March 2 marked the 173rd Texas Independence Day, and along with it launched the celebration of Texas History Month.
As part of what is called the Wild, Wild West, those associated with the state are thought to be rough, tough, horse-riding folks. Although this stereotype might be dying out, the culture lives on in cowboy churches.
People with a love for horses, spurs and rodeoing still flourish, and this type of lifestyle has become a focus of both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas, who do cowboy church related ministries.
Dr. Tom Henderson, director of missions for the Bell Baptist Association, said although cowboys have always been in churches, the idea of building a church around the western heritage began about 25 to 30 years ago.
“(Individuals) would go to rodeos, mingle with the participants and maybe have a Sunday morning service. Eventually, people asked can we do this on a regular basis,” Henderson said.
The casual services started basic and focused on the gospel, which, he said, helped to get away from the usual trappings of church.
The Bell Baptist Association’s part in the cowboy phenomenon— churches tailored for the cowboy way—has been to establish five churches. Each one caters to whom it serves.
Like the newest addition, Soldiers of the Cross Fellowship, in Killeen, Texas, will integrate the cowboy and military way because of the army post, Fort Hood.
Henderson said as a missionary prepares the gospel for people of other backgrounds by learning the language, understanding the culture and then taking the gospel and communicating it in a way those people will understand, so should the cowboy ministry be approached.
“Because a cowboy speaks the same language, we don’t understand it is a whole different culture. So, even as we go overseas, we try to understand the culture and present the gospel, we have to understand the culture of the cowboy mentality and communicate the gospel to them, too,” he said.
The cowboy church is not everyone’s cup of tea and is not out to replace traditional worship. Its purpose is to fill a niche.
“The cowboy church helps people who had a negative experience or who haven’t had any experience have a way for their spiritual hunger to be met which communicates with them,” Henderson said.
The five people groups the ministry attracts are the ranch hand, the hard-core working cowboy; the occasional cowboy, the person who enjoys the lifestyle, but it is not a primary way of living; the rodeoers, people connected to rodeo in some way; the drug store cowboys, those who like the Western heritage; and the roots, people whose roots stem from this background and want to return to them.
All these types of individuals have become engaged in the cowboy church, which Henderson said is because they have found a sense of camaraderie, while fitting into a place that speaks to them.
“Because of its very simple approach, structure, open nature and welcoming folks, people who the traditional church has not reached suddenly become very involved. At their core, people have a hunger for God, but many times the traditional church, for some, keeps them from finding their fulfillment in that.”
Pastor of the 3C Cowboy Fellowship in Salado, Texas, Jason Bryant, helped start it in 2006.
He, like Henderson, believes knowing how to meet the needs of people creates the ministry.
“When trying to reach people, you have to identify who you are trying to reach and with the church. Not everyone who comes owns a horse and is a cowboy, and just because they are not a cowboy does not mean we won’t tell them about Jesus,” he said.
3C has many ways to reach out and fellowship. The church hosts several arena events, such as play days, times allowing people to practice rodeo skills; weekly barrel racing; roping; and many other equestrian-type activities.
Bryant said, “The cowboy church is the best of both worlds. It is a marriage of the cowboy lifestyle while telling others about Christ.”
The events help bring people in, and then because the majority of attendees are unchurched or know of God but have not followed in a while, Bryant has them go through a small group session for new members called Saddle Up.
This personal touch helps people become familiar with others, lays out expectations as a member and offers them a guideline on how to get started with Jesus.
Many people who attend cowboy type ministries tend to search for the authentic relationships the members try to uphold with each other.
“It’s not a social club. We don’t have the cliques other churches have. Everyone is a member,” said Maxdale Cowboy Church deacon, Sean Shannon.
He said the church provided him with a place to belong. As a child he loved attending church. Then as he grew old enough to understand its hypocrisy, it turned him away.
After he married, Shannon said he attended church to continue the spiritual growth of his family.
Then in 2004, Shannon’s wife passed away. The indifference from the church he had been attending for three years, led him to up root to the Maxdale Cowboy Church.
“It is like a big family. If anyone has a need, they come. If you can meet their need then fine, if not, then you call somebody to see who can. It is just one big extended family,” Shannon said.
His acceptance into the church rejuvenated a delight for the Lord and motivated him to serve and share his experience with others.
He encourages people to abandon the stereotypes of church and see how cowboy church is different.
Shannon said, “It invites a group of people back into the Christian setting who have been left out because of their way of life, jobs, or they just did not fit in.”