It raced toward me from the left side of the two-lane highway. The familiar big and white sign had become my own personal landmark over the years. On the outskirts of Sealy, Texas, just north of I-10 and Port City Stockyards, it signaled the countdown: 29 minutes to go before reaching my parents’ farm. This time, there was something about the image that touched my heart—the kneeling cowboy in front of a cross, the horse in tow, and the simple lettering: “All Around Cowboy Church.” The collage of symbols called to me as I navigated the mix of dually trucks, cattle trailers, SUVs, and the occasional motorcycle passing to and fro on Highway 36.
The young Abercrombie-clad teen sitting next to me woke me from my reverie. “We should visit the All Around Cowboy Church, Mom,” she piped up. I realized immediately that my child and I could both benefit from some old-fashioned, rugged churchgoing. I was craving something deeper, something more organic and natural, something … wholesome. I wanted more than just an experiment. I wanted an experience, a departure from padded pews.
The next Sunday morning we sped toward Sealy to make the 10 a.m. service, and my daughter asked if Pastor Sonny Rice would do rope tricks. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure myself, but we were both just happy to be wearing jeans to church.
That one service, it turns out, ended up inspiring me to chase cowboy churches around Texas. My odessey revealed that the movement is strictly cultural (Western) and often lacking in artifice (walls). Leery of organized religion and spooked by the evangelical trappings of mega-churches (wide-screen video conferencing, etc.), the proudly independent—ranch hands and cowgirls and your average Texans—worship at these cowboy churches. To them, simplicity is more important than liturgy. Jesus is Lord. Period.
Thanks to my small-town, horse-crazed heritage, I saw myself in these country folks. I met people emblematic of the Western way—and the people drawn to it. Practical independence, not ideology, was valued here. And though I expected campfire and barbed wire, not wireless, and while a few congregations were little more than a collection of cowpokes around a fishing hole, many of the cowboy churches we visited were technology-forward and website-savvy. Some ventured into radio and television, others created sophisticated networks to spread their message of salvation.
It may have taken me a half-dozen pastors in Stetsons, but I eventually discovered the old-fashioned religion and common horse sense that have been a practical part of the Western way of life for generations. Dare I say that I found a version of Jesus’ own open-air ministry?
“Come as you are,” Pastor Sonny told me over the phone. “We welcome everyone—drunk, doped up, don’t have to have a suit on. It doesn’t matter.” And he wasn’t kidding. It’s perfectly fine to wear dirty boots and spurs to a cowboy church. Here, a person’s inside matters more than the outside.
Sprinkled among many happy families sat a few quiet, ill-kempt souls, shaking out the cobwebs after a night of carousing. An exhausted, tousle-haired single mom sat with her wriggling brood. One young couple wore matching Western shirts and sat in starry-eyed wedded bliss.
Pastor Sonny and his co-pastor wife, Gloria, regularly witness people letting go of their anger to get free and healed from illnesses in miraculous ways.
“We support missions in Mexico to reach the vaqueros,” says Rice. “We help down-and-out cowboys with food and God’s word through the Rockin’ W Rodeo Ministries, too.”
This was no backwoods place, however. The spacious wooden church was created by intelligent design, and I’m not speaking of our Heavenly Father. It was a human architect who blended ruggedness and technology on these scenic 48 acres with ponds, buildings, and grazing horses. Inside, horseshoes adorned the steps leading up to the wooden platform stage. A metal Lone Star hung on the wall alongside a large State of Texas flag. A Navajo blanket was spread on another step and served as knee padding at the altar.
The All Around Cowboy Church Band had cut a studio album and played with amplified sound equipment, drums, guitar, and keyboard. The church also had an impressive interactive website, bridging old and new in the 21st century. It organized the Posse, a Sunday School for kids, and the Cowgirls in Action Ladies Bible Study group that helps wives and mothers apply Christ’s teachings to the home front. The church also hosts a Texas International Cowboy Conference each April.
