At a time when church attendance is down nationwide, the Cowboy Church Network of North America (CCNNA) is forming new churches with enthusiastic congregations, like the Happy Trails Cowboy Church of Jefferson which, after a long search for a pastor and a permanent place of worship, now serves a growing membership of 30-plus who are “Ridin’ for Jesus.”
“We’ve had a great response,” said Deacon John Lisk, a member of the Cowboy Church since 2009. With a new sanctuary on East Main Street — formerly Sweet Aromas — and a new sign created by Deacon Ben Cheek, the church is now holding services 6:30 p.m. Mondays.
Jeff Smith, “Cowboy Missionary” and founder of the CCNNA, said the idea for his first Cowboy Church came in 2003 when he began asking people he met on trail rides to come to church with him.
One fellow rider refused flatly refused the invitation: “I don’t want to go to your fancy church with your fancy people.” Smith, then a pastor of two Baptist churches, saw this as a ministry challenge, and vowed to “open a church in the Circle K Rodeo Arena in Mount Pleasant.”
True to his word, Smith rented the bullriding arena and held services there. “The first night we had 68 people and five got saved,” said Smith.
“We baptised them in a water trough,” he said.
The concept of an informal, working-class house of worship had instant appeal, Smith found, and soon he was training volunteer preachers in Cowboy Church liturgy. Over the past 10 years, Smith has personally started 13 Cowboy Churches “from here to Saskatchewan.”
In 2004, he founded the CCNNA, which serves “to start new churches and strengthen existing ones.” There are currently over 100 Cowboy Churches in North America, he said, serving those who would “trade their saddle for a pew.”
The church owes its appeal to its accepting, come-as-you-are milieu, said Pastor Roger L. Blevins, who has been with the church for three weeks.
“In his first service, (Smith) used the analogy of a cowboy working horses in a 60-foot round pen,” said Blevins. Horses may tend to keep their distance at first, he said, “but when they get comfortable with you they’ll join up and come to you.”
“We’re not judgmental,” said Lisk. “We’re welcoming, people are more comfortable.”
“The mission of the Cowboy Church is to find people who love the cowboy lifestyle,” said Lisk, which includes those who want a church they can come to after working all day in a cow pasture or beneath the hood of a truck. “In the summer when they’re working late in the day, we’ve had people come in with manure on their boots and grease on their hands,” he said.
The Cowboy Church is a Southern Baptist congregation, and one of 45 churches in the Ashe Baptist Association, led by Rev. David Blackburn. “We like the Cowboy Church,” said Blackburn, “because it gives a unique approach to Christianity.”
“Traditional churches too many times are set in their ways and will not change,” he said. “There’s an attitude of ‘the door is open, they can come if they want.’”
But Jesus enjoined us to “go into all the world and preach,” said Blackburn. With ministry trail rides, campfire revivals and horseback riding at vacation bible school, the CCNNA has a decidedly outdoorsy take on church functions.
The dress-down accessibility of the church, the allure of the cowboy as an iconic American figure, the novelty of getting baptized in a horse trough wearing Levi’s: the specific appeal of the Cowboy Church is obvious.
But more generally, the CCNNA has only done what other successful churches have done in the face of shrinking congregations: get creative. In a 2010 study entitled “A Decade of Change in American Congregations,” David A. Roozen found that, while church attendance has been steadily dropping off for years, churches with the healthiest congregations were those who adopted contemporary and innovative worship practices.
“I want to be clear: I love the traditional church,” said Lisk. “But who doesn’t love a horse?”