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'The Lord is my Saddle Partner' 

Cowboy churches lasso Christians around the world

Half an hour northeast of Colorado Springs on a nearly empty stretch of country road in Peyton, Colo., the view to the west is nothing but blue sky and the snow-capped crown of Pikes Peak. The view to the east is of telephone poles carrying endless cables of wire off into the prairie.

With the exception of a couple of houses about a half-mile away, the only building around is a brand-new corrugated aluminum four-wall. It could be a feed store or a garage if it weren't for the metal steeple perched on the peak of the roof and an old log cross with a barbed-wire crown of thorns hanging from a rusty nail.

Next to the door stands a cut-out plywood silhouette of a cowboy leaning against the wall. Ceramic coyotes howl from the two front windows lidded with bucking bronco curtains.

As the steel double doors swing open, wagon wheel chandeliers light up pews lined with cowboy hats.

Welcome to one of the fastest-growing ministries in North America -- cowboy church.

Born in a barn

Here in Peyton, Pastor Dave Shumpert, in a black Western suit and gray boots, preaches from a pulpit that looks more like a corral. The sound of gospel bluegrass washes over the congregation.

Meanwhile, across the county, in the Black Forest, another hall full of cowboys are praying inside the area's second church for cowboys. Inside the Colorado Springs Cowboy Church, a sea of black and straw cowboy hats quickly disappears into the Wrangler-clad laps of the cowboys perched on folding metal chairs as Pastor Tony Isaacs -- a former rodeo clown, corporate farmer and oilman from Texas -- begins the prayer.

A faint smell of manure wafts in through the windows from the Kit Carson Riding Club that surrounds this tiny wood-paneled hall, filled to capacity on one recent Sunday evening.

As soon as the prayer is over, the hats are quickly replaced.

This is just one of the many things that make cowboy church different from most other church services: With the exception of prayers, you can leave your hat on.

"The old working cowboy didn't feel comfortable in churches," explained Pastor Isaacs.

"It's really a kicked-back and relaxed church. It's comin' in from the feed barn and smellin' like they are." He adds, with a grin, "Jesus was born in a barn!"

Such a departure from more traditional church convention isn't just a question of fashion; it's a question of culture and lifestyle.

"The men and women of Western culture are people of integrity," Isaacs said. "It's a look in the eye. It's a handshake. They aren't gonna stab you in the back; they're gonna tell you to your face!"

"Everyone here's real," concurs Jim Hicks, a towering working rancher, artist and self-described "all around good guy" who shows up for cowboy church in a black ten-gallon hat with a knotted blue scarf around his neck.

Roger Hoggatt, a rodeo cowboy who began attending The Cowboy Church of Peyton after an ad in a newspaper caught his eye, said simply: "It's nice to be involved in a church that's open, honest and direct."

Marykay Cumpston, who runs the national Cowboy Minister's Association's Web site www.cowboyministers.com, provides the same assessment in describing the fast-growing phenomenon of cowboy churches.

"What you see is what you get," she said. "A little manure on the boots, dirt on the knees and dust on the butt. It's what you are."

Bulls with fire beneath them

It all started back in 1972, when Glenn Smith, a professional bull rider, roper and rodeo clown from Texas had a vision six months after he was saved at age 37, He awoke at 2:30 one morning to a terrifying revelation.

"God showed me cowboys hung up on bulls with fire beneath them," Smith said. "He said they were dying and going to hell. [He told me the] next morning I was to sell all my worldly possessions and he would provide for me to minister to cowboys. So I did."

Since that day, Smith and his wife Ann have been traveling the rodeo circuit, holding prayer meetings in stadiums before events, and ministering to riders in the chutes. These young men will soon look their own deaths straight in the eyes on the backs of hulking bulls ready to buck them into their graves.

While Smith is now widely credited as being the first modern cowboy preacher on the rodeo circuit, he's by no means the first horseman to preach the Gospel.

"It's been since the day Jesus rode a colt into Jerusalem," said Coy Huffman, who launched Pro Rodeo Ministries, a traveling ministry, with his wife Donna in 1976 after years of roping and riding bulls.

