RICHMOND, Ky. (FOX 56) — A Thursday night church service in Richmond is a little different than most. You may hear moos along with an amen, coming from cattle penned up in stalls near the pulpit.
The congregants take stock of their lives in a stockyard at Rugged Cross Cowboy Church.
“You don’t have to be a cowboy to attend,” said Pastor Jeff Duncan. “Nationwide, only about 25 to 30 percent of the people who attend cowboy church actually own livestock.”
Cowboy churches became popular in the 1970s on the rodeo circuit and can be outreach ministries tied to Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or no denomination at all. The universal approach is “come as you are.” It’s OK to worship Jesus in jeans or study the Bible in boots.
Duncan said, “We’re just a laid-back ministry. We try to meet in non-traditional places that don’t look like a church.”
Kenny Rowe, a songwriter from Virginia, is traveling the country, trying to visit as many cowboy churches as possible. He got hooked on this way of worship after visiting a large cowboy church in Tyler, Texas, a few years ago.
He said, “What went on in that service is people would hold up cardboard signs saying, ‘I’m a survivor of abuse.’ The next person would get up and say, ‘I’ve been an alcoholic for forty years and have been sober for ten,’ and it went on and on like that. Soon everybody in the church was crying, including me, and I said, ‘I want to be a part of that.'”
Rowe has visited dozens of cowboy churches in Kentucky, often singing his songs and passing out CDs of his music. After leaving Kentucky, he moved to Illinois to visit more churches and encourages people to follow his journey on his Facebook page, “Will I See You in Heaven.”
Reaching people in recovery is a big goal of the Open Range Cowboy Ministry in Somerset, where leaders say hundreds of people have been born again in a barn. This ministry is not part of the national cowboy church network but has the same goal of serving people who may shy away from traditional services.
Pastor Braxton King, who is also the minister at Somerset’s First Christian Church, said he was “all in” when he was first presented with the idea of helping out with a cowboy church. “Because I feel if we don’t evangelize, we fossilize. If we don’t reach out, we die out. So really, you need that aspect of taking the gospel to the world,” he said.
The ministry takes place at Suits Us Farm, owned by Jeff and BJ Thurman and Scott and Jo Ellen Whitaker. The contemporary services regularly draw more than a hundred people on a Sunday night who are looking for a lift.
Michelle Gomes said, “I dealt with an alcohol problem for thirty years and when I came here, I was lost and broken. And the minute I walked on this property, I knew I was home. It’s very enthusiastic, non-judgmental, Jesus lovers. Best church I’ve ever been to in my life, and I’ve never left.”
They might pass communion at a cowboy church, but they don’t pass an offering plate. You can drop money in a bucket if you want to. The stage may be a wagon, people may kneel to pray in hay and you might even see a baptism in a watering trough.
King said, “We’ve had services where people say, ‘Let’s get baptized right now.’ So we’ve taken them and baptized them that night.”
For many people, this is a new way to get that old-time religion. It’s believed there may be as many as five thousand cowboy churches around the world. At least 30 of them are in Kentucky; many of them are listed online at cowboychurch.net.
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The style of worship can vary greatly, but all cowboy churches want to lasso lost souls and make visitors feel at home on the range.
Duncan said, “Everybody should try cowboy church once.”