DENOMINATION Nondenominational
PASTOR Jerry Hoyt
ADDRESS 8400 FM 32, near FM 3424
PHONE 830-935-2920
SERVICES Sundays at 10:30 a.m.

THE TERM “CHURCH CLOTHES” has lost much of its meaning in recent years, as seeker-friendly churches have encouraged a come-as-you-are atmosphere, but nowhere do people consistently dress down more than at the cowboy churches that are springing up all over the Southwest. In Texas, many carry a barely visible Southern Baptist brand, but some, like Cowboys for Jesus Christian Fellowship, in the Hill Country town of Fischer, are independent, nondenominational congregations, started by a pastor and a few friends to attract people who want something less formal than a traditional service and setting and might be drawn in by the classic mythos of the American West.

The Fischer church meets in a spacious new red barn with a rail-fence entrance reminiscent of a movie set. Upon entering the foyer, visitors confront a large painting of Jesus riding a white horse and carrying a tall spearlike scepter. (The church’s Web site features the same picture, accompanied by words from Revelation 19:11–16 that ostensibly identify Jesus as the “First Cowboy” and depict him as a fierce and bloody warrior. A note at the end of the passage says, “I guess old Roy just thought he was the King of the Cowboys!”) The interior walls are lined with peeled split cedar, creating a log-cabin effect, and the polished concrete floors are stained the color of chewing tobacco. A long cedar plank carved with the words “Cowboys for Jesus” lies on the raised stage between audio monitors covered with bandannas. In the center of the back wall stands a new rugged cross, crowned with a ring of barbed wire.

Because my wife and I mistakenly expected the church to be located in downtown Fischer instead of about three miles east on FM 32 (a.k.a. the Devil’s Backbone), we arrived a couple of minutes after the service started, just in time to hear an ensemble of two guitars, a mandolin, and a washtub bass wind up their rendition of “Cowboys Go to Heaven.”

When I die, I know I’ll go to heaven
And I know that God lets cowboys in …
I’d ride through hordes of hell and half of Texas
Just to hear my Lord and Savior say, “Well done.”
This ain’t no place for half-committed Christians
You don’t know God if you’re not walking with the Son.

A middle-aged blond woman, dressed in boots and jeans and wearing a pre-crumpled, blue-black straw Western hat, played lead guitar and introduced each song with a bit of commentary. She noted that “we”—it soon became clear that she was Pastor Jerry Hoyt’s wife, Jan—had just returned from a conference of cowboy churches in Sealy and that she “couldn’t believe what’s been going on in our country in the last few days. The Enemy is trying to get God out of our country, and it’s time that we stand up. I want you to think about what we’re facing as a nation, as Christians in a Christian nation. They tell us that our forefathers were ‘Deists’ and not Christians, and that’s not true.” She offered no evidence to support her assertions, but the congregation clearly regarded them as indisputable fact and sang about belonging to “the Army of the Lord” like people who had not been drafted but had gladly volunteered. Because it was Independence Day weekend, Jan led two other patriotic songs, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful,” informing us that, although Julia Ward Howe and Katharine Lee Bates usually get the credit for the lyrics to these songs, respectively, God actually dictated every word of every verse to them.

About sixty people were present that morning, all dressed casually, many in Western garb. A number of men had beards, and most of them wore hats but removed them during the service, with the exception of one who kept a bucket-style hunting hat on the entire time (perhaps because it was camouflage, he thought no one would notice). The ambience was also informal and welcoming. During the “Hug and Howdy Time,” a sizable portion of the congregation came over to welcome us and insist that we stay for the covered-dish meal right after the service.

When the time finally came for the sermon, a large white dog followed Pastor Jerry onto the dais, causing me to wonder if he was going to perform some stunt such as barking the number of apostles or persons in the Trinity, but he simply crawled into a bed on one side of the stage, where he lay quietly throughout the rest of the service. Hoyt, wearing a short-sleeved Western shirt and jeans accessorized with a rodeo-size “Cowboys for Jesus” belt buckle (I could have bought my own for $125), took his sermon mainly from several passages in the Epistle of James, holding his Bible in one hand and talking extemporaneously as he ambled back and forth across the platform for about 45 minutes.

Following Jan’s lead, he told of a move to take away our freedom to worship, evidenced by court judgments restricting the display of the Ten Commandments, and of the need to cry out against such abominations. But mostly he talked about how to live as a Christian: Submit to God, resist the devil, tame the tongue, quit cussing, subdue selfish ambition, seek and humbly listen to constructive criticism, and study the Bible. “Friendship with the world,” he warned, “is hostility toward God. We need a fence between us and the world. We usually want a short fence, so we can straddle it.” He illustrated how awkward that looks and said, “People see that. They know you are not a bowlegged cowboy but a hypocrite.”

Hoyt ended his sermon by asserting confidently that if we will just “press into God”—a phrase new to me—“pretty soon we can take the country over, go back to our roots, and make God the king of our country as he used to be.” Given his and Jan’s opening remarks, I had expected more overt political commentary of this tenor, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary for this assemblage.

We were about to leave, but after considerable friendly persuasion, we stayed for lunch and were glad we did. The abundant and hearty fare was delicious and the conversation memorable. A man sitting next to me at the table relished the prospect of the conservative and controversial Republican senator-apparent Dan Patrick’s “overturning things at the [Texas] Legislature” and noted that, although he had voted for President Bush, he was disappointed in him, since he had turned out to be “even more liberal than his daddy.” It is instructive, in keeping with the rationale for this column, to expose oneself to a variety of perspectives.