David G. Bromley

Cowboy Trail Church


1882:  The first cattle were brought into Alberta Province by American John Ware.

1886:  The forerunner of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede took place.

1923 (July):  The first Calgary Exhibition and Stampede was held.

1963:  The Canadian Cowboys’ Association was created.

2005 (February 1):  Cowboy Trail Church was established.


Cowboys have a long history in western Canada as they were part of the process of taking First Nations land for the development of large cattle and horse ranches (Fleck 2003; Dary 1981). It was African-American cowboy John Ware who first brought cattle intoAlberta Province from the U.S in 1882, and American open-range cattle ranching soon was a favored style in the industry (Breen 1901-1910). Calgary became the hub of the Canadian cattle industry. However, just as in the U.S., it was not long before fenced ranches replaced open range and the role of the cowboy diminished. As in the U.S. cowboy culture continued through rodeo culture. By the middle of the nineteenth century rodeos became popular as cowboys roped cows and broke in wild horses in order to win cash prizes, engage in sport, and provide entertainment for growing rodeo audiences (Fleck 2003). In 1886, the forerunner of The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede, The Calgary and District Agricultural Society, took place. The first Calgary Exhibition and Stampede was held in 1923. The term “rodeo” only gradually came into use, and it was only in the 1940s that events were referred to as rodeos by participants. The Canadian Cowboys’ Association was created in 1963. It covered three provinces at that time: Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan; Ontario was included in 2005 ( Leduc Black Gold Pro Rodeo & Exhibition 2014) .

Cowboy work has always been predominantly male and characterized by its seasonal, low-paying work, dangerous work that required strength, stamina, knowledge of horses and cattle, and skill in riding and roping. Cowboy culture has been characterized by individualism, independence, and social marginality. As the number of traditional cowboys diminished, rodeo work and culture continued the kinds of physical skills, personal qualities, and social marginality of its predecessor. The social marginality of rodeo culture meant that a substantial pool of males with fragile ties to family and religion was available to evangelical recruiters.

Cowboy churches originated in the United States during the 1970’s and began spreading to other nations, most notably Canadaand Australia. The cowboy church movement is non-denominational, though many churches are affiliated with particular traditional denominations. There are over 800 cowboy churches in the U.S. Cowboy Church of Ellis County in Waxahachie, Texas, which was established in 2005, is reputed to be the world’s largest cowboy church. Its membership has grown to nearly 2,000, with over 1,700 in regular attendance. There is a Monday evening service to accommodate those who attend rodeos and competitions on weekends (Bromley and Phillips 2013).

Cowboy culture in Canada manifests the same marginality as counterparts in the U.S. The dangerous lifestyle is exhausting as rodeo cowboys often participate in 100 or more rodeos annually in the quest for prize money. As one observer summarized these features (Fleck 2003):

“The toughest thing in their life is their marriages because they’re on the circuit, moving around so much,” he says. “The divorce rate is very high and alcoholism is very high because temptation is always there. A guy has been gone for three or four months, away from home, and there’s always these rodeo girls around…and when they have a spare minute, it’s into the saloon.”

Cowboy culture is also in decline as the oil boom has drawn men toward the better paying oil drilling industry. It is estimated that Canadian crude reserves, predominantly in tar sands, rank third in the world and will draw hundr eds of billions of dollars in oil production investment over the next several decades (Skerritt 2014).

The handful of cowboy churches with a distinctly western flavor in Canada include Willow Creek Cowboy Church in Nanton and the
Clearwater Cowboy Church in Caroline. Probably the best known Canadian cowboy church in Canada is the Cowboy Trail Church in Cochrane, which was founded by Bryn Thiessen in 2005. Thiessen and his four sisters were brought up in a Mennonite family in Gamble Flats. He and his wife have three children and own the 2,500 Helmer Creek Ranch near Sundre where he raises horses and cattle and she raises Border Collies (Toneguzzi 2014). Thiessen is also a noted cowboy poet.

The Cowboy Trail Church emerged out of the joint efforts of American Mike McGough and Bryn Thiessen. McGough was a professor at the nearby Canadian Baptist Seminary, and after he became award of the size of the cowboy culture, he began getting to know ranchers. He noticed that there was no ministry to farmers and ranchers. In December 2004 Thiessen, McGough, and a few others met and then launched The Cowboy Trail Church in February 2005 (Toneguzzi 2014) .


Byrn Thiessen characterizes those attending The Cowboy Trail Church as religious, and overwhelmingly Christian, but not necessarily religiously engaged. As he puts it: “Every rancher has a sense of a creator, for sure….Anybody that works in that knows there’s more to it than just a lump of dirt and three lightning bolts” (Junkin 2011). He explains that “I think it’s easier for agricultural people to believe in a creator, because they see it all around them all the time….And many of them understand Native spirituality – they can embrace the mystic side of it (Stephen 2007 ). However, many cowboys are not comfortable with conventional church. As Thiessen has put it, “the contemporary style in church doesn’t appeal much to men, and cowboys don’twant to know a wishy-washy gospel. They want the truth, worded in a way they can understand it. My job is to put the Gospel in a palatable form” (Stephen 2007 ). For that reason Thiessen tries to keep his preaching simple. As he states it, “Mine’s non-negotiable,” he said. “Tell the truth and serve good coffee. Offer opportunities for fellowship. It’s simple, there’s no need to water down the gospel” (Junkin 2011).

Church services at The Cowboy Trail Church are in many ways quite conventional for a conservative Christian church with the exception of their western flavor. As Thiessen describes them, “We have a Western swing, blue-grass style worship. It’s all stringed instruments … We have special guests from time to time. A testimony. Some scripture picked out. And then the sermon. What sets us apart is we sit down to sing and stand up to pray” (Toneguzzi 2014; Stephen 2007 ). Services often end with the congregation singing the “Cowboy Blessing.” Like other cowboy churches, Cowboy Trail seeks to be open and inclusive, to “meet people where they’re at” ( Rosen 2009).


One major source of the rapid growth of cowboy churches has been church planting by conservative Christian groups. Baptists have been particularly active in reaching out to two male groups, cowboys and bikers. Some Baptists in the U.S. have engaged in church planting activities in Canada through the BSC Office of Great Commission Partnerships (Lilley 2012) :

Church planting is the focus of the partnership that began last year between the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina (BSC) and the Canadian National Baptist Convention. North Carolina Baptists are committed to helping plant 40 churches in Southern Ontario, 10 biker churches, and 10 cowboy churches throughout Canada by 2021.

The Cowboy Trail Church is non-denominational but is affiliated with the Canadian Southern Baptists ( Stephen 2007).

Weekly church services are held on Tuesday evenings to avoid competition with weekend rodeos. Cowboy Trail holds its services at the Cochrane Ranche House, a onetime cattle ranch turned convention center. The overall congregation numbers around 300, with about 100 on average attending the weekly services. In addition to its regular services, the church also performs marriages, baptisms and funerals, all in with a western flavor. The church is supported through donations by the congregation. However, the church does not pass a collection plate. Rather, those attending services are invited to drop donations in two cowboy boots that are placed at the church door.

Consistent with Cowboy Trail’s informal organization, bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. The church is administered by it refers to as New Testament Model leadership, a leadership team. Bryn Thiessen, who is a rancher, poet, and founding member of the church serves as pastor. His leadership style is informal and self-effacing. As he puts it, “I absorbed so much teaching over the years and I learned to public speak in 4-H. I like to say I have a Jack Pine degree [meaning that he is self-taught] in theology and veterinary medicine…” (Stephen 2007).


Although many cowboy churches like Cowboy Trail were planted by conservative Christian groups or are affiliated with them in some way, they are sometimes criticized for their western orientation. The critique is that the style of the church becomes more important than the substance of the doctrine (wayoflife.org 2012). This appears to be less an issue in Canada than it is in the U.S. The more significant challenge to cowboy churches, like Cowboy way, is maintaining the kind of commitment from second generation members that energizes the founding generation. If commitment erodes or novelty wears off, cowboy churches may lose the luster they currently enjoy.


Breen, David. 1901-1910. Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Volume XIII. Accessed from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=7130 on 31 May 2015.

Bromley, David G. and Elizabeth Phillips. 2013. “Cowboy Churches.” World Religions and Spirituality Project. Accessed from http://www.wrs.vcu.edu/profiles/CowboyChurches.htm on 31 May 2015 .

Dary, David. 1981. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. New York: Knopf.

Fleck, Doris. 2003. “Cowboys for Christ.” Faith Today, July/August. Accessed from http://www.evangelicalfellowship.ca/page.aspx?pid=1798 on 29 May 2015.

Junkin, Sarah. 2011. Cochrane: A Town of Many Churches.” Cochrane Times, October 13. Accessed from http://www.cochranetimes.com/2011/10/13/cochrane-a-town-of-many-churches on 29 May 2015.

Lilley, Melissa. 2012. “Battleford Cowboy Church is ‘Point of Light’ in Darkness.” BSC Communications, January 31. Accessed from http://www.brnow.org/News/January-2012/Battleford-cowboy-church-is-point-of-light-in-dark on 30 May 2015 .

Leduc Black Gold Pro Rodeo & Exhibition. 2014. Timeline: A History of Rodeo in North America.” Accessed from http://www.blackgoldrodeo.com/blog.asp?id=6 on 31 May 2015.

Rosen, Amy. 2009. “Get Along Little Doggie.” The National Nosh, June 18. Accessed from
http://thenationalnosh.blogspot.com/2009/06/get-along-little-doggie.html on 29 May 2015 .

Skerritt, Jen. 2014. “Oil Boom Ropes in Cowboys, Leaving Cattle Ranches in the Lurch.” The Age, November 26. Accessed from http://www.theage.com.au/business/world-business/oil-boom-ropes-in-cowboys-leaving-cattle-ranches-in-the-lurch-20141126-11ud07.html

Stephen, Cindy. 2007. “Passion as Wide as Alberta Sky.” City Light News, July 7. Accessed from http://www.calgarychristian.com/articles/2007/707-cowboypastor.htm on 29 May 2015.

Toneguzzi, Mario. 2014. “ Cowboy Trail Church Serves Farming and Ranching Community.” Calgary Herald, July 4. http://calgaryherald.com/news/local-news/cowboy-trail-church-serves-farming-and-ranching-community on 29 May 2015.

Wayoflife.org. 2012. “Cowboy Church.” Friday Church News Notes 13: 16. Accessed from http://www.practicalbible.com/1/post/2012/04/cowboy-church.html on 20 June 2013.

Post Date:
1 June 2015