Green Room

Cowboy Church

posted at 2:08 pm on May 13, 2009 by

My sister lives pretty far out in the country, but she and her friends go to church not just in the city, but in a pretty bad part of downtown. She says many of the congregants are homeless, and some even show up drunk on Sunday morning. But no one is criticized, and all are welcome. It’s kind of a place for people that other churches won’t take, I guess. And as much as it makes me a little uncomfortable for her to go there (for her safety, not because of the company), I think these are probably the people who need ministering the most.

But to say that there are people in my family who find her choice… questionable, would be an understatement. So this story was interesting to me.

[T]here are certain drawbacks to setting up a church for cowboys in northeastern Ohio. “A lot of pastors don’t like me and don’t like the idea of [the cowboy church],” [Pastor Royce] 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.”

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.

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.

There are 145 of these cowboy churches, across this country, with 20,000 attendees each week. So I’d say it’s become a movement.

I know there are a lot of religious people here — of rather varied personal views. What do you think of these cowboy churches? I’m not sure what to make of baptisms in horse troughs, myself. Is it kitsch or serious? Disrespectful or necessary? And would you try it, if there was one in your area?

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I have attended many churches over the years but my favorite was a palmetto hut in the middle of the Florida swamps. Everyone was welcome and anyone could speak. There was no pastor just a congregation. The Lord’s word was not meant for the saved but for the sinner.

Grunt on May 13, 2009 at 2:23 PM

They sound rather out of the mainstream. But, while I don’t understand them, I do wish them success.

jeanie on May 13, 2009 at 2:37 PM

Being a several times fallen Roman Catholic, I can understand why mega-churches, Christian-factories, as they are called around here, fail many of those who are really seeking something special and really need the encouragement to continue on that personal rock filled road seeking salvation.

Had an old Army chaplain friend say years ago, “religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell; spirituality is for those who have been there and back.”

If “cowboy” churches serve as that vehicle to comfort and provide direction to those who need it the most, lend a setting to build on that spirituality…God bless them.

The Good Book together with good people can do so much more than a well-dressed well-coiffed preacher spending mega-cash on new vestries, new parish cars, and television and stereo equipment. I chafe at televangelists who are more ego than Godliness when it comes down to it.

Some of my most remembered conversations with God have taken place among dirty grimy men, soaked in sweat and mud, while a boom-box played hymns from the hood of a jeep.

If folks are offended because a sinner walks in on their spotless sanctuary wearing work clothes…perhaps they should ask themselves what the Apostles wore while walking with Christ.

coldwarrior on May 13, 2009 at 2:38 PM

a church for cowboys in northeastern Ohio.

There’s your problem right there.
NE Ohio? It’s total bourgie fakery, nothing BUT kitsch.
Real cowboys don’t go to church.
They are too hungover.

strangelet on May 13, 2009 at 3:14 PM

Real cowboys don’t go to church.
They are too hungover.

strangelet on May 13, 2009 at 3:14 PM

Must explain why there weren’t any churches built west of the Mississippi.


cs89 on May 13, 2009 at 3:42 PM

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20
Gee, the Bible seems to say they are having church. God bless them!

common sensineer on May 13, 2009 at 3:42 PM

Oh, and as for the baptistry choice: the Jordan river wasn’t too kitschy for Jesus. I’d say a trough full of clean water is suitable. I’ve seen baptisms in a plastic kiddie pool. God is not impressed by outward appearances, rather he is looking for sincere hearts.

common sensineer on May 13, 2009 at 3:45 PM

A good friend of mine was baptized in a horse trough twenty years ago. These churches are probably about as variable (in terms of theological quality) as megachurches, some of which are an absolute disgrace. And in many ways those are worse because you get the bandwagon effect… “X,000 people go there and the pastor has X books published so it must be good – I don’t need to think critically about what he’s saying.”

Laura on May 13, 2009 at 3:46 PM

the Jordan river wasn’t too kitschy for Jesus. I’d say a trough full of clean water is suitable.

common sensineer on May 13, 2009 at 3:45 PM

Huh? What’s kitschy about a river?

If it’s done genuinely, and simply because it’s available, then a horse trough would be perfectly sensible. And actually kind of cool.

But when I first read it, it made me think of “western” restaurants where you can get a drink in a glass shaped like a cowboy boot. Just seemed a little disingenuous and maybe something like pandering. That’s what I meant by “kitschy.”

But from the replies above, I’ll assume it’s mostly genuine.

Tanya on May 13, 2009 at 4:32 PM

My uncle used to be the Vice-President of the Arkansas branch of the Bandidos, a motorcycle gang.
His daughter was in an auto accident one night, and over the next 6 months, while praying for her recovery he found the lord.
He now preaches on Sunday mornings in a little section of a strip mall to other bikers and their familes.

