In the Western United States, Cowboy Churches have become a movement. While in they are consistent with traditional evangelicals in terms of religious beliefs, the church has a relaxed atmosphere and offers some activities that are not traditionally offered by churches. Members of these churches are permitted (and even encouraged) to wear cowboy hats in church. Many of the churches perform baptisms in horse troughs. One such church, Thousand Hills Cowboy Church, has an Old West-themed façade in a barn-like church and offers bull riding and other rodeo competitions (Owen). As of 2003, over one hundred Cowboy Churches have spread over 39 states, Mexico, and Canada. For those not involved in the movement, it may seem strange that such “Beer and Barbecue” churches exist. However, this movement is an excellent example of religious adaptation in the West.
Cowboy Churches exist mainly as a way to interest those who do not feel welcome in traditional churches. The churches’ more casual and non-judgmental atmosphere makes churchgoing more comfortable (Williams 3). In some churches, services are offered at times such as weeknights that are convenient for cowboys. While they are a break from tradition, Cowboy Churches therefore allow Christianity to reach a wider audience. In modern times, rates of religiousness are declining, and thus in order to survive, the change to an informal style is an adaptation that is increasing access to religion in the American West.
In addition to church atmosphere, unorthodox religious practices lead to a church community that reaches the unchurched. Subjects of a survey responded that the rodeo was a key place for interpersonal communication (Williams 3). Therefore, using rodeos as a meeting place to teach the gospel is an effective tool, since some church members do not go to services at all but will attend rodeos. “They’re gonna [sic] be doing it on the secular side. Why not use it as a tool in order to share the Gospel?” (Williams 3). In addition, at some cowboy churches, e.g. Thousand Hills, have mandatory religious services before the start of rodeo competitions. Thus, while California gold miners and Japanese-American Buddhists altered their lifestyles and religious practices to suit their situations, cowboys did not. Instead, churches changed to suit the cowboys.
Cowboy Churches could only have started in the American West, since the idea of the cowboy is linked with the Wild West, and thus the West has more of a cultural connection to cowboys. Cowboy Churches represent an adaptation of traditional evangelical beliefs to reach a population that felt that they did not belong in a traditional church.
–Harrison Wetzler, December 2016
Suggestions for Further Reading:
McAdams, Jake R. “Can I get a Yee-haw and an amen: Collecting and interpreting oral histories of Texas Cowboy churches.” PhD diss., STEPHEN F. AUSTIN STATE UNIVERSITY, 2013.
Owen, Linda. “Worship at the O.K. Corral.” Christianity Today 47 no. 9 (2003): 63. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/september/4.62.html?start=2.
Williams, Katy, Robert Strong, and Landry Lockett. “Expanding Cooperative Extension’s Audience.” Journal of Extension 51, no. 6 (2013): 1-7. Accessed 4 December 2016. https://www.joe.org/joe/2013december/rb7.php