Cowboy Christianity catching on?

Howdy, buckaroos.

Howzabout we strap the saddles on the horses and mosey out to the GetReligion Ranch?

In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m compensating for my lack of knowledge of cowboy culture by pretending — in an extremely awkward way — to understand the lingo.

For the record, I did grow up watching “Gunsmoke” and enjoyed both the original 1969 “True Grit” starring John Wayne and the 2010 remake with Jeff Bridges.

In my Associated Press reporting days, I had fun with a feature on a West Texas school that trains cowboy preachers:

MIDLAND, Texas — Across the street from a flea market, in the shadow of oil wells and tumbleweeds, Glenn Smith trains aspiring ministers in a building that looks more like a steakhouse than a seminary. But that’s OK – these are cowboy ministers.

“Preaching Jesus, Western style,” reads the sign out front.

“These boys and girls will come out of here full-fledged ministers, but they’ll be ministers that look like I do,” said Smith, 70, sporting a Resistol hat and ostrich-skin boots.

At the School of Western Ministries, pickup-driving pupils don colorful cowboy shirts, Wrangler jeans and belt buckles with messages such as “Jesus Christ: Champion of Champions.”

From Alabama to Australia, students come to West Texas to study how to teach the Bible in places where a barn might double as a sanctuary, and where horse tanks and farm ponds make do as baptisteries. They’re awarded certificates of completion at the end of their coursework.

Given my (admittedly limited) experience with the subject, I am always interested when I come across mainstream media reports on cowboy churches.

The Denver Post ran a feature Sunday on a Colorado-based organization that helps link interdenominational cowboy ministries. The story was tied to the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

Here’s the top of the 800-word trend piece:

At age 36, Jim Chamley says a lifetime of alcohol abuse and living the “cowboy way” left him physically and morally bankrupt.”

He’d lost his business and his wife, had filed for divorce and was contemplating suicide in a Kansas City, Mo., hospital as he awaited back surgery.

“The only reason I didn’t go through with it,” he says, “was because I was only on the third floor, and I was afraid I’d screw that up too.”

Chamley, a native of rural northwestern North Dakota, says he cried out to God to “come into his life and change him” in the midst of his despair, even though, he says, being both a Christian and a cowboy was something of a contradiction in those days.

“If you were a Christian cowboy back then — I wasn’t — you were in the closet,” he says, “and when you went to the rodeos, you sure didn’t thump the Bible or talk about religion or spiritual things.”

Now 68, Chamley is among those who have transformation stories within a group that once occupied society’s moral and spiritual bottom rungs.

As the story goes on, it develops the premise that cowboys — up until the 1970s — were all immoral bad dudes. Then the cowboy church movement started, and suddenly, the first Christians who wear Western hats were converted. It’s a nice storyline, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading an oversimplified version of events.

To the Post’s credit, the paper does go outside the movement (presumably) to quote a historian:

Retired University of Tulsa professor and cowboy historian Guy Logsdon thinks cowboy churches and ministries have played a significant role in a shift in cowboy culture.

“It’s a freestyle way for cowboys and cattlemen to express themselves without a denominational policy,” he said.

Logsdon says the migration of cowboys toward Christianity is a significant and new moral chapter in the cowboy narrative, which historically was even more scandalous than movies are able to portray.

In reference to that specific section, I wish the story had elaborated on the direct quote. I’m not entirely clear on what it means concerning denominational policy.

The piece attempts to provide numerical evidence to back up its thesis:

A 2009 count conducted by the Baptist General Convention of Texas found cowboy churches accounted for more than 10 percent of the state’s total baptisms since 2000.

Still, at the end of the story, I felt like I’d eaten a cheap hot dog, not devoured a thick, juicy steak cooked on a cattle-run campfire.

But partner, I’d urge you to read the story yourself and twirl your lasso in the comments section.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Bill

    Cowboy Churches here in rural Texas have become increasingly popular at a time when church membership among some established denominations have declined. Some of the churches have incorporated Sunday morning rodeos and trail rides. Very big on fellowship. I went to a two services to find out more. There was singing and testimony from earnest people who had screwed up their lives with drinking, drugs and adultery: testimony about how Jesus had saved them and turned their lives around. I heard more than a few people say they liked it because they could bring the kids and have fun in a wholesome way and that they weren’t into traditional organized religion. There are popular decals and metal sculptures of a cowboy kneeling at the foot of the Cross while holding the reins of his horse.

