Serving Up Rural Religion

Cowboy churches round up believers.

| July/August 2010

  • Steven Spalding
    Cowboy preacher Steven Spalding is a versatile musician who plays not only the banjo, but also the 6- and 12-string guitar, the bass, the dobro, the fiddle, the piano, and the harmonica.
    Jerry Schleicher

  • Steven Spalding

On a recent Tuesday evening, some 50 folks gathered in an indoor horse arena as cowboy preacher Steven Spalding began services at the Cross Ties Cowboy Church near Centerview, Missouri, by playing a few of the many country gospel songs he has recorded over the years. Then he delivered a nondenominational sermon that was part parable, part Bible scripture, part Golden Rule. The congregation listened intently to his uplifting message of faith and deliverance.

Sending simple messages

Cowboy churches are a fast-growing phenomenon across rural America today, an outgrowth of the days when circuit-riding preachers brought salvation to the American frontier. While surveys show that some of the nation’s largest religious denominations have declined in membership in recent years, between 700 and 1,000 cowboy churches now exist across the country, with more springing up. There are more than 300 in Texas alone, and the movement is rapidly expanding across the west, into Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, the Carolinas, and even the New England states. While smaller cowboy churches may draw only 50 or 60 folks, some established cowboy churches attract as many as 1,500 worshipers to their services.

Most cowboy churches are nondenominational and present a simple message of faith and salvation, compared to the structured liturgy, fund-raising campaigns and church hierarchy of mainstream religion. The atmosphere is casual. Many cowboy churches are held in livestock sale barns, horse or rodeo arenas, in local opry theaters, or around a campfire during trail rides. Cowboy preachers and worshipers alike show up in boots, jeans and cowboy hats. Baptisms are often conducted in horse troughs, and it’s not uncommon for weddings to be performed on horseback.

“Most of the people we minister to are working cowboys and country people
who take time off from feeding livestock or doing chores to come to church,” says Billy Williams, pastor at the Green Forest, Arkansas, Cowboy Church. “We aim our services, first at cowboys and rodeo riders, then cutting horse people and trail riders, then those who simply love the Western lifestyle or country music.”

Beautiful gospel music

Music is an important part of the service at cowboy churches, but you’re far more likely to hear guitars and fiddles making music than a church organ. Some cowboy preachers sing and perform country gospel music themselves, while other churches feature country gospel groups drawn from their membership. Others invite country gospel recording artists like Steven Spalding to preach and perform.

Spalding, whose Nashville recording career took him from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry to three Country Music Association award nominations before he was called to the ministry, spent 25 years as a minister with traditional churches before joining the ranks of cowboy preachers. Today, he is a circuit-riding preacher who last year preached and performed before more than 70 different audiences.

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