COWBOY CHURCH TIMELINE
1970’s The first Christian cowboy communities began to form.
2000 (January) Ron Nolen founded the Cowboy Church of Ellis County in Waxahachie, Texas.
2001 CowboyChurch.net, the largest cowboy church directory, was created.
2001 Nolen resigned from the Cowboy Church of Ellis County.
2003 Nolen resigned as pastor from the Frontier Church of Ellis County in Waxahachie.
2003 (March) Nolen founded the Ranchhouse Cowboy Church in Maypearl.
2004 The Ranchhouse Cowboy Church formed the Ranchhouse School of Cowboy Planting.
2004 (November 8) Nolen was presented with the George W. Truett Award for Ministerial Excellence by Baylor University and The Baptist Standard for his evangelizing work.
2005 Iglesia Bautista de Los Vaqueros, the first Hispanic cowboy church in the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, was founded.
2006 (November 8) Nolen retired from the General Baptist Convention of Texas to head the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches.
2007 (November) The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches was formed from the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches.
2010 (August) The Board of Directors of the Texas/American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches placed Nolen on sabbatical for undisclosed reasons.
2010 (September) Ron Nolen left his role as Executive Director of the Texas/American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches.
Cowboys have a long and storied history in America (Dary 1981). They were one of several predominantly male occupational groups (lumberjacks, railroaders, miners, truckers) that have emerged through American history and developed distinctive cultures. While there have been cowboys for over three centuries, their numbers surged during the second half of the nineteenth century in response to the development of western cattle ranches (Rollins 1936; Price 1996). Cowboys thrived between the mid-1860s and mid-1880s when open range land in the West and emerging urban industrial markets in the North created ideal conditions for their trade. Cowboys were mostly young, single males but quite diverse ethnically as Mexican, Afro-American, Native American, and immigrant cowboys were commonplace. Teams of cowboys were responsible for organizing and controlling cattle and then driving them to market. Cowboy crews lived on the range for months as cattle were raised and prepared for cattle drives. Their seasonal, low-paying work could be dangerous and required strength, stamina, knowledge of horses and cattle, and skill in riding and roping. Although they rarely carried weapons or engaged in gunfights with marauding Indians or cattle rustlers, cowboys were notorious for a lifestyle built around bars, brothels, and brawling. Cowboy culture during this era was characterized by individualism, independence, and social marginality; and so cowboys generally had little connection to organized religion or other established institutions.
Cowboy lifestyle changed significantly as open range gave way to fenced pastures. Cowboys began to perform more mundane ranch-maintenance functions; railroad systems facilitated the transportation of cattle to market, and road networks and motorized transportation both eased access to cattle herds and allowed cowboys to adopt more conventional domestic lives. Even as the original cowboy culture was in decline, the early disreputability associated with cowboys gave way to a mythology in music, novels, movies, and (later) television shows that celebrated the cowboy as a heroic figure, much like the pioneer, frontiersman, gunfighter and outlaw (Savage 1975, 1979; Willford 2011). There was further romanticizing of cowboy lifestyle in American culture through western attire, dancing, dude ranches, and rodeos. Rodeos gained popularity with the rise of urban-industrial society and became firmly grounded in modern cowboy culture with the foundation of the Professional Bull Riders, Incorporated (PBR) in 1992. Exhibitions and competitions in the arena supplanted the earlier cowboy occupation and lifestyle, but rodeo events demanded and dramatized the kind of physical skill and endurance that actual cowboy life had required. Rodeo culture also permitted a continuation of the predominantly male culture on the margins of conventional society.