Pastor Sonny’s and Gloria’s preaching was lively and inspiring. “Has anyone ever mistreated you?” asked Pastor Sonny, his Texas twang tugging at me. It was a question every soul could relate to—forgiveness and preparing for God’s purpose.
“A two-year-old horse is still learning, still making mistakes,” Pastor Sonny continued. “A three-year-old horse knows more and is useful. But an older, wiser horse is trained to go out and perform. That’s very much like the life of a Christian. After a while, people are ready to go out and do the work God has called them to do.”
Voices shouted, “Amen!”
Heading back to the car, I told my teen that I had “left a load of the bad stuff—spiritual manure—behind at the altar.”
With a twinkle in her eyes, she replied: “I’m glad I wore boots,” . . . throwing in “Ma’am” at the last minute. Soon she was texting classmates about her Sunday morning adventure.
“Hey Mom, the next time we go, can I bring a friend?” This warmed my newly scrubbed-clean heart all the way back to Houston.
Tracking down cowboy churches is a bit like roping the wind. Many are strictly word-of-mouth gatherings (tent revivals, really) that can only be stumbled upon in the fresh air—no phones; no advertising; no buildings. And even established congregations can totally lack technology.
Still, to help with the search, I went online and found a comprehensive directory at Cowboychurch.net. According to the group, there are 657 registered cowboy churches in the U.S., with 296 in Texas alone. Australia has three, Canada 17, and Sweden and Mexico each have one. The Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches in Waxahachie (texasfcc.org), lists 150 member Baptist churches across Texas, a dozen of which opened in 2009. Cowboys for Christ, in Newark (cowboysforchrist.net), lists 52 national chapters with three in Texas, plus one in Jamaica. I found another 100 cowboy churches belonging to the Texas Horse Council. A few cowboy churches are even affiliated with the International Convention of Faith Ministries and the Assemblies of God World Missions.
I eventually found several spirit-filled, nondenominational and Baptist cowboy churches within a four-hour drive from Houston and targeted seven of them over a six-month period. I personally attended four, watched two via television and webcast, and began an enduring Facebook friendship with the last.
The Shepherd’s Valley Cowboy Church in Cleburne, just south of Fort Worth, worships 700 strong any given Sunday. Pastors Russ and Anna Weaver offer a dizzying array of services—divorce recovery, a motorcycle ministry, and a cowboy choir, plus a drill team, riding club, search and rescue team, team roping, trail riding, and youth activities. This was the closest to a nondenominational cowboy mega-church that I found, and Pastor Russ, a former rodeo chaplain and missionary, also co-hosts Cowboy ChurchTV (cowboychurch.tv), which broadcasts to millions in all 50 states, Brazil, and the UK. As I tuned in, Pastor Russ was proof that not all televangelists wear pompadours. He spoke earnestly from under his cowboy hat about growing in the faith and watering our spiritual lives with the Word.
The Silverado Cowboy Church in Weatherford also broadcasts via webcam with live video feeds from services, rodeo grandstands, and cowboy devotionals. Pastor David Simmons co-pastors with his wife, Kathleen. Emily and I tuned in over cereal and toast and marveled at my computer screen, as a boy got baptized in a galvanized metal tub.
“This is cool,” my daughter commented. Interestingly, a dedicated group of puppeteers, the Silverado Kowboy Kids Puppet Ministries, is involved in spreading the word. It had never occurred to me that cowboys would play with puppets—another preconceived notion squashed.
Supported by the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, the Aggieland Cowboy Fellowship in Snook is just over a year old. Baptist pastor and church planter Jess McCabe preaches to Western folk who are often sick of religion and don’t feel like they can be completely themselves in a traditional church. He doesn’t bother with formal meetings, deacons, offering or ushers, and preaches in a hay-barn pavilion that occasionally serves as a dance hall. With so many churches grasping for money, I was completely taken off guard by the lack of an offering plate. This church really does rely on the goodness of God and trusts its members to do the right thing. The drive was worth it.
Pastor Reggie Whearley of the Cool Water Cowboy Church in Angleton made a special impression on me during a trip to the beach late last summer. His cowboy community of saints partakes in big-tent preachin’, praise, and worship.
