Cowboys saddle up for ... church? Amen.
Evangelical Christians round up the faithful in barns and riding arenas.
(Page 2 of 2)
"We're just on the front edge of this thing," Smith says. "It certainly isn't slowing down." In addition to cowboy churches, he has advised people wanting to set up biker churches and, once, a man wanting to start a paintball church.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At Life Brand, services are held Tuesday nights, because "weekends are the only time we have to be with our horses," Gregory says.
Services are short, sermons coated in Western allegories, and no one passes a collection plate (or boot, or hat), lest the suspect materialism of megachurches and televangelists encroach on simple faith.
"The cowboy is a way more simple human being," Gregory says. "Take an old cowboy and he can get on a horse and just ride and life is complete for him."
Dusty Whidden is drawn to such welcoming simplicity. A bull rider since age 8, he's spent the past two years as a professional bareback bronco rider, supplementing his winnings with construction work until the recession threw him out of a job and landed him with his parents in Ohio. In the rodeo world, he says, vague professions of faith are often used to excuse unhealthy behavior. "People think that if you believe in Christ, you can do anything," he says, noting the professional rodeo circuit sees a fair amount of drug use. "People are needing church more [since] things in society are taking a dive."
While the popularity of cowboy churches might be relatively new, their central message is classically American, says Kathleen Flake, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn.
"Churches from the very beginning were looking to restore the early church of Christ – it was just a matter of how literal they were about it," Professor Flake says. "It is so characteristic of American religion to say we're going back to purer beginnings." Pursuing the unchurched where they are, she says, is testament to the adaptability of American evangelism.
Of course, not everyone at Life Brand is a cowboy. There are even some Silicon Valley transplants. Kenneth Kerwin is a technology entrepreneur who moved to Ohio to study, he says, "nonlinear electro-optical crystals." But he liked Gregory's back-to-basics preaching.
"This church is a start-up," he says. "I sat in other churches, and I sat and I sat. Now I'm doing."