Indeed, legends of cowboy preachers and romantic images abound. There's Brother Van (1872-1919) -- the priest who established over 100 churches in Montana, carried a gun, shot buffalo on horseback, and was immortalized in a painting by Charles Russell. There are countless small-town church histories with stories about so-and-so "The Cowboy Preacher." And of course there's Clint Eastwood -- the man who etched the myth of the gun-toting minister into the pop-cultural imagination as Preacher in Pale Rider.

Such tales and images may be overly romanticized, but preachers like Smith and Huffman have quickly found that the popularity of their traveling ministries had everything to do with their credibility as authentic rodeo cowboys.

"I had been a rodeo professional, clown and bull rider," said Smith from his cell phone on a stretch of highway somewhere in the panhandle of Oklahoma on his way to a "camp meeting," a kind of outdoor Western revival. "My main ministry is to reach the country people. They've got cattle giving birth or crops in the field. People on the rodeo circuit were more than delighted that they could come to church in the clothes they were dressed in."

Because of this come-as-you-are style and philosophy and the fact that people felt they could relate to their preachers without putting on airs, cowboy church services, revivals and Bible studies began to catch on rapidly.

Born at Billy Bobs

By the early '80s, many people who'd attended these kinds of services wanted to have "full-blown" local services every week.

"From the circuit services people would want a home church that had the same kind of services," said Donna Huffman, Coy's wife and partner in Pro Rodeo Ministries.

And thus the first cowboy church was born.

"I reckon the first cowboy church was held at Billy Bob's nightclub in Ft. Worth, Texas, in the early '80s," said Smith. "[The preacher], Jeff Copenhaver, was a world champion calf roper. That's the very first one I know of. They had 150 to 200 people every Sunday night."

Cowboy churches are quickly becoming one of the most popular new ways to reach out to a community of people that often feel disenfranchised by the more formal restraints of conventional Protestant churches.

While most are evangelical, very few of the churches are officially affiliated to any particular brand of Christianity, or even to each other.

Marykay Cumpston estimates that there are now between 700 and 800 cowboy churches worldwide. Glenn Smith thinks that, more reasonably, only about 300 such ministries exist, with about 150 of those being churches.

With cowboy churches in the United States, Canada, Mexico and countries as far away as Australia (called outback churches), an annual International Cowboy Ministers Conference, and an estimated 6 percent growth in ministries every year, there's no question that cowboy church has become an international phenomenon.

Youre lookin at country

Country and western music is a crucial element in the surging popularity of cowboy churches.

Pastor Dave Shumpert, a retired Marine who started the Peyton Church in eastern El Paso County in 2000, suspected that music would be an integral part of his cowboy ministry from the night he first looked out onto the widely dispersed lights that dotted the plains around Peyton.

Shumpert, a Southern Baptist, was looking for a new way to bring the people of Peyton together.

With a population of 3,707 and little more than a post office, grocery store, coffee hut, bar and tanning salon in the center of town, Shumpert had to try something different.

"Southern Baptists are always looking for ways to reach out to people," he said. "We have to go where the people are and not expect them to come to us."

In 1996, Shumpert and his wife Beverly started a Saturday night cowboy church at Peyton Elementary School with the simple idea that bluegrass music would bring the people of Peyton together.

With the assistance of the Buffalo Grass Acoustic Society, local Colorado Springs bluegrass gospel groups like The Harvesters traveled to Peyton on Saturday evenings to entertain crowds at an informal service that began to attract upward of 50 people.

Before long, Walt Breeden -- a spirited older man who wears thick blue suspenders and frequently bites his tongue to restrain a curse word -- liked what he saw, and offered to donate 3 acres of land and much of the money to build a permanent church.

Soon after its doors opened, a group of church members dug their instruments out of the closet, began practicing and quickly formed their own bluegrass gospel group called The Prairie Wind.

"At first there was a lot of stumbling," said Gene Miller, founder of Miller Heating and Electric, who picked up the banjo 26 years ago and started playing instead of watching television. "But we received a blessing by doing it. Our voices may not be perfect, but we are blessed by being able to do it, and you are blessed by being able to hear it. ... We're sending a message through our music."

