(Photo: AP Images / Matt Slocum)
WAXAHACHIE, Texas – Moments after flying headfirst onto the arena floor dirt, the man gets up and brushes off his protective vest as rodeo clowns rush in to distract the still-bucking bull.
The crowd cheers as the announcer reveals he's fine, just before the chute opens with another cowboy atop a menacing bull.
But this isn't a typical rodeo. It's an outreach ministry of the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, which has grown from about 300 to 2,200 members since it began nearly nine years ago. The church about 30 miles south of Dallas now bills itself as the world's largest cowboy church.
The movement is about 40 years old but has grown rapidly in recent years, especially among Baptists. The Midland, N.C.-based Cowboy Church Network of North America, supported by the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Missions Board, has started dozens of churches in 12 states and Canada since 2003.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas has launched about 140 cowboy churches since 2000 — the first in Ellis County. The congregations now perform about 10 percent of all baptisms among the group's 5,700 churches statewide, officials said.
"It appeals to you because it's 'come as you are,'" said Chris Maddox, who attends the Cowboy Church of Ellis County. "You don't feel judged based on how you're dressed, how you talk, how you look. We're not asking somebody to be something they're not."
Churchgoers wear cowboy hats and jeans, sing hymns accompanied by a country band and get baptized in horse troughs. Churches vary. Some have Western-theme sanctuaries; others meet in barns or on rodeo grounds, some on weeknights.
A few months ago the Cowboy Church of Mobile, Ala., started meeting at a nightclub called The Whiskey on one Sunday each month — when the bar is normally closed for business.
On summer Sundays in Jackson Hole, Wyo., horse whisperer Grant Golliher leads cowboy church services at the Diamond Cross Ranch. As he works with an abused or unbroken horse in the arena, he talks to the crowd about biblical parallels, and about an hour later he is able to ride the animal.
"We use an out-of-the-box method to get people to come, because people have so many walls up with church," said Golliher. He's not ordained but calls himself a "horse trainer with a message."
Organizers say the churches attract everyone from rodeo participants and farmers to country music lovers and people who embrace the western lifestyle. Some don't fall into any of those categories, but say they just haven't felt comfortable in traditional churches.
"I met a man in a feed store who said he hadn't been to church in 40 years, and now he's going to a cowboy church," said the Rev. Jeff Smith, a North Carolina pastor who founded the cowboy church network five years ago.
Larger cowboy churches have arenas and offer rodeo events, mainly to attract new members. They have brief devotions and sometimes baptize new believers in an outdoor trough.
"What a family life center is to a traditional church, an arena is to a cowboy church," said the Rev. Charles Higgs, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Western Heritage Ministries.
Matt Ward, 15, who plans to become a professional bull rider, was among dozens who rode bulls earlier this month at a weekly event at the Cowboy Church of Ellis County's arena. He attends another church near his hometown of Saginaw about 50 miles away, but came to the rodeo event because a friend recommended it.
"At other places, all they want to do is drink beer," Ward said, referring to non-church arenas. "But there are a lot of nice people here, and it's a lot safer."
Some Baptist leaders say their cowboy churches have grown so quickly because they offer an alternative for those who associate churches with long sermons and pressure to donate or accept Jesus as their savior.
Many cowboy churches never mention tithing and don't have offering plates; they tuck envelopes into the service programs or put boots out for those who want to give. Also, some pastors don't have "altar calls" but encourage folks who want to follow Christ to see a minister privately.
"People think we've hung boots and hats on traditional Baptist churches, but we found a plan that was radically different," said the Rev. Ron Nolen, executive director of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches and its Texas counterpart.
The Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, which supports the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and the Cowboy Church Network of North America each have "schools" in which they teach people how to start cowboy churches. The new congregations are being formed at a time when attendance and baptism rates have stagnated in a large number of traditional churches, including many in the Southern Baptist Convention.
At a recent Sunday morning service at the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, the Rev. Jess McCabe, a visiting pastor, held up different sizes of deer antlers to illustrate his sermon about how people grow as Christians.
"That's one thing about cowboy church — we all got room to grow," McCabe told the congregation with a smile.