The Cowboy Church movement, a little over 40 years old, began as a ministry to rodeo cowboys and related workers but has since expanded to thousands of people who enjoy the lifestyle of the American West.
Glenn Smith (1935-2010), a pioneer of the movement, had competed as a rodeo cowboy himself and had also worked as a rodeo clown. When he started his ministry in the early 1970s, rodeo life had a well-earned reputation for being rough and rowdy.
“In the years I was competing, it was understood that if you didn’t drink, cuss, chase women, and fight, you were not accepted. I figured this was still the attitude, in general, and in 1973 I was right. It has changed drastically since then,” Smith said in his book Apostle, Cowboy Style.
Pulling a camping trailer behind his truck, Smith began to follow the rodeo circuit, witnessing to anyone who would listen. Smith was ordained to full time ministry, and his wife Ann joined him on the road. They conducted informal Christian services in barns, arenas, metal buildings, and on ranches.
The goal from the start was to reach unchurched people who would not attend a conventional church or who had walked away, hurt by some judgmental aspect of it.
To make cowboy church more welcoming, Smith imposed a few simple rules. It was always “come as you are,” with attendees received in jeans, boots, cowboy hats and work clothes.
There was no collection or altar call. Meetings were held in nonthreatening western settings, not churches. In those years, cowboy churches were nondenominational.
In 1986, world champion calf roper Jeff Copenhaver began having regular Cowboy Church at Billy Bob’s Texas bar in Fort Worth. This marked the first Cowboy Church in a permanent location.
After two years he and his wife Sherry moved services to an old auction barn then the Stockyards Hotel.
Copenhaver notes that the second permanent Cowboy Church started in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, then a third in Nashville, Tennessee.
Seeing the popularity of the early cowboy church movement, the Baptist General Convention of Texas encouraged its churches to sponsor cowboy churches in their cities.
One of the largest of those is the Cowboy Church of Ellis County (CCEC), sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Wexahachie, Texas. CCEC was founded by Ron Nolen in 2000. Gary Morgan has served as pastor for the past several years, seeing the church grow to more than 1,700 members.
Just as CCEC’s services aren’t traditional, neither are its weeknight events. Some of the members take advantage of a riding arena after Sunday services. Tuesday evenings are devoted to barrel racing and Wednesdays feature team roping events. Thursday nights find local high school boys trying to ride ornery bulls.
Although some have criticized the “niche” aspect of cowboy churches as being too exclusive, Morgan says it’s not just cowboys who attend. Jake McAdams, who wrote his thesis at Stephen F.
Austin State University on the cowboy church movement, discovered attendees are more likely to be factory and oil workers, police officers, government employees, teachers, nurses, and accountants.
Whatever the demographics, removing barriers that keep people from attending church has led to an explosion of cowboy churches across the United States. They can be found in such unlikely spots as Anchorage, Alaska and Whitehall, New York. Registered and unregistered cowboy churches total more than 1,000 across the country.
While many cowboy churches follow Baptist beliefs, others were started by Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, and Methodist denominations.
Church planting figures prominently in the Cowboy Church movement.
“Fifty percent of our cowboy churches have already reproduced themselves,” Charles Higgs, director of the Western Heritage Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, told Baptistnews.com.
To provide ministerial training and networking, several Cowboy Church associations and fellowships have sprung up. Truett Seminary at Baylor University and Dallas Baptist University offer college-level courses for cowboy church leaders.
Some observers complain that permanent churches are offering cowboy church type meetings that are only thinly disguised traditional services. Despite the fact that the movement has been around 40 years and is still growing, many see it as a fad, another in a long line of casual, come-as-you-are services.
“One thing about the traditional churches is they’re going to have to change if they’re going to survive,” Higgs told National Public Radio. “They’re going to have to go beyond their walls and do church different.”