    If you want a taste of the general theology, listen to Red Steagal’s “Faith and Values.”

    http://www.amazon.com/Faith-Values-Steagall-Boys-Bunkhouse/dp/B000002MZQ

    It’s a lovely Western CD, and Red Steagall is unashamed of his faith in God and how it helped him.

    I’m a Catholic (practicing, but I’m not very good and need a lot more practice.) I don’t expect to see a Summa Theologiae come out of the Cowboy Church. It’s tempting to say it serves a theological Happy Meal. But it is a large movement and obviously offers something to its members. A good friend is on the board of the local Episcopal church and wonders why the Cowboy Church is growing, while they can’t fill many seats.

  • Jerry

    A good friend is on the board of the local Episcopal church and wonders why the Cowboy Church is growing, while they can’t fill many seats.

    Bill’s comment has me shaking my head. Because what I read and what Bill wrote spells it out very clearly: the Cowboy churches make some people feel very welcome and accepted and a place where they find God. On the other hand, the Episcopal church does not.

    More and more doctrinal differences don’t matter to many people and to me the story points that out: “It’s a freestyle way for cowboys and cattlemen to express themselves without a denominational policy,”

    I do wish that the story had had a few more words on that point because I think it’s an important one.

  • Mike

    I agree with everything said here. We ranch in rural Texas and have several non-denominational cowboy churches in our small town. The big draw is the fun, family atmosphere — singing, fellowship, etc. And hey, if they can help turn lives around, more power to them.

    I wrote a piece about a small Episcopal Church — in fact, the smallest in the Diocese of West Texas — that appeared in the newest issue of the Diocese’s newsletter. If you want a different take on a rural denominational church that caters to honest-to-goodness ranchers and cowboys (the minister helps round up cattle), here it is:

    http://issuu.com/communicationsofficerdwtx/docs/church_news_jan_feb_2012?mode=window&backgroundColor=%23222222

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks for the comments.

    Mike, I couldn’t get that link to open.

  • Mike

    Bobby,

    Try this:

    http://dwtx.org/index.php/diocese/Communications

    That should take you to the communications office and from there you can find The Church News, January-February 2012 issue.

    Hope this helps.

  • Bill

    Mike,

    The link worked for me. (Maybe because I’m in Texas?) Nice story.

    I noticed in one of the photos, the congregation is a little gray in the hair department. What are the demographics of the West Texas Episcopal Diocese?

  • Mike

    I don’t have the demographics on the Diocese but you are going to find older members in rural churches. They’re either those born and raised there or moved there to retire. Young people leave because they can’t find jobs. Our small church has mainly older members, though we’ve gotten a couple of young families recently. They’ve just moved to the area and found jobs in surrounding communities. Two weeks ago, I visited a large downtown Episcopal Church in Santa Fe, NM. The vast majority of those attending were at least middle age. There were a few young families with children but absolutely no young adults (i.e. college age, 20s, etc.) there.

  • Julia

    Interesting story about that church at the fort in W. Texas.
    I only know urban Episcopalians – it kind of alters the usual picture in my mind’s eye.

  • Bill

    I’ve been to Catholic churches in wayback Texas and Wyoming where there was no priest available for Sunday Mass. A deacon drove a circuit of several small parishes and held Communion services.

    When I hear kids wailing and fussing in church I’m reminded that a congregation without ‘em needs to do something to get ‘em.

  • michael henry

    It’s not a bad piece. I find it interesting, amusing and mildly informative. NYT on the other hand? not.

  • Jack Outhier

    I was raised farming and ranching and after I was educated and began my ministry I gravitated toward ranching communities, spending most of my years in Faith, SD, a small town on the Northwestern prairie of South Dakota. Most of the community, therefore most of the Christians, were ranchers/cowboys and this had been the makeup of the churches in that area for 100 years. I am myself a cowboy and love that life more than any of the years I’ve spent in urban churches since.

