I love a horse trough baptism as much as the next guy, but I have to admit that I’m a traditionalist at heart. I appreciate the time-worn beauty of prayers passed down through generations, the mystery and splendor of a good four-part choir, the movement and purposeful flow of a well-planned order of worship, and attention paid to, you know, words. On the other hand, I’ve been known to lead a rousing chorus of “All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir” with the Bishop and Cabinet. What I’m saying is, I’m flexible.
So, recently I went to Cowboy Church and here’s what I learned.
I was in the Big Bend country of West Texas, so it was a place with real cowboys, though this phenomenon has been spreading out to many far-flung places where ranch hands are more rare, including Virginia. The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts over 200 member congregations but that’s just one organizantion. There are many more in the US, Canada, and even Australia. But, of course, the epicenter and place where it all began is Texas.
What did I find? Well, the Big Bend Cowboy Church is an unassuming metal building with a Western-style wrap-around porch. Walking in the front doors I was greeted by Pastor Wendal Elliott, who was dressed in a spotless white Western shirt, jeans, boots, and cowboy hat. There was all the evidence that I was in a church narthex, just with a few more frayed rope and barbed wire decorations. There was the prayer board, the doughnuts, the coffee, the styrofoam cups. So far, it was all feeling very familiar.
It was only when I rounded the corner to head to the worship space that the ethos of the place became clear. Behind another door was a big warehouse space on a concrete pad. Metal roll-up doors were opened to the Glass Mountains beyond. An old rail fence decorated with American flags, saddles, and wagon wheels framed a…chancel? Corral? Let’s call it the Preacher’s Pen. There was more barbed wire, including the crown on the large wooden cross on the wall.
A large group of people were milling about greeting one another. Some in the rows of chairs near the front, others around the cafeteria tables set up in the back. The vibe was friendly and aggressively casual.
The service began without warning. Pastor Wendal just leaped up into the Pen and we were off. There were a few announcements. “The Cowgirl Gathering is coming up next weekend. Thanks to those who showed up to the rodeo yesterday.” Then he invited up a man who leads a ministry to those in prison. He shared a heartfelt testimony about his son’s incarceration and about the importance of reaching out to the children and families of those in prison. I was moved.
Then it was time to sing…briefly. A man with an impressively groomed mustache and a bright green flowered Western shirt got us to our feet to sing songs “which I’m sure you know.” There was a songbook, but I don’t think these were included in it. There was also a screen that we didn’t use. “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Do Lord,” back to “I’ll Fly Away,” one verse each, all to the accompaniment of a single guitar. Then we sat down while Brother Mustache’s wife came up to join him in a medley of country-western gospel tunes, some self-written. Good folks with good voices, but I couldn’t help feeling shorted on the music front. This constituted the whole of the music for the day.
I also wondered how and if this music would connect with the theme of the day, which turned out to be self-control. Pastor Wendal quoted Proverbs 25:28, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” Then, he shared his experience in the cutting competition at the rodeo the day before and how winning requires discipline, training, and preparation. We looked at other Bible verses praising self-control as a fruit of the Spirit and an essential feature of the Christian life.
Pastor Wendal struck me as a perfect Cowboy Church pastor. He was direct, humble, not flashy, and seemed to be thoroughly of a piece with the culture the church so clearly celebrated. He had authentic twang and the dramatic hand gestures so common in rural Texas. (Think Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove.) The message was the kind of life application preaching heard in so many non-denominational and Baptist churches these days.
Then it was time to go to the stock tank. Two teenaged worshippers came forward to be immersed by Brother Mustache, who apparently is a pastor himself. He offered a straightforward believer’s baptism explanation of what was about to happen and then proceeded to the act. The United Methodist in me longed for some…any…description of God’s act in the baptism, but the emphasis was definitely on personal witness.
Pastor Wendal followed it up with a low-key invitation to faith. “Meet me in the back if you’d be interested in baptism yourself.” And then, as suddenly as the service had begun, it was over. Pastor Wendal jumped out of the Pen, without a benediction (or an offering!), and it was over. People headed for the pick-up trucks and rode off into the sunset.
So what did I learn?
1) The emphasis falls heavy on the ‘cowboy’ and much less on the ‘church.’ This is by intention. “Unchurched people view a traditional church as an organization that just wants their money and they also feel that the institutional church is too ‘righteous’ for them,” Frank Sanchez, a cowboy church planter told the Waxahachie Daily Light. “What we want to do in the cowboy church is to lower those barriers built up between the church and the unchurched, and make people feel comfortable – that they can come as they are.”
I heard the same thing from the police chief in Archer City when I talked to him about cowboy church over chicken-fried steak at Murn’s Cafe. “I don’t have to dress up and I understand everything they say.”
Surely, it’s a good thing that people are working to lower the barriers and to help people who have been alienated from the institutional church, and institutions in general, to find their way into worship. By so heavily emphasizing the Western heritage culture, however, is Cowboy Church failing to be church? Is it so identified with the culture it promotes that it cannot stand against that culture when needed or initiate those who come into the culture of the reign of God? That’s a question for every church, by the way.
2) For a place with no dress code, there was a dress code. Cowboy hats, boots, jeans, your best Western shirt, cowgirl chic for the women—you definitely had to be duded to the nines to feel at home in this place. Even the children were outfitted appropriately. I don’t think this was out of the norm for this community. I saw this dress everywhere I went. So, the police chief was probably right that people didn’t feel they were having to dress up by dressing this way. But if you came dressed otherwise, you would have felt out of place.
3) Connection with the church of every time and place is not a priority. Pastor Wendal was headed to a convention of cowboy churches and asked for travel prayers, but otherwise, the focus of the service was entirely on the individuals present. It was not just the baptism that was individually-focused, everything was oriented to individual choice. The multiple US flags seemed to be the most prominent nod to any kind of larger community. It was the Sunday after the protests in Charlottesville and not a word was said.
4) Cowboy Church didn’t tell me how to be a disciple. How does a church that is so focused on removing barriers to participation move those who attend to greater discipleship? There was not even an offering, which made me wonder how people are challenged to think about the discipline of generous giving. There were men’s and women’s groups meeting later in the week, but I did not feel that I was being told much about how to grow in the Christian life beyond advocating self-control.
5) I like cowboy duds. I could get used to this get up. And for bald guys, (check that—persons with baldness), a cowboy hat is a very practical piece of headwear in the Texas sun. I did meet people who probably wouldn’t have been in church otherwise and there were a lot of them. They felt comfortable. But a cowboy church, like every church, has the challenge of being not only accessible, but faithful to the world-challenging message of the gospel.
John Wesley once accepted the call to field preaching with coal miners by saying, “I submitted to be more vile.” I think he’d have donned a bolo and submitted to be more Western if the occasion had arisen. But for what purpose? I ask the same thing of Cowboy Church that I ask of all the churches I visit these days. And we’re doing this why?