By Jeff Brumley
Charles Higgs is all too familiar with the smirks and jokes generated when talk turns to cowboy churches. Images of worship in rodeo arenas, preachers on horseback and baptisms in cattle troughs also elicit criticism – especially so when cowboy churches first appeared in the late 1970s.
And there was also a lot of doubt, said Higgs, director of the Western Heritage Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “A lot of people said it’s a fad, that it’s not going to last,” he said.
Today, detractors focus more on the social implications, saying building churches around country music, cowboy hats and worship in barns and arenas may exclude more people than it attracts. Yet others say the cowboy church has evolved into a Bible-teaching, church-planting movement with missional qualities. But no one doubts cowboy churches have shed their fad status.
“When it first started, people thought it would have a short shelf life,” said Jeff Smith, a missionary with the Cowboy Church Network of North America. “Now we know cowboy churches are here to stay.”
Aggressive givers, church planters
That the movement is no flash in the pan is evidenced not only by its longevity but in its spread. In Texas alone there are an estimated 800 such congregations, with associations reporting increasing numbers in most other states. Even northern states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Minnesota have cowboy churches, Smith said.
Baptists have joined other denominations in starting the churches. Higgs said at least 200 cowboy churches are affiliated with the BGCT. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has helped at least a dozen cowboy churches get off the ground.
Higgs noted that the churches are also solid, consistent participants in disaster-relief and local ministries. They are also strong givers to denominational causes and are expected to contribute more than $600,000 this year in Texas alone.
Some seminaries are beginning to offer certificates in cowboy ministry to help the movement’s lay ministers learn preaching and administrative skills.
Their preachers are being noticed, too. Gary Morgan, pastor of Cowboy Church of Ellis County in Texas, made headlines this summer with a sermon about the pain and damage caused by sexual abuse.
But most important, Higgs said, is that cowboy churches are aggressive church planters. “Fifty percent of our cowboy churches have already reproduced themselves,” he said.
And that’s what gives the movement a missional quality, said David King, CBF’s associate for new church starts.
“I think a lot of people feel at home there,” King said. “It’s come-as-you-are, and they don’t find the roadblocks they may find in other churches.”
What’s helped the cowboy church survive is making church planting a fundamental value, King added. “Part of their DNA is they are church planters,” he said. “Part of their missional drive is not setting up walls around the community they form.”
The cowboy church model fits with CBF’s church-planting ethic by avoiding the impulse to create “the next megachurch,” King said.
“Once they get to a certain size they start looking to create new churches,” he said. “Part of being missional is continuing to reach out to other places.”
But are all welcome?
Categorizing cowboy churches missional doesn’t sit well with Brad Williams, a Southern Baptist pastor in Alabama and a writer for the web forum Christ and Pop Culture.
He says missional should mean being inviting to anyone in the surrounding community, but cowboy churches mostly appeal to those involved in, or attracted to, western heritage as a worship style.
“Even though they’re happy in their cowboy church, they aren’t being missional anymore,” Williams said. “They’ve just created their own subculture they’re comfortable with.”
In a 2011 article about the phenomenon, Williams put cowboy churches in the “niche” category.
“My concern is an ecclesiological concern,” Williams told ABPnews. “Will it be a place where every tribe, every tongue and every nation is welcome?”
Williams said it makes more sense to have church-sponsored rodeo events if that’s what attracts a segment of a community. But it goes too far when a church is built around such culturally specific interests. “Where does the subculture split-off end?” he asked.
‘Just a drawing card’
But there is no split, said Smith, who also pastors a cowboy church in Midland, N.C.
The proof is in attendance. Relatively few members of cowboy churches are actually cowboys or ranch hands. Most are “armchair cowboys who just love watching ‘Gunsmoke’ and don’t ride horses at all.” Another segment is people who have never been to a traditional church or who left them in dismay, vowing never to return.
Higgs said there are at least two African-American cowboy churches in Texas, proof to him that the movement can attract beyond its traditional base.
What keeps them there is a traditional gospel message that focuses on the plan of salvation and evangelism, Smith said.
“Cowboy church is just a flavor,” he said. “It’s just a drawing card.”