Cowboy churches offer gospel with a little twang
Fort Worth, Texas — At high noon in the Stockyards Station, just after the longhorn cattle drive down Exchange Avenue and just before the gunfight show, a congregation comes to worship.
Pastor George Westby has been leading services here at the Cowboy Church at the Fort Worth Stockyards for 23 years. His services attract visitors from all over the country as well as a handful of regulars.
But just off Exchange Avenue, down in the old horse-and-mule barn where there's real manure and fewer vacationing families, a second cowboy church is here for the same reason.
The Cowtown Cowboy Church, led by pastor Sonny Miller, started meeting in spring 2013 on a dirt patch under the vaulted ceilings of the old stables.
The newer church is part of the Western Heritage Ministry of the Texas Baptists, a group of more than 200 churches statewide that embrace the Gospel with a little twang.
The fact that there are now two cowboy churches in the Fort Worth Stockyards is a sign of the times: Dozens of these churches have popped up in the last 15 years, constituting a rapidly growing constituency of new Western Christianity that embraces simple services over big-church productions.
Westby's church is a nondenominational congregation with a relaxed, indoor service featuring lots of music and no formal sermon. Miller's, meanwhile, is associated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas and has been open for a little more than a year with a focus on ministry that goes beyond Sunday morning.
The two pastors don't conflict or compete: They say there are enough cowboys, or at least enough people who want to worship like a cowboy, in the Stockyards to go around.
"Talking to someone about religion is like talking about politics," Miller said. "Talk to them about their horses and their spirituality, that's what they connect with."
Westby, who runs the parking operations at Billy Bob's Texas and around the Stockyards, never intended to be a preacher. Two decades ago, at the annual Red Steagall Cowboy Gathering in the Stockyards, he and a small group of cowboys got together on Sunday morning.
"It was just an honest, pure worship service," Westby said. He wondered why church couldn't be that simple all the time.
The next week, the cowboys started meeting in the Stockyards Station, where they've met ever since. They never ask for money, Westby said, but an old, ragged cowboy hat sits by the door for donations that go to local charities.
The sanctuary is a small room with glass windows and brick floors, where the old sheep and hog pens used to be, "so you know we won't get too fancy," Westby said.
Westby's church is one of the oldest of its kind in Texas. It was founded just as the cowboy church phenomenon started to take off.
Even as the nondenominational churches like the Cowboy Church spread, the Baptist General Convention of Texas started its own cowboy churches.
In 2000, the Cowboy Church of Ellis County was founded as part of the Texas Baptists. By 2006, there were 55 cowboy churches under the Texas Baptists' Western Heritage Ministry.
Today, the Texas Baptists count 220 cowboy churches in the state and have poured $6 million into helping get cowboy churches started.
"It's 'come as you are,'" said Charles Higgs, director of the Western Heritage Ministry. "Boots, jeans, sandals, whatever."
For the Baptists, a successful cowboy church isn't just a Sunday service. They helped start the Cowtown Cowboy Church in the Stockyards, for example, in part to sponsor team roping and barrel racing events to attract more cowboys and cowgirls to their ministry without the pressure of a formal service.
"We're not going to beat you down because you've got a pack of beer in the back of your truck," said Mike White, an elder at the Cowtown Cowboy Church. "The most important thing is they're in church, here as a family, hearing the word of God."
Higgs said on any given Sunday, about 45,000 Texans worship in a cowboy church. There are also country churches — all the western style of a cowboy church without the livestock — and outdoor life churches that meet at stores such as Cabela's.
Higgs said they're reaching out to an audience traditional churches haven't been able to reach as well: adult men who might have grown up in a formal church but have since drifted away from the herd.
"It's really been a phenomenal thing. Seventy percent of people who come to our church have been unchurched," Higgs said.
Miller's mother wanted him to preach. His father wanted him to be a cowboy. Now he does both: working horses at his home in Parker County and leading worship in the livery stables in Fort Worth.
On a recent Sunday, his service at Cowtown Cowboy Church included Hank Williams songs and readings from Proverbs. Miller preaches conversationally, leaning on the pulpit rather than standing behind it. Instead of telling parables of loaves and fishes, he talks about riding horses and raising cattle.
The preaching philosophy sounds like something out of 1884 rather than 2014.
It's a successful model, Higgs said. In 2010, he said, Irving's Faith Temple Baptist Church was down to fewer than 20 members, doomed to close their doors and sell the building before they decided to go country. Today they have closer to 160 members as Western Heritage Church, Higgs said.
But just about everyone involved with the cowboy churches realizes it doesn't have much to do with real cowboys. Miller and his congregation read Bible passages on smartphones. Westby's church is home to bikers, cowboy clowns, CEOs and a handful of tourists each week.
By focusing the bull's-eye on working cowboys, Higgs said, the church can then branch out to other groups who embrace a western lifestyle.
"Then you're gonna get the country-Western music fan," he said. "Then you're gonna get the John Wayne enthusiast. Then you're gonna get the people who love the code of the cowboy."
The simplicity of a cowboy church service, without the suit-and-tie tradition of a brick-and-mortar sanctuary, is what Miller says made the trend stick.
"Everybody has always wanted to be a cowboy," Miller said. "Cowboys aren't lost. They know God created everything."