “those who have ever watched a western.”

But the fact that many of these churches refer to “heritage culture” in their materials makes it clear that the entire idea of a cowboy church is to appeal to a lifestyle more dreamed than lived (in fact, type in “Western heritage culture” on Google and you will mostly find references to cowboy churches). The heyday of the traditional cowboy was 150 years ago, and ever since, his image has been one of nostalgia. Other than rodeos and the occasional western film, there aren’t a lot of ways to connect with this fading culture and its appealing American values of honor, strength, and resourcefulness. “Many suburbanites depend upon the cowboy church movement to provide a community of memory that cherishes the evaporated rural life,” McAdams concludes in his thesis. These churches, it seems, are as much about romanticizing and mythologizing the cowboy image as they are about finding real cowboys.

Church has always been about aspiring—to be a better person, to have a stronger connection with God, to build a community. In a rapidly urbanizing Texas, these churches allow one to aspire while looking backward, to the rural lifestyle that gave birth to the self-image so many Texans hold dear.

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  • Lee

    I was always taught that a true cowboy never wears his hat indoors and would never wear a hat in a house of worship…it was a form of respect….

    • Anonymous

      I have to completely agree with you! I also have to argue that every church should be come as you are. God doesn’t care what you look like or wear, as long as your heart is right it shouldn’t matter. I will also say, I have been to many cowboy churches and have seen that they don’t believe in raising hands to worship. In fact, my mother tried to raise her hands to worship during the music time and she was asked to lower them and was also told if she would be asked to leave. It says in the bible that we are to come to the alter and worship The Lord and to raise our hands to him and worship. Guess I just really haven’t had a good experience with cowboy churches I have been to.

      • Freda Ann Dillard

        I can guarantee you there is no such rule in the AFCC. I have been a member of the Cowboy Church of Ellis County for 9 years and there is plenty of hand raising there. I am sure if the churches you speak of are in the AFCC, the leaders would really like to know who they are.

      • Glenda Accaputo

        I have attended cowboy churches for over 20 years and never heard of such a rule. Hand raising is allowed and encouraged according to the worshipers preference

  • David Reitz

    The best part of my cowboy church is the quarterly He Paid Your Fees events, held on Saturdays, where there is no entry fee for the rodeo event which follows the service, IF you attend the service. And that the services are also livestreamed so you can attend even when you are out of town. http://www.lonestar.tv

  • Brad Banner

    This has all the cowboy churches with websites that I could find and list. Texas has the most. http://www.dmoz.org/Society/People/Cowboys/Christianity/Churches/

  • derbradster

    Some years back a very perceptive observer wrote a book entitled “Why Men HATE Going to Church”. The author and syndicated columnist (and ordained pastor) Doug Giles often goes on tears abou the feminization of church, about girly men who worship a Christ who more resembles a bearded lady than a strong He-man carpenter from Galilee. I think Dave Murrow would be satisfied to see the success and popularity of this church

  • Walt Longmire

    The notion of “trying to reach” a population such as those who participate in rodeos and other western activities is actually quite a good mission idea. But what I read here was nothing of the sort, except to mention that its origins were along those lines. It seems to have morphed into just one more “theme” church environment for those given to cowboy things, whatever that may be.

    This is nothing but the marketing of church that has been going on in the US for a couple of decades now and is, in the Midwest at least, waning in the wasteland of nothingness. This cowboy thing is headed for the same outcome. It will spring up, but since the roots are not deep, it will die a natural death quickly. It will not be until churchmen recognize again that church is not about your comfort, but your spiritual welfare, which means that the thing which “attracts” people to a church is the Word of God and the Holy Spirit in His work of convicting the world of sin. Instead of trying to do better than the Holy Spirit, just get back to the basics and preach the Word, both in season and out of season. What the cowboy thing appears to be is just some more playing church. It has nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ.

    • Glenda Accaputo

      Wrong. My cowboy church does focus on the Word go God and putting what you learn into use in your everyday life. As well as helping the community and missions and sending youth to camp to learn about God. It is not ” a cowboy thing” that will just fade away. You no not what you are talking about

      • Walt Longmire

        History will be the judge of that, I suspect. Give us 5 years and we will see where the “cowboy church” has gone.

  • Walt Longmire

    I was converted to Christ by the Holy Spirit in Big Spring, TX back in 1964. There already were no “real” cowboys even then. Most of them had gone to work for the oil companies who dominated the economy of West Texas. Even I worked in the oil fields on a pulling rig.

    The church from which those who brought me the Gospel was not a church which marketed itself, but a small church who simply obeyed the Lord in going out to “preach the Word to every creature.” I happened to be in the path of the Lord’s purpose at that point, and on a visitation night [fundamental Baptists will know what I am talking about], two men came to my house to “share Christ” with me. They believed that they were being obedient to the commands of our Lord and I believe that was exactly so.

    I can tell you that I did not receive the Good News with gladness, to say the least. They told me from the Scriptures that I was a sinner and lost and undone without Christ unless and until I repented of my sins and believed on the work of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. For months I resisted and made a complete ass of myself before these men, calling them names and purposely using foul language to chase them away. But they endured my insolence for the longest time.

    After a time, when they had finally discontinued their visitation to my home because I had told them to not come back, guess who came back? That’s right: The Lord by the Holy Spirit did to me what He had done to the Apostle Paul, that is, he regenerated my lost soul that I was “made alive” to God. All alone, I fell on my face and confessed Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and have been serving Him since that moment.

    There is no need for a cowboy church; just obedient Christians to carry the Gospel to sinners.

    • Marie

      Amen.

  • Gail Wells

    I believe the idea of the Cowboy Church is the perceived or real notion that these churches will be places of worship with less pretense, less peer judgement and less hypocrisy. Whether that is true or not should be decided by the attendee. It never ceases to amaze me how critical one Christian can be of another Christian. Maybe freedom from this criticism might be another reason people are seeking and welcoming new worshiping venues. I somehow believe our God would approve of the Cowboy Church.

    • Walt Longmire

      When you cite for justification of the cowboy church “less pretense, less peer judgment and less hypocrisy,” you reveal more about yourself than you think. These words mean that you think non-cowboy churches are all these things, or a combination of them. That itself is ironically pretentious, judgmental and a bit of hypocrisy. Here you claim that you cannot understand why one Christian can criticize another, but then do exactly that! Talk about confusion! I think the scriptures would recommend that you take the beam out of your own eye before you desire to take the speck out of another’s eye. The very definition of hypocrisy is to criticize another for something and doing the very same thing yourself.

      As for criticism of religious practice today, we need MORE, not less, particularly of that kind of critique that measures worship and faith by the Word of God and its teachings. Some religious practices widely accepted today are little less than paganism hidden behind pseudo-religion. Just because someone claims to be religious does not make him so. It is the Word of God, properly interpreted, that is the arbiter of that. So let it be.

      For instance, let me guess something: most if not all of the cowboy churches are likely promoting premillennial dispensationalism, a dicey view of biblical interpretation at best and heresy at its worst. Am I right?