Shumpert believes that hearing the traditional Baptist hymns in a bluegrass style also makes the songs relevant again.

"I know people come to us because they like the style of the music," said Shumpert. "And those young people are enjoying it -- they've never heard the older hymns."

"I love these Saturday night services," said Roger Hoggatt. "Good music. Good preaching. Good fellowship."

Road Kill Caf

One of the most important characteristics of a cowboy church, at least to Donna Huffman, is that the preacher speaks in a vocabulary the ranchers, cowboys and horse-oriented people can relate to.

The sermons that she and Coy post on their Web site, www.prorodeoministries.com, are filled with colorful Western colloquialisms.

In their sermon Road Kill Caf, the Huffmans write:

Driving up the road I saw a furry critter run out into my path. He stopped, stood and stared, and my foot hit the brake pedal in an attempt to whoa my car. The tires signaled a sickening feeling as I heard the thud of mangled flesh. My heart hurt from seeing another careless animal becoming road kill. Then the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see the massive spiritual road kill on lifes highway.

Pastor Isaacs peppers his sermons with Western lifestyle references to everything from the Texas Roadhouse meat-and-potatoes restaurant chain to George Straits appearance at the opening of the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Texas.

Whether its relaying parables or just talking with the people, when the preachers speak the language of their parishioners, many say they understand the Gospel and feel understood in return.

Wendy Hoggatt, a former professional singer who sings hymns at The Cowboy Church of Peyton, was emphatic when she said: Preacher [Dave] and Beverly [Shumpert] preach it in a way I can understand.

To make the cowboy feel more at home in the company of the Lord, the Colorado Springs-based International Bible Society publishes a pocket-size Bible called The Way for Cowboys with a picture of a saddle, a blanket and rope slung over a barn gate. While theres nothing particularly cowboy about the New International Version text itself, six full-color inserts are mixed in with the text that have inspirational phrases and anecdotes about Christian Cowboys with titles like: The Lord Is My Saddle Partner.

For the preachers and churchgoers its all part of the culture that they can identify with.

And everyone knows just what Pastor Isaacs means when he ends his Sunday night service:

Lord give em the strength to stirrup up and get in the saddle.

Jesus is no bull

Cowboy evangelists believe they're reaching people who'd given up on Jesus or would never bother stepping through church doors in the first place.

Since the Smiths and the Huffmans began preaching on the rodeo circuit in the '70s, for example, scores of bull riders have been saved.

T.J. Nunley, a former bull rider and working cowboy who attends the Colorado Springs Cowboy Church, says that bull riders are both the easiest and the hardest people to minister to "because they understand reality -- the reality that anything could happen to you."

"There are no atheists on the back of a bull," added Tony Isaacs. "With a 2,000-pound bull and its horns coming at you, you're crying out for the Lord."

But, said Nunley, the very thing that makes these riders receptive to cowboy ministry also makes them stubborn.

"Cowboy will is a hard thing to break."

Cody Custer, a devout Christian and professional bull rider who is currently ranked No. 19 in the world, has been leading prayer meetings before rodeos events since 1996.

"Our sport is probably the most dangerous sport in the world, so guys are a little bit more sensitive to the fact that their days are numbered," he said in a phone interview. "We've had a few guys who've been killed, so we're aware of the reality of that. But the other side is that some of them are hard to reach because we're trained to be tough guys."

But if anyone is going to reach the bull riders with the gospel, says Custer, it's going to be a fellow cowboy.

"If it was a guy in a business suit, they wouldn't give him the time of day. But since it's a guy who wears a cowboy hat, Wranglers and cowboy boots, they're going to be more likely to listen to him. And if he's an athlete they respect, they're even more likely to listen to him."

Todd Pierce, a former bronco rider who now preaches on the Professional Bull Riders circuit full time, says it's the athletes' passion for adventure that makes them such great Christians.

"They're extremists. They're radicals. It's all or nothing. So if they're radical partiers, then they've got that ... they love to have a good time. When they don't go the way of the Christian, they go the other way radically." But, said Pierce, once "they realize the adventure of this Christian faith, then you've got truly committed men."

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