The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) celebrated the growth of its newest cowboy church with a not-so-orthodox gathering of worshippers and country-western praise bands in Whitney, Texas, July 18, 2004.
The Open Range Cowboy Church, which held its first service two months ago with 180 people, had grown to a building packed 280 by the July 18th celebration; 14 individuals were baptized in a horse trough that sits the alter since the first service.
Many of these congregants are farmers, ranchers, horsemen, cowboys and cowgirls, whose lifestyles fit to that of the country-and-western church. Unlike other traditional churches, a country-western praise band leads the service and cowboy-boot-clad church leaders sing along with Stetson hats still on their heads.
According to the Associated Baptist Press, Open Range marks the 27th Cowboy Church initiated by the BGCT since 2000; one of the first such churches, the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, now averages 1,100 in weekly attendance while the Cowboy Church of Atascosa County averages some 500 people each Sunday.
BGCT leaders hope to establish 75 similar cowboy churches in the state by 2008.
"Western-heritage people represent a large pool in Texas that not many are seeking to evangelize. [As a result], they have written the church off," said Ron Nolen, a consultant for the BGCT Church Multiplication Center who works with these congregations. "Now Baptist people are reconnecting them."
According to Nolen, some 4 million Texans are part of the western heritage tradition, and are best served by cowboy churches.
"It is grass-roots Christianity," Nolen said. "It is taking the church to the pagan world."
In fact, hundreds of Texans, many of whom had not been to church for several years, were baptized in the cowboy churches.
"It's getting to a particular group of people that other churches are not ministering to," said Edwin Snelgrove, the praise band's drummer at Open Range. "It's like it says, this is a cowboy church. We just want to get you in. We'll let the Lord clean you up."
To carry out the vigorous 75-congregation goal, the BGCT purchased a trailer for scouting out possible locations; several cowboys and their horses will ride around on the trailer, according to ABP, and will report on areas where there are enough western-heritage people to start a cowboy church.
Once the Texas goal is met, church leaders will move onto other states like Florida, Wyoming, Montana and Washington.