Cowboy Churches Wrangle Souls

Congregations like Texas’ no-frills Frontier Church offer a down-home approach to the Gospel In the famous words of cowboy legend Roy Rogers, “There are only two kinds of people: those who like horses and those who don’t.” You won’t find any of the latter at Texas’ Cowboy Church of Ellis County or Frontier Church of Ellis County, both on the outskirts of Dallas. What you will find are more than 1,000 combined regular attendees, drawn together not just by their love for God but also a passion for Western heritage and the culture surrounding it.     
Pastor Ron Nolen, the man who helped start both churches and who preaches each week at Frontier Church in boots and a cowboy hat, says that a few years ago he knew nothing but the “suit-and-tie approach to Christianity.” It was his son Matt, now 30 and a team roper in his spare time, who introduced him to the spurs-and-Stetsons world.   
“I would go to his ropings and say, ‘Where do all these people go to church?’ ” Nolen recalls. Matt’s response? “I don’t think many of them go.”         
Determined to change that, Nolen enlisted the help of his wife Jane along with Matt and his wife to launch the Cowboy Church of Ellis County. In March 2000, the new church drew 311 people to its first Sunday service, some intrigued by an ad in the weekly “shopper” newspaper that featured a cowboy kneeling in front of a cross with his horse behind him. They arrived in jeans and cowboy boots, and all were treated to an after-church barbecue and a testimony from a professional rodeo cowboy. Nolen preached a message titled “The Cowboy Secret of a Great Life.”     
There were other notable differences. The worship team featured hammered dulcimer, fiddle and mandolin, and for its meeting spot, the church chose the Ellis County Expo Center (home to local agricultural events for Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs) because it was well known by the people they were targeting. The group also decided to forego the traditional passing of the offering plate.      
“We saw that as a barrier because people think the church is only after money,” Nolen says. Instead, the church placed a cowboy boot on the back table with offering envelopes beside it. And baptisms, of which there were 74 that first year, mostly adults, were held in an 8-foot horse water tank.            
Now, three years after it began, the Cowboy Church of Ellis County has a full-time pastor (Nolen already has a day job at the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Church Starting Center where he’s mentored nine cowboy churches) and draws 850 each week between its two Sunday morning services and a Monday night meeting.      
Nolen admits he wasn’t the first to have the idea, and he won’t be the last. Cowboy churches are cropping up all over the South and the Midwest, dotting the landscapes of Tennessee and Oklahoma as well as Texas. And media attention from outlets like The Dallas Morning News and, more recently,USA Today, continue to help spread the word.     
Meanwhile, Nolen continues his church-planting efforts with the Frontier Church. The fledgling church is already drawing 160 people each Sunday morning and reaching over 300 through weekly activities held in its arena, the cowboy church version of the family life center. There, the church hosts barrel-racing events, team roping, buck-outs and even mutton-busting for the little ones. And it’s all outreach-oriented: Each event opens in prayer and ends with an invitation to attend services.                 
Says Terry Chapman, a Mississippi native who attends Frontier Church with her husband and young son, “I just feel comfortable with the surroundings.” She even took the important step of being baptized recently.                
The Frontier Church is growing so much it’s building a new facility. Just don’t expect an ornate chapel adorned with stained glass. Instead, the building has metal walls and a concrete floor—“it’s just a mini expo building that will help the core feel comfortable,” Nolen explains.    
That core consists of arena cowboys and cowgirls along with others who don’t own a horse but are drawn to the lifestyle. And it’s that lifestyle which dictates nearly everything done at the church. Upon arriving for the service, you may hear a tune from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or the twang of a Christian country artist. Bales of hay and a split-rail fence casually draped with saddles decorate the altar. Even VBS is given a Western twist. Last year, the theme was a stick horse rodeo.
And the benediction at a cowboy church? “Happy Trails to You,” of course.   pastedGraphic.pdf

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by Wendy Lee Nentwig
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