“Get ’er done!” is Pastor Whearley’s interpretation of Revelation 21:6.
“Cowboy up, Church! Calling Christ’s posse!” he boomed across the outdoor arena. “It is our vision to grow the Kingdom of God through ministry to the Country-Western and the Cowboy Culture in this community. Invite or hog-tie a friend, and ya’ll come! Jesus is waitin’ to make your acquaintance and measure you up for a Hacienda Grande in Heaven!”
An article by Mike Rinehart, Bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, alerted me to the Lone Star Cowboy Church in Montgomery, Texas. “It’s a place where the yuppies bump into the horse people, a slice of Texas,” he wrote. “The lobby was rustic, like a Western steak house.”
Emily and I decided to make the three-hour drive north and can confirm Bishop Mike’s Western steak house description. An impressive antler chandelier hung in the church lobby from a soaring, high ceiling; wood walls matched the huge wooden cross, and rustic reds and warm earth tones enveloped the enormous sanctuary. The congregation of several hundred people was very friendly, with one chatty couple telling us: “We’re former Catholics. But we opted for Lone Star because it’s casual, laid back, and right out of the Bible.”
One thing in particular that Pastor Randy said really stuck with me: “There ain’t no big shots in the kingdom of God. It’s level ground at the foot of the cross.” He reminded me that despite wealth and demographics, we are all equals in the eyes of God—just another humbling reminder of my place in the Kingdom.
I found Pastor Ricky Missildine’s Lost Sheep Ministry of Texas on Facebook (of all places). “We just purchased 65 acres in Wortham to set up an outreach base for ministry,” he told me over the phone. “It has stock ponds to fish in, and plenty of room to ride horses. We have open-air services, unless the weather is bad, and sit around a fire to sing and give testimonies. This is a cowboy-style, family ministry seeking the lost sheep that have strayed from the flock.”
Pastor Ricky’s “moving ministry” aims at the souls on the outskirts of society. Among other places, he visits flea markets, jails, bars, refineries, and power plants. “God is after strays,” says Pastor Ricky. “It makes no difference what you look like, what you smell like, what your religion is or isn’t—God wants you just as you are.”
Pastor Ricky also preaches on two radio shows—KIVY 92.7FM Crockett and KNES 99.1FM Fairfield—and spends a couple days every week visiting nursing homes in a five-county area.
“There are an awful lot of old cowboys in nursing homes, and they need a friend,” he says.
To me, Pastor Ricky encapsulated the entire cowboy church movement: He has managed to master technology without losing the charming-cowboy, “Aw, shucks, Ma’am,” Western way. He symbolizes the rugged man of the prairie, spends as much time on a horse as off, hauls a piano around on a cattle truck as a member in a roving band, and plays pied piper to the lost and the wandering. “Character” is the best word to describe him, and with all due respect, he reminded me of Jesus.
“Jesus took a bunch of outcast fisherman and whores and changed the world,” he explained to me, genuine and non-judgmental in his conviction. “I am just doing his bidding and trying to follow his example.”
Looking back, I’m glad I saddled up. Thanks to my adventures, I am refreshed and more appreciative of my faith—“jump-started” would be an accurate description. Modern cowboy churches combine technology with Western traditions to produce powerful worship venues, and you can bet this rubbed off on my daughter. She admits to feeling blessed by cowboy culture and its different relationship with the Lord. I believe it deepened her faith. And I know that I’ll be rubbing elbows with some wonderful Western folk in heaven when my own eternal promotion occurs. Meanwhile, you’ll find me rubbing elbows every now and then with Pastor Sonny and social networking with Pastor Ricky.
Cowboy churches will continue to flourish, as long as people in the plains and pastures of Texas seek Jesus in forms of worship akin to their daily lives. Some lost souls will be found via Internet search engines, and some will find salvation via truck engines, but all who are drawn to these maverick churches are my people.
Melanie Saxton is a freelance journalist based in Katy, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston.