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.