Cowboying up for Jesus
More Christians are praying on horseback at more than 600 such churches in the U.S.
By E.A. Torriero, Chicago Tribune
August 18, 2008
MOUNT VERNON, ILL. -- Wearing a white cowboy hat and preaching atop his horse Coby, Pastor Steve Hamson gives a modern-day meaning to "sermon on the mount." With a Bible in one hand and reins in the other, Hamson strikes the fear of God in his parishioners -- more than a dozen of them listening on horseback in a humid riding arena.
The cowboys put their hats over their hearts when Hamson prays for those who are missing because they "had to do hay."
Men chew tobacco and the horses kick at the ground. And no one minds. This, after all, is cowboy church.
Across rural America, thousands of evangelical Protestant worshipers gather in barns, buildings and beneath the stars to worship western-style. As the beach is to born-again surfers, and the road is to Holy Ghost bikers, the range is the mission field to Christian cowboys and ranchers.
At least 600 cowboy churches are scattered across the U.S., according to leaders involved in the movement and published accounts. In central and southern Illinois, an estimated two dozen congregations meet in barns and arenas, on the dusty trails and in churches -- some decorated with western memorabilia.
Some evangelical Christians have questioned whether the churches offer gimmicks at the expense of a meaningful spiritual experience.
But pastors and churchgoers say their services are divinely inspired. Like the suburban mega-churches that beckon teenagers with gospel rap and rock music, cowboy sanctuaries promote country-western worship while seeking to attract those who find traditional rural church settings unattractive.
In a cowboy church, the music has a twang, the lyrics beckon men to mosey on home to Jesus, and 10-gallon hats are passed around for offerings.
Preachers tell corny jokes. Worshipers whoop, holler and clap. The bands jam with banjos, mandolins, guitars, drums and sometimes a worn washboard. It's not unusual to be baptized in a horse trough. And the sermons usually last just a few minutes so as not to make the audience restless.
"You don't want to scare 'em off," said Pastor Susie Deeters, who along with her husband, John, runs the Ranch House Cowboy Church in a converted Baptist church building in De Land, Ill., near Champaign. "You want to give 'em just enough to hook 'em."
Far from the big cities and suburbs, cowboy churches are apparently a uniquely modern American phenomenon. In the Wild West days, most cowboys were Catholics from Mexico and Baptists from the Confederacy, historians say, but there is little historical evidence of traditional church gatherings. Cowboys usually were not atheists; they saw God in nature. But they were indifferent when it came to evangelical Christianity.
"They were less Christ-centric and more aware of God's providence in their surroundings," said Ferenc M. Szasz, author of "Religion in the Modern American West." The modern-day cowboy church movement seems rooted more in entertainment than cowboy lore.
Today, crowds flock to tourist areas like Branson, Mo., for foot-stomping worship from cowboy bands. Many in the audience have never saddled up but love country gospel and wearing western garb.
Another movement grew out of a Baptist outreach to ranchers in Texas that spread like a wildfire, spawned mega-churches and now even sends cowboy missionaries to Africa. Texas cowboy Baptists claim some 7,000 converts to Christ this decade.
But as cowboy churches gain publicity, some wonder about their Christian authenticity. The evangelical magazine Christian Today asked in a blog in May: "Clearly something is going here, but what?" Blog moderator Derek Keefe questioned whether the movement expanded or collapsed the Christian gospel message.
It's not a question for Pastor Steve Hamson's congregants.
"The cowboy church works because we are people who like to ride and also worship the Lord," said Jonathan Schnautz, a farmer and rider who attends weekly. "But I'm sure people up in the city sure must think it's weird."
As services began recently, riders circled behind Hamson in a dusty arena and other worshipers sat in front of him on bleachers. Hamson asked for prayer requests and singers performed from the bleachers and on horseback.
And Hamson delivered his sermon, all memorized. "You have to pay attention to the horse, and you can't hold notes," he explained.
After a closing prayer from the saddle, the congregation rode off to the old cowboy ditty: "Happy trails to you. Until we meet again."