Cowboys saddle up for ... church? Amen.
Evangelical Christians round up the faithful in barns and riding arenas.
Snow has forced Ohio's Christian cowboys inside on an early spring day. Bull riders aren't the sort of people who complain about the elements, but there are certain drawbacks to setting up a church for cowboys in northeastern Ohio.Skip to next paragraph
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Pastor Royce Gregory, who tackled "1,800 pounds of mean" on the rodeo circuit for 17 years before turning his life to God, isn't worried about attendance. His pulpit, an engraved tan saddle perched on spindly metal legs, stands before a wooden cross ringed with a crown of thorns. It's a symbol, he says, of the simple message of faith that is turning cowboy churches like his into a national movement.
"A lot of pastors don't like me and don't like the idea of [the cowboy church]," Mr. Gregory says, referring to mainstream religious leaders in a part of the country not exactly lacking in places of worship. "But if you read the Bible, it is simple. It's only man that made church hard."
Such is the ethos of cowboy church, which is bringing come-as-you-are evangelical Christianity to the boots-and-Stetson set.
Faith and the Western way of life have long been linked. But in recent years cowboy churches have adopted a distinct identity – favoring riding arenas and barns instead of church buildings, carrying out baptisms in horse troughs, welcoming wranglers whose blue jeans are ripe with the smell of a working ranch – that has allowed them to grow faster than their founders thought possible.
In Texas, the epicenter of cowboy churchdom, the Baptist General Convention established its first cowboy church in 2000. By 2004, there were 21, and now there are 145, with 20,000 attendees each week, says Charles Higgs, the Texas Baptist group's director of Western heritage ministry.
Gregory's church, Life Brand Cowboy Church, belongs to the Cowboy Church Network of North America, which has overseen the launch of nearly 50 churches from Colorado to North Carolina in the past five years.
Jeff Smith, the network founder, remembers the moment the concept of the cowboy church crystallized.
No cowboy himself, he had rented a dirt-floor riding arena for the service. Cowboys lined the bleachers and Mr. Smith began preaching from the bed of a pickup truck. But something wasn't right. He jumped to the ground, holding his Bible and speaking of the Lord. Just him, the people, the dirt, the horses, and the Bible. He's started two other churches since.