Sunday mornings at the Fort Worth Stock Show definitely draw the boots-and-Bibles crowd to Will Rogers Auditorium for a little praying, a little singing and Western-style worship that’s family-friendly.
Shepherd’s Valley Cowboy Church in Cleburne conducts services on the three Sundays of the show, with pastor Russ Weaver delivering the Scripture-based message in a low-key, conversational style with plenty of familiar references to the rural life.
It’s not just a comfort feature for the many rodeo participants, stock exhibitors, vendors, show staff and others who live on and around the grounds for the three-week show. Cowboy churches are attracting crowds all across Texas and the Southern and Western U.S., becoming a movement for Christians who seek a simpler, more relaxed style of worship.
This year’s first Stock Show Cowboy Church service, on Jan. 15, drew about 160 people to the Will Rogers Auditorium. Some were wearing event staff jackets and barn workers’ clothing, others were attired in freshly pressed jeans and Western shirts, dress jackets and hats.
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A Western swing praise song from the band, consisting of bass, guitar and fiddle, started things off with “I got this Jesus-lovin’ feel-good in my soul” and later presented a gentle homage to rural life with the tender line, “I see God in the faces of the newborn baby calves.”
There was also a version of The Ones the Wolves Pulled Down, a song made popular by Garth Brooks about farmers and ranchers losing their land and livelihood.
There were half a dozen prayers offered during the hourlong service.
Cowboy Church at the Fort Worth Stock Show is at 10 a.m. Sunday in Will Rogers Auditorium.
Colby Lee was in Cowboy Church on Sunday, along with his wife, Danielle, and their 20-month-old son, Olin.
Their home church is the Arena of Life Cowboy Church in Clarendon, from which they had recently moved, to Lipan.
“I grew up in a nondenominational, city-type church,” said Lee, a horse trainer by trade. “When I met my wife and moved to Clarendon, we joined the Cowboy Church.”
Lee likes “just the atmosphere,” at a cowboy church, he said. “It’s tailored more to a cowboy’s heart.”
Shepherd’s Valley’s Weaver said he was there when the cowboy church movement was born, at Billy Bob’s Texas in 1986.
He and friend Jeff Copenhaver, a world champion calf roper, had hosted a cowboy prayer meeting at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas that year.
“Billy Bob Barnett was really touched, and they said, ‘We’ve got to have one every week in the bullring at Billy Bob’s,’ ” Weaver said. It was the first regularly-meeting cowboy church to have a permanent home.
Some historians put the actual birth of the movement as early as the 1970s when rodeo cowboy Glenn Smith began his own ministry among rodeo cowboys and others. Smith wrote a book, Apostle, Cowboy Style.
Today’s cowboy churches range from nondenominational to those founded as outreach ministries of mainstream denominations. Weaver himself is Assembly of God. Many of the churches are “four different kinds of Baptists,” Seventh Day Adventist, Methodist and Nazarene.
“Sometimes we [cowboy churches] get along better with each other than our congregations do,” he said.
One time, a well-meaning minister suggested that Weaver and the rest should call their churches “redneck churches” to cast a wider net.
“ ‘Cowboy seems so narrow,’ ” Weaver quoted the minister. “I said the ranchers, farmers and their families might not relate to that term. If you are anyone who lives in rural America, then cowboy church is for you.”
One thing sets cowboy churches apart from other Christian churches, Weaver said.
Cowboy churches focus in on men. They believe men should be the spiritual leaders of their families.
Pastor Russ Weaver of Shepherd’s Valley Cowboy Church in Cleburne, which conducts cowboy church services at the Stock Show
“Cowboy churches focus in on men,” he said. “They believe men should be the spiritual leaders of their families.”
“When men are the spiritual leaders, 90 percent of the time the children will continue with church later in life,” he said. “When women are the leaders, only 17 percent of children continue with church.”
That doesn’t mean that women don’t contribute to services and actively serve the church, he said. Cowboy churches usually have married couples as ministry teams, and women lead their own programs and ministries within the church as well.
“We couldn’t make it without the women,” he said. “We’re just trying to take men by the collar and say, ‘It’s time to be a leader in your family.’ ”
“True manhood has a grace to it,” he said. “We’re not raising tyrants.”
Order of worship and church traditions are unique to each church. “Everyone has their own way of doing things,” Weaver said.
Cowboy church pastors aren’t usually seminarians, though all are ordained. “But some are [ordained] really informally,” Weaver said.
“Men don’t like to stand in a circle and sing Kumbaya. You might call it on-the-job training,” he said. “Ours takes a little more time.”
“I like the way the Baptists do it,” Weaver said of pastor training. “They can have [the ministerial candidate] in pastoral mentoring within a month. They can identify the ones [who are suited to pastoring] and they say, ‘You’re already a leader.’ ”
Cowboy churches are attracting crowds all across Texas and the Southern and Western U.S., becoming a movement for Christians who seek a simpler, more relaxed style of worship.
The cowboy churches themselves are rustic, in rural areas, with lots of room. If there’s a nearby corral or arena for equine sports, all the better. They use natural materials and plain furnishings for decor. Baptisms are in rivers, or stock tanks reserved just for that purpose.
Most cowboy churches belong to some form of organization that unites them and connects members and pastors on the move with a nearby church, such as the AFCC.
The Wilderness Association of Cowboy Churches includes far-flung congregations in Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, California and Colorado, including a Navajo church in Mexican Water, Ariz.
Their mission statement is a clear description of the cowboy church appeal and procedure, though they, more than most, really are dealing with ranchers, cowboys and “people of the West.” They are eager to plant more cowboy churches and require that their congregations meet weekly to worship.
“We enjoy homegrown country gospel music and ‘straight up’ preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” proclaims the online statement. “We seek to meet at locations where cowboys and people of the West are accustomed to gathering, (barns, arenas, grange halls and community centers). We also attempt to meet at times that people of the West have, with their daily work done.”
“It’s kind of an organic growth,” Weaver said.
Two years ago, a full-length, Western-themed, faith-based film called Nail 32 was shot in Cleburne. The storyline asked simply “Can a cowboy be a Christian? Can a Christian be a cowboy?” and became a touchstone for the cowboy church movement.
And the title? “It takes 32 nails to shoe a horse,” Weaver explained.
500 plus Baptist cowboy churches in operation, according to an estimate by Russ Weaver. Some congregations have more than 2,000 attendees, more than one physical campus and even video campuses.
Cowboy churches can attract quite a crowd. Weaver estimated that there are more than 500 Baptist cowboy churches alone. Some congregations have more than 2,000 attendees, more than one physical campus, and some even have video campuses.
“You start losing touch after two or three generations,” Weaver said about keeping count of the church startups. “It starts multiplying exponentially.”
Why are so many Christians seeking out cowboy congregations?
“I think it’s because cowboy churches have an understanding of what life is,” Weaver said. “In order to maintain a life, you have to commit to it.”