A number of conservative Christian churches, including rapidly proliferating megachurches, began seeking out unchurched populations, and particularly unchurched males, in the second half of the twentieth century. The first cowboy churches began to appear in the 1970’s; small churches were started by evangelical leader Coy Hoffman, professional rodeo clown Glen Smith, and famous married couple, Harry Yates and Joanne Cash in 1990. Ron Nolen is most often identified as the founder of the official cowboy church movement. Little is known about Nolen’s early life; however, there are clear records of his substantial missionary work. He began his religious career when he was twenty-two years old by working in established churches in a variety of capacities. Nolen held staff positions in First Baptist Church of Oak Cliff in Dallas, First Baptist Church in Joshua, First Baptist Church in Seminole, and First Baptist Church in Waxahachie. He served as mission pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury. Nolen also worked as a vocational evangelist, a mission that he has continued to pursue. Along the way, he earned degrees from both East Texas Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Fogleman 2005).
Around 1999, Nolen attended a roping event in Glen Rose, Texas with his competitive roper son, Matt. He saw the groups of cowboys who always gathered at rodeo events, and he asked his son where they all went to church. When Matt replied that they “would never set foot in a church,” Nolen was disturbed (Gauntt 2009). He then decided to found a church that would attract men and women from the rodeo and cowboy cultures, as well as others who felt out of place in traditional worship settings. According to Nolen, about five percent of Texas’s population, which could total as many as one million people, consisted of cowboys, ranchers, rodeo competitors, and horse enthusiasts with few connections to Christian churches.
Nolen took it upon himself to ask these unchurched individuals about their previous experiences in traditional religious settings and about what dissuaded them from becoming active church members. The answers they gave to his questions included feelings of rejection, unnecessary formality, and a preoccupation with earthly wealth. Another theme that occurred with some frequency was that traditional churches often lacked the masculinity valued in rodeo and ranch life. Despite often deep patriarchal undertones within Christian theology, it has long been the case that Christian congregations are predominantly composed of women and children. Clerical attire symbolized an unmanly presentation for many of these men. Ray Lane, pastor of the Cowboy Church affiliate, Granbury Triple Cross Cowboy Church, commented: “Those cowboys said that the only leader in a church that looks masculine is wearing a dress that looks like a gown” (Gauntt 2009).
Based on what he had heard from the unchurched individuals, Ron Nolan formed the Cowboy Church of Ellis County in January, 2000. Ellis County was the first cowboy church affiliated with the Baptist General Convention. The church’s first service attracted over 300 attendees. By the second year, church attendance neared 800. Noland invited Gary Morgan to serve as pastor for the growing congregation. The Cowboy Church of Ellis County is regarded as the world’s largest cowboy church; its membership has grown to nearly 2,000, with over 1,700 in regular attendance. The church holds three services, two on Sunday mornings and one on Monday evenings. The Monday evening service accommodates those who attend rodeos and competitions on weekends.
In 2001, Ron Nolen founded the Frontier Church of Ellis County in October and resigned from his leading position at the Cowboy Church of Ellis County. In 2003, he resigned as pastor from the Frontier Church in Waxahachie and founded the Ranchhouse Cowboy Church in Maypearl. This church, in turn, formed the Ranchhouse School of Cowboy Church Planting in 2004.
On November 8, 2004, Nolen was awarded one of three Texas Baptist Ministry Awards during the George W. Truett Theological Seminary Friends of Truett dinner in San Antonio, Texas. Nolen was presented the George W. Truett Award for Ministerial Excellence by Baylor University and The Baptist Standard for his evangelizing work (Fogleman 2004).
Nolen worked in the Baptist General Convention of Texas for eleven years, retiring in 2006 to head the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches. He served as Director and Executive Director of the Texas/American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches in Waxahachie, Texas and held several roles within the Fellowship before leaving the staff in September 2010. Nolen subsequently became the current director of Cowboy Up International, Incorporated Ministries, a non-profit church-planting corporation working for the founding and support of new cowboy churches (“About Us” 2013).
Church-planting by cowboy churches has been very successful. The Cowboy Church Net Directory reported in 2001 the existence of 870 recognized cowboy churches worldwide. The vast majority (844) were located in the United States. The remainder were scattered around the world: one in Mexico, nineteen in Canada, one in Sweden, one in the Philippines, and four in Australia (Holmes and Holmes 2001). The cowboy church movement is non-denominational, though many churches are affiliated with particular traditional denominations, including the Baptist, Methodist, Nazarene, and Assembly of God churches.
Despite the fact that many individual cowboy churches are affiliated with established churches, the cowboy church movement itself is essentially non-denominational. Cowboy churches tend to be similar to Baptist churches in that individual congregations are, within limits, independent doctrinally and organizationally. Church organization and practice vary by location, attendees, andcommunity custom. However, belief statements found on church websites and in The Way for Cowboys (2001) reveal relatively consistent theological precepts throughout the movement. The Way for Cowboys serves as scripture for many within cowboy culture and the cowboy church movement. Similar to the composition of many of the Bibles distributed by Gideons International, The Way for Cowboys is a compilation of NIV translations of the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. The scripture is accompanied by prayers, gospel plans, and theological explanations adapted to cowboy lifestyle. Copies also include testimonials from well-known leaders in the cowboy Christian movement and popular rodeo competitors, as well as desert, Western, and rodeo photography (The Way for Cowboys 2011). In cowboy church culture, the Bible itself is regarded as a narrative that reveals the true nature of the Divine and God’s plan for creation. The biblical narrative is also understood as a drama, one that is to be lived out in daily life. It is widely believed that it was written so that humanity might live their lives according to its story; thus individuals are to assume their roles in the continuing narrative of redemption and new creation.
God is viewed as omniscient and omnipotent. God’s true, infinite essence is represented through the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit represent different attributes of the unified divine God to whom Creation is said to owe the sincerest love, submission, and reverence. This triune God is conceived as almighty yet personal, embracing a deep connected to Creation. God the Father embodies the perceived paternal, caring and ruling nature of the Sacred. The Father has been deemed protector of the universe and all of its inhabitants with the sacrosanct gift of grace. God the Son represents the notion of manifested divinity in the psychical form of Jesus Christ, who is believed to have been born of the Virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. Cowboy and Christian faith claim that this anointed incarnate expression revealed and served as primary participant of the will of God. Christian cowboy theology affirms that through His ministry, sufferings, death, burial, and resurrection, God the Son has allowed for the remission of sins. Christ the Son is said to sit at the right hand of God and dwell within believers as the living, ever-present Lord, awaiting the day of His physical earthly return. God the Holy Spirit represents the fully divine Spirit of God. The Spirit is believed to have played an active role in creation and its fate throughout time, inspiring the writers of the Bible, conceiving the Son in Mary, and illuminating humanity to the truth of God. The Spirit often is named overseer of judgment, sin, and righteousness and, correspondingly, enabler of the regenerative power of Baptism and steward of participants’ redemptive future. The Holy Spirit is also accredited as the source of charismata, or spiritual gifts, such as prophecy, teaching, leadership, faith, evangelization, and speaking of tongues (glossolalia). Since cowboy congregations are diverse, some spiritual gifts (such as glossolalia) are most likely to be found Pentecostal congregations. After being accepted by God in Christ, individuals are believed to never fall from the state of grace; even in sin, the grace of God endures through the Spirit in Christian cowboy faith.
Most cowboy church faith statements assert that humanity plays a vital role in God’s will, as exemplified through divine presence in creation and subsequent salvation. Created in the image of God, initially free of sin, equal, and possessing free will, man and woman are said to have been tempted by Satan, causing human transgression and natural inclination toward sin. This acceptance of humanitiy’s fall from grace informs the human need for salvation. The Bible is understood to be composed and venerated in response to divine will and the human condition. The New Testament is believed to show members how to reject sin and live by the Gospel. Christian cowboy faith attests that salvation is available only through Jesus Christ and wholehearted redemption. It involves personal rebirth in Christ; the justification, or remission, of sins; sanctification, or moral and spiritual progression; and glorification, the eternal, blessed state of redeemed souls.
The prominence of the Cowboy Ten Commandments, for example, both highlights the cowboy church movement’s acceptance of traditional Christian theological principles and its innovation on theological presentation. Fundamental Christian dogma is translated into colloquial language. As one cowboy church pastor stated, “The method changes – how it’s presented – but the message stays the same” (Barnett 2012). The Commandments thereby embody both traditional cowboy and Abrahamic religious principles; assumption of modern cowboy vernacular bridges cultural gaps formed over 3,000 years.
(1) Just one God
(2) Honor yer Ma and Pa
(3) No tellin’ tales or gossipin’
(4) Git yerself to Sunday meetin’
(5) Put nothin’ before God
(6) No foolin’ around with another feller’s gal
(7) No killin’
(8) Watch yer mouth
(9) Don’t take what ain’t yers
(10) Don’t be hankerin’ fer yer buddy’s stuff
(“The Ten Commandments – Cowboy Style” 2011)
Adjusting the biblical moral code to align with cowboy culture facilitates cultural comprehension, self-identification, and personal spiritual meaning.
Cowboy churches reconnect past and present for congregants by drawing parallels with biblical characters who lived a simple, self-sufficient nomadic or agricultural existence. Cowboy church members with roots in family farms may empathize with male andfemale’s levy in Genesis 1:28-29 to cultivate the earth and serve as custodians to creation. Those raising animals on ranches may similarly identify with biblical shepherds and the high value of livestock in Biblical wealth and esteem. In addition, the rugged atmosphere of outdoor cowboy churches, with animals frequently present, appears more similar to worship of the New Testament and early Christian church than traditional institutions to many adherents. “In the New Testament, there wasn’t an aisle to walk,” explained Ron Nolen in an interview with the Baptist Standard, “They professed their faith when they walked out into the water before baptism” (Henson 2003). In this way, participants can feel symbolically closer to the original faith of Jesus and his followers. Indeed, the cowboy mystique is sacralized in cowboy churches. One cowboy church pastor commented, “The ministry encapsulates character, honesty, respect, integrity, strength, and truth; in other words—CHRIST, all characteristics that describe a cowboy” (Knier 2011). Indeed, some cowboy culture art depicts Jesus as a cowboy.
The cowboy church movement is nondenominational, but many individual churches are affiliated with conservative Christian denominations. As a result, the doctrines and rituals often differ more in style than substance. Cowboy church rituals and practices typically occur outside of church buildings, are interpolated through cowboy culture, and eschew formality and traditionalism.
Common settings for cowboy congregations include rodeos, ranches, farmhouses, warehouses, and campgrounds, along with more traditional church buildings. Services are not confined to indoor venues as members value engaging in spiritual experiences in God’s creation. Further, the presence of animals is welcomed, and horses and dogs are frequently present during cowboy services. Indeed, some attendees do not dismount during services, remaining on their horses while worshiping. In some cases, horses are participants in church ceremonies as individuals ride their horses through arenas while bearing flags or around corrals in celebration of the birth of Christ.
Worship services may differ from more conventional services in several ways. First, they tend to be more informally structured. Attendees often arrive at least a half-hour to an hour before the service begins to actively engage in fellowship. Casual dress is standard, and many attend services in their work clothes. It is common for cowboy hats to remain on throughout the service; even pastors may wear their hats as they preach. Hats and all other head coverings are only removed during prayer. Second, services often extend past the traditional one hour. Short sermons are organized to explain the biblical text and Christian doctrine dialogically through cowboy culture language. Third, many churches do not have formal offerings during the service. Some churches have a place for donations, in many cases boots, that are located behind the congregation so that individuals may contribute as and if they please. Special collections may be taken if the congregation decides one is necessary for a worthy cause or event. In these cases any convenient container is passed through the congregation. Finally, cowboy churches, particularly those not directly connected to a denominational group, typically do not engage in the alter calls that are commonplace in traditionally organized churches. In lieu of altar calls, pastors may pray a sinner’s prayer of confession at the conclusion of services. Their personal prayer serves as an example to those who wish to accompany the pastor in prayer or profess their faith later in private (Henson 2003).
Cowboy churches conduct traditional baptism rituals, but they often are performed in horse water troughs or natural bodies of water. Total submergence is typically used to fully cleanse individuals, physically and spiritually, of past lives and prepare them for new lives in Christ. Some cowboy churches perform this cleansing ritual on eighteen-wheelers, submerging baptismal candidates in water troughs placed on flatbeds. Given the male-orientation of cowboy churches and the relatively recent founding of cowboy churches, it is not surprising that about seventy percent of yearly baptismal candidates in cowboy churches are adults and most of the baptized are males (Kindig 2012).
Music plays a prominent role in cowboy church devotion, again drawing on cowboy culture. Contemporary and classic country, western, and bluegrass are given Christian lyrics and themes. God Bless the USA is one fairly common addition to cowboy church gatherings, epitomizing the often-central values of faith in both God and country. Music may be recorded, as some cowboy churches employ sound systems and projection screens, but music is most often performed live.
Some cowboy churches participate in horseback riding fellowship outside of church meetings. These ceremonies serve as acts of worship, contemplation, and evangelism. Cowboy church members invite individuals to accompany them on horseback through long trail rides to discuss faith, life, and their affinity.
The cowboy church movement itself is non-denominational, and many cowboy churches are independent. A number of mainstream denominations (Baptists, Assemblies of God, Nazarenes) also have helped to plant and affiliate with new cowboy churches. The goal that these denominations share in common is attracting the unchurched, and particularly unchurched males. Given the size of the population connected to ranching, horses, and rodeos, this pool of potential adherents is attractive to those engaged in evangelizing and church planting. While the sponsoring denominations exercise varying degrees of oversight, the cowboy churches have considerable freedom to innovate by importing cowboy culture.
The Baptists have been particularly active in establishing and affiliating with cowboy churches through what is sometimes referred to as the Western Heritage Movement (Hall 2013). The Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, established in 2006 in Waxahachie, has provided instruction to those interested in starting new cowboy churches. The Fellowship hosts four schools quarterly across Texas. A partnership with Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary provides individuals with training to become active pastors, religious leaders, and laypersons of the newly founded churches. The seminary offers an eighteen-hour course for a certificate of ministry in cooperation with the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches. The course is completed mostly online; participants attend an on-campus course on preaching for one week. The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches (AFCC), formed from the Texas Fellowship in 2007, works to strengthen the movement across state lines, offering the same services as the Texas Fellowship to communities across the United States.
AFCC defines its goal as spreading the Word of God throughout the United States by means of cowboy ministry. AFCC has stated its strategy for reaching the cowboy and related populations as follows: “AFCC cowboy churches strive to remove as many of the barriers as possible that might be found in the more traditional church settings and offer a more relaxed ‘come as you are atmosphere’ where everyone is welcome!” (American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches n.d.). The organization provides existing cowboy churches across the country with training opportunities, open communication between communities, mentoring amenities, and overall sponsorship, working in cooperation with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. AFCC operates in partnership with neighboring Baptist churches. According to the Fellowship’s bylaws, affiliates must be Cooperating “Baptist Way” Cowboy Churches. Churches must doctrinally subscribe to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, with the acknowledgement that church elders do not hold the status of scriptural officers. Cowboy church planting is organized through the Ranchhouse School of Cowboy Church Planting, which provides training videos and events as commissioned by the Fellowship. New cowboy churches that agree to meet AFCC criteria are welcomed into the Fellowship without any formal application process (“Bylaws” 2011). AFCC is governed by a Board of Directors that meets at least quarterly and is composed primarily of representatives of affiliate cowboy churches. Executive Directors of individual affiliated cowboy churches may be designated by the Fellowship to serve as intermediaries between the Board and cooperating churches. In cowboy churches, the positions of pastor and missionary are open to everyone, and many congregational pastors have received little to no formal theological education (“Bylaws” 2011).
AFCC’s readily available church model outlines a five-step guide to successuflly creating and managing cowboy churches. The model strongly advocates limiting the size of individual churches. Creating an informal limit on church size facilitates a primary goal of cowboy churches, church planting. It also discourages congregations from morphing into megachurches, the oversized, impersonal institutions that individuals who have opted for cowboy churches often are so reluctant to attend. The model also encourages innovation. Openness to change has enabled cowboy churches to transform traditional, formal conceptions of worship to embrace communities that offer less formal settings, attire, and worship and a non-judgmental and welcoming atmosphere.
There is a mutually supportive relationship between the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Texas/American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches. The Baptist General Convention of Texas has contributed over six million dollars to the funding of cowboy churches. In return, cowboy churches have donated over half a million dollars back to the Convention to support missions. Approximately ten percent of annual baptisms in Convention churches are performed by affiliated cowboy churches. Most reasonably sized cowboy congregations average roughly forty baptisms yearly; most baptismal candidates seek the sacrament as adults.
Cowboy churches emphasize elements of the western, cowboy culture that endeavor to attract unchurched men. For example, the churches create venues with a masculine atmosphere, feature country-western as opposed to traditional worship music, offer sermons that are accessible and meaningful in cowboy culture, and sponsor activities that have appeal in cowboy culture (Pottenger 2013). However, cowboy churches recognize that they are not simply trying to attract cowboys. Their strategy is to build churches around the cowboy mystique, which attracts a considerably broader cross-section of the population. As one cowboy church pastor observed, “If we can reach the hardcore cowboy, we’re also going to reach the man who works in town but has land and cattle. We also reach the guy who works in town and lives in town but loves the life and if he could afford it he’d be a cowboy. We also just reach the guy who loves John Wayne” (Pottenger 2013). Another pastor commented that “There are people who wear cowboy hats and boots but have never had an opportunity to work on a ranch or ride a horse every day, but they like the culture and identify with the cowboy’s characteristics of strength, integrity and work ethics” (Knier 2011). For many who are put off by the ceremonious formality of established churches, the earthy atmosphere, the “come as you are” invitation, and the “everyone is welcome” sense of inclusiveness central to cowboy churches appear refreshingly attractive. One parishioner commented, “I’ve never felt comfortable anywhere else. I love it here, and the teaching is wonderful. Everything is so down to earth. The people are loving and caring. It’s just a special place…” Another stated that “There is a family atmosphere here…. Besides my marriage and kids, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. There are no judgments here; come as you are” (Burnett 2012). As a result, cowboy church congregations are surprisingly diverse, reaching across race, age, gender, residential location, and social class lines.
Cowboy churches and their members actively evangelize both to attract new congregants and to plant new churches. Many churches and missionaries spread their message at rodeos and other Western competitions and gatherings. Some cowboy missionaries engage in horseback evangelical outreach, riding and speaking with nonmembers and nonbelievers. There are also some cowboy church representatives and missionaries who travel and create their own campground revivals. In addition, the Internet serves as a means of organization and expansion, allowing cowboy churches around the world to communicate and share ideas. The Cowboy Church Net Directory, founded in 2001, enables interested individuals to locate cowboy church services. Of course, many churches have created websites and other social media sites. Some churches also post audio and video sermons online.
Cowboy churches are active participants in a variety of outreach projects. Many churches provide outreach and ministry to impoverished communities around the world, disaster victims, incarcerated criminals, and the homeless. They also sponsor drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Cowboy Church of Ellis County Pastor, Gary Morgan, elaborated this point, “We get people who will not go to church anywhere else, people who haven’t been in 30 or 50 years. They’ve got issues. They may have a divorce, a child in jail, a drinking or a drug problem (Grossman 2003).
As they have begun to develop and prosper, cowboy churches have encountered a series of challenges. There has been some reservation and opposition concerning their formation and style. Issues include their innovation on traditional Christian doctrine and practice and their focus primarily on participants in cowboy culture. These churches have also experienced some leadership issues that have created unwelcome attention. Further, there are concerns about the future of the cowboy church as a haven for those who are disillusioned with established churches.
Despite the evangelism and church planting successes of cowboy churches, some established churches have reservations about their doctrines and practices. They have been critiqued as a tainted representation of the Christian faith. Some have called cowboy church practices impure, others inferior. According to some dissenters, “ it appears that cowboy churches are big on cowboy and little on the whole counsel of God… they tend to promote a short Sunday service with a brief ‘message’ and a lot of sensual, heavy-bass backbeat music” (wayoflife.org 2012). Some more conservative Christians feel cowboy churches shift focus away from God in favor of cultural innovations and events. The theological innovation is viewed as too liberal for those who hold more orthodox beliefs. Cowboy church services also have been criticized for being too focused on western music, which is regarded as too boisterous and secular for authentic worship services. Cowboy churches have their allies, of course, particularly those denominations that work in cooperation with them and adopt them as affiliates. Cowboy churches have been active partners in their associated denominations’ causes; in 2012, for example, they donated more than $600,000 to these joint causes in Texas alone (Brumley 2012).
Some critics also view the cowboy church movement as too narrowly focused on a small segment of the population and somewhat separatist. Whatever the merits of the narrow focus critique, it is clear that cowboy churches are growing and attracting congregants who would be unlikely to attend more conventional worship services. In a 2012 interview, the Director of the Western Heritage Ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Charles Higgs, reported that “Fifty percent of our cowboy churches have already reproduced themselves” (Brumley 2012). One indication of diversity is that Hispanic cowboy churches have begun to form, such as Iglesia Bautista de Los Vaqueros (Baptist Cowboy Church) that was founded in Waxahachie, Texas in 2005 (“Iglesia Bautista” 2009). Movement growth, although concentrated in western U.S. states, has also begun to expan around the world, with churches established in Mexico, Canada, Sweden, the Philippines, and Australia. Missions created by cowboy churches travel to impoverished populations globally, particularly in Africa. It is evident that cowboy churches in general stand in protest against formal, denominational religion and other established institutions. While many cowboy churches are highly patriotic, there is often a distinction drawn between support for governmental institutions and America as idealized in cowboy culture. One visible way that cowboy churches connect God and America is through support for inclusion of the “one nation under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Leadership issues have primarily concerned Ron Nolen, one of the founders and most innovative contributors to the development of the cowboy church movement. In August of 2010, the Texas/American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches Board of Directors placed Ron Nolen on sabbatical and unanimously voted to remove him from his position as Executive Director of the fellowships the following month. The Board of Directors did not provide specifics on the separation but simply stated that, “The board had to act quickly, precisely, decisively and appropriately to protect the integrity of the organization” (Baptist Standard 2010). The board named Jeff Bishop as interim Executive Director. Members of the board sent letters to pastors of affiliated churches notifying them of the severanc action while assuring them that the movement would continue to grow strongly following Nolen’s departure. In response to media queries, Nolen stated that he had resigned his positions prior to the Board’s action and stated that his separation was the result of a “personal issue” (Baptist Standard 2010).
Finally, cowboy churches have faced the continuing problem of maintaining the energy and commitment that has fueled movement growth. Since cowboy churches are all of recent origin, church membership is also new. Some cowboy church leaders have recognized that they will be facing the classic problem of sectarian groups as members become more settled and a second generation emerges. One cowboy church leader was particularly articulate on this issue. He stated that loss of energy and commitment was his “biggest fear.” He went on to explain that “Let’s say that it’s half and half – half of the people are what we call church people; they’ve been in church five years or more. And the other half have either not been in church or way less than five years. As time goes on, that number is going to shift, no way around it.” In his opinion, “The only way to avoid a shift toward a churchy environment is to keep the focus heavily on bringing in the lost….” The future vitality of the cowboy churches may hinge on how this challenge is met.
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