    I find the references to cowboys being at the lowest end of society morally as most of the ones I’ve known in my life are very respectful, faithful, conservative and are virtually unanimously defenders of the weak and downtrodden and have hearts of gold.

    These cowboys gave more to missions per person than any urban church I’ve since attended, and they trained their children to do so.

    Now I’m in Oklahoma and we have several rapidly growing Cowboy Churches in our immediate area. One of the very reasons they grow and prosper so well is their vibrant community life and practical teaching. As opposed to many of the mainstream churches that spend a majority of their time seeking to more fully grasp concepts such as sanctification or election, they are focused upon how Christ’s life translates into living faith for them today.

    Although I do not regularly attend a Cowboy Church, I am quite comfortable with them and believe they have a strong and clear focus to their faith.
    Bill says:

    I don’t expect to see a Summa Theologiae come out of the Cowboy Church.

    Actually, we haven’t had another Summa Theologiae in nearly 1900 years and never from any American church…
    do we need another one?

    My impression is that these “cowboys” often spend more time in the Word and prayer, take more seriously the call to LIVE their faith daily, and praise God more passionately than most denizens of the cities who seem caught up in the cultural rat race. I’m sure, of course, there are exceptions in both places. :)

  • Jack Outhier

    I omitted “peculiar” from the sentence, “I find the references to cowboys being at the lowest end of society morally peculiar…” above.

  • Bill

    Jack,

    In no way did I mean to write anything disparaging to cowboys and ranch people. I live in ranch country by choice, and find my neighbors to be as fine as people can be. (I’ve posted on this before.) Ranching is hard, chancy, dangerous work, and the people who settled this land had, and had to have, grit and determination.

    The TV image of drunken cowboys shooting each other at the slightest provocation is a creation of Hollywood. If someone wants to read more about ranching families in Texas, I’d recommend J. Frank Dobie’s “Cow People” from Univ of Texas Press.

    I am not disparaging Cowboy Churches, either. I’m happy people are coming together for fellowship and worship.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I met a cowboy church “arena minister” and his wife today, so thought this post might be worth a second look. It certainly is, for this if nothing else:

    “Somebody said, ‘Well, aren’t you afraid that God doesn’t like that?”‘ Smith said. “I said, ‘Well, in 30 years, he hasn’t told me.’ I figured if it had teed him off, he would have at least let me know.”

    The Post article probably fit it’s spot in the paper, but I agree it was a tease. It certainly left me curious about some things. The “without a denominational policy,” business clashed with mention of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a solidly denominational entity. Overall, I would have been interested in a little more information on connections.

    It’s pretty clear these entities are a projection of Baptist theology into cowboy/rodeo culture. Baptist is my first religious language, so I knew what I was looking at; for people without a Baptist childhood, Bobby’s article was more helpful, I thought. I speak a little Pentecostal, too (don’t go there!), so I was wondering if some of these groups might not include that element. Probably not, but are their affiliations open to congregations that preach a “baptism in the Holy Spirit”?

    That cowboy church couple I met today do a support group for convicted felons and are looking to expand that ministry to convicted sex offenders. It’s that sort of thing that explains some of their growth. A willingness to go to “society’s moral and spiritual bottom rungs” drove the Weslyan revival of the 18th century, the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century, and early 20th century Pentecostalism.

    Which is partly to say: some solid numbers would have been nice. We know the number of congregations, but not the number of congregants. Really, we know the number of “interdenominational cowboy-specific ministries”, which is not the same thing as congregations.

    cowboys — up until the 1970s — were all immoral bad dudes

    I quibble at “all”. It’s pretty clear the Post article is about rodeo culture specifically, and about that group, “all”, (which is different from “rampant” anyway), is probably closer to accurate than not. Ranch culture, of course, is a different matter. My people were farmers more than ranchers, but they generally got the chores done in time for morning worship, and usually Sunday School.

  • Tragic Christian

    I’m just wondering if the confusing term “denominational policy” is actually supposed to be ‘denominational polity.” Polity is a church word that a secular reporter is likely to mis-hear. It makes the phrase a little more sensible.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Interesting cowboy church feature in the San Antonio Express News.


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