I have always been of the belief that it’s not where you worship, it is that you worship. In my opinion that is part of his success. The bikers feel better about coming in with others of their own kind, wearing jeans and leather.

ArkCon on May 13, 2009 at 5:30 PM

My only concern is that they might emphasize the “Cowboy” rather than the “Church”.
Jesus hung around “the tax-collectors and sinners” to try to point their lives Heavenward. I think he wants us to do the same.

jgapinoy on May 13, 2009 at 6:28 PM

10And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.

11And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?

12But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.

Matthew 9:10-12

baldilocks on May 13, 2009 at 7:15 PM

There’s your problem right there.
NE Ohio? It’s total bourgie fakery, nothing BUT kitsch.
Real cowboys don’t go to church.
They are too hungover.

strangelet on May 13, 2009 at 3:14 PM

Anime watching intellectual mystics being the authority on Cowboy lifestyle. /eyeroll

That said, I don’t care what the “flavor” of the church might be. Cowboy, paintball, whatever.

What I do think is rather askew, is the current implementation of the Church in the US. Frankly Quaker silent meetings for worship seem closer to what was intended. (If you don’t know them, do some research. People don’t just hang around and sit quietly, even though it might sound that way from the term.)

The modern mega-church appears obsessed with the physical – the nice buildings, super awesome worship band, well produced sermon, nicely designed slides, etc. It all comes off kinda phony. There are a lot of good people behind much of it, but it seems like the focus is all wrong.

The bit where they don’t obsess over Sunday morning and offering plates? I kinda like that.

Whether or not it’s kitsch, there could well be something to the concept of an unchurch; a collection of believers that eschews the pomp and circumstance of regular churches.

TheUnrepentantGeek on May 13, 2009 at 7:22 PM

It ain’t church without the professional Christian leading the festivities. And the formula: song-greeting-two songs-announcements-offering plate/solo-song-sermon-two songs-dismissal. Because God’s well-dressed and predictable like that.

beatcanvas on May 13, 2009 at 11:06 PM

I’m not sure what to make of baptisms in horse troughs, myself.

Sounds a little dirty to me, but then I’m not around horse troughs much. But overall I tend to like the more nontraditional baptisms.

When I went to Baylor in Waco, there was a church called, “Church Under the Bridge” (or something similar) that literally met under a bridge within walking distance from campus. It was similar to your sister’s in that it was specifically set up for the homeless who would camp out there.

I’ve always taken Paul’s word to heart:

1 Corinthians 9:19: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law, that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.”

I think it’s often misunderstood, but at its heart, I think, is a desire to appeal to others rather than making them uncomfortable, so long as doing so doesn’t hurt your relationship with God.

If that means going into a bar (but for some, drinking a Shirley Temple), then so be it. Jesus himself never shied away from those kinds of situations.

But often Christians like to separate themselves from the world, believing it to be evil, thus separating themselves from the very people we were commanded to reach out to. Part of showing our love for God is showing our love for man.

So long as this is genuine, I think it’s beautiful and would love to go to one, horse troughs and all.

Esthier on May 14, 2009 at 2:09 PM

Rather than worrying about being “seeker friendly”, why don’t churches just focus on pleasing the true seeker, Jesus Christ? We don’t need a “cowboy Jesus” or a “traditional Jesus” or a “contemporary Jesus” or an “autoworkers Jesus”… All we need is Jesus Christ and His Word, which is sufficient both in terms of running a church and providing purpose to our lives.
I pray that across America, preachers would not spend 10-20 minutes going over “4 spiritual laws” or “5 things God wants you to know”. I pray, they take 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, whatever it takes to preach the essence of the gospel. I pray that preachers will start with Genesis, explaining who God is, how magnificent He is. I pray they explain why God created man, how when God told the stars and planets to assume their positions, they did; how when God told the seas to fall back and move no further, they did; then when God created man, whom He said was “very good”, and told him to obey, man said “No!”. I pray that preachers across America would explain just how sinful man is, how nothing we’ve ever done is anything more than filthy rags, and how this rebellion calls for the holy, righteous wrath of God. I pray preachers explain what it means that Christ was a propitiation for our sins and how only Jesus could fulfill this role. I pray that preachers explain how one isn’t saved merely by repeating some canned prayer an evangelist told them to say, but rather by making Jesus the lord of one’s life, to hate the things God hates, to love the things God loves, to continually examine themselves to see evidence of God’s sanctification in their lives.
I’m tired of the Joel Osteens and the Mark Warrens. We need true preachers in this country, and they are not them.

Send_Me on May 16, 2009 at 3:47 PM