Everything’s bigger in Texas … or so the saying goes. That saying holds true when it comes to the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, Texas, which ropes in upwards of 1,500 people on an average Sunday, making it the largest cowboy church in the world. But it’s only a small part of the aura and history of cowboy churches across the country.
If you visit the Cowboy Church of Ellis County — or any other cowboy church, for that matter — don’t expect to see your standard church fare. Known for their “Western Heritage Culture,” cowboy churches like the one in Ellis County, appeal to a different type of church-goer. You won’t find a steeple, stained glass, or padded pews there. Instead, you are more likely to find a worship site that’s housed in a barn, shed, or rodeo arena, and decorated with saddles, lassoes, cow-hides, and even tribal blankets.
While a traditional church might have a family life center or social hall, a cowboy church tends to be a place for its congregants to rope and ride. No offering plate is passed, but if you’re inclined to give, you might find a boot or box by the door. And unlike how Beth Dutton on TV’s Yellowstone makes use of a stock tank, a cowboy church is liable to use them for a much more PG-rated baptism by immersion.
Known for their informal attire, cowboy churches invite congregants to come as they are. Some attendees wear cowboy hats, while others don flip flops. A portion of them work on ranches, and a handful might even opt to ride a horse to church instead of piling into a car or pickup truck. The music genre for the worship is typically country, and sermons are Bible-based and delivered in plain-spoken English, with little use of “churchy” vernacular.
According to the Daily Campus, a news outlet for the Southern Methodist University, cowboy churches give folks a “place where they don’t have to choose between being a cowboy and a Christian. It allows congregants to wear their cowboy boots with pride at church on Sunday, and it doesn’t make them check their cowboy hats at the door.”
But where did such a thing as a “cowboy church” come from? Like so much of history, it depends on who you ask, or what you read.
In the beginning …
Texas claims the concept of cowboy churches originated in the Lonestar State via a 1940s radio program called Cowboy Church in the Air. Although “Cowboy Church” may have been in the air as early as 1940, none appear to have been found on the ground until the 1970s, when they started popping up at rodeo arenas across the country.
Texas Monthly points to the rise of evangelical Christianity, which swept through America in the late 1960s and early ’70s, and blew through the cowboy circuit as well when a few men began holding prayer meetings in rodeo arenas on Sunday mornings. Shortly after, Cowboys for Christ was born, led by a few well known rodeo athletes in 1970, according to Jake McAdams, a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin University. McAdams’ 2013 thesis titled, Can I Get A Yee-haw and An Amen, explains the Cowboy Church movement in Texas as a suburban seeker church movement centered around the American Cowboy identity. McAdams debates whether or not that cowboy image is historical or mythical.
Per Texas Monthly, other organizations followed the trend of Cowboys for Christ — the Rodeo Cowboys Ministry being one. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes also began a Cowboy Chapter. In 1976, Russ Weaver, son of an Assemblies of God preacher, held a service at the College National Finals Rodeo. One has been held every year since, and Weaver has gone on to plant cowboy churches.
The Daily Campus, however, says the origin of the first cowboy church traces back to Glenn Smith from Virginia in 1972. A professional rodeo clown, Smith abandoned his career and devoted himself to spreading the word of God. He began ministering to people on the bull riding and rodeo circuits, using traditional western activities as a way to spread his Christian beliefs and continues to work with cowboy churches today.
The first true stationary cowboy church is reported to be Billy Bob’s in Texas, which identifies itself as the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk.” After Jeff Copenhaver preached at the 1985 National Finals Rodeo in Vegas, he was invited by Billy Bob Arnett to begin holding regular services in the bar’s Fort Worth rodeo arena.
Based on the success of the church at Billy Bob’s, others began establishing cowboy churches around Texas and throughout the U.S.
The Cowboy Church of Virginia shines a light on The Nashville Cowboy Church, begun in 1990 by Harry Yates and Joanne Cash Yates (Johnny’s Cash’s daughter) as a country music show, for bringing notoriety to the cowboy church in Nashville, which consequently increased its popularity around the country. The Nashville Cowboy Church continues to be led by the Yateses each Sunday and meets in the Texas Troubadour Theatre. They go on to point out that in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) circuit, by the early ’90s, two bull riders were saved, and by 1994, Bible studies were being held, later leading to worship services led by riders at bull riding events.
Whether begun by Weaver, Smith, Copenhaver, or the PBR, all seem to agree that the birth of cowboys regularly and intentionally meeting together for church began at rodeo events in the 1970s and has spread from there — with Nashville, Fort Worth, and others playing host to prominent growth points.
Denominations get involved
The cowboy church movement itself is non-denominational, and originally the churches themselves were independent and non-denominational. Some still are. But the majority ascribe to Southern Baptist theology, and still others affiliate with Church of the Nazarene, United Methodists, and Assemblies of God. Along the way, just about every denomination has put their hand in the cookie jar.
When it comes to the Cowboy Church of Texas, one thing is for sure, the Southern Baptists have made their presence known and largely contributed to the growth experienced in Texas. They’ve utilized the concept of cowboy churches to follow the seeker-sensitive trend of reaching those who wouldn’t normally feel comfortable in a church pew. And it’s worked.
Remember the Cowboy Church of Ellis County? Located in Waxahachie, Texas, and founded by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, it quickly grew to become one of the largest congregations in the country. NPR says it was originally planted by First Baptist Church of Dallas, which had an attendance of around 500. The Cowboy Church of Ellis County now has a Sunday attendance about triple that.
The adoption by an established denomination provided new legitimacy to the cowboy church.
Cowboy churches, like the individuals they were named after, remain ruggedly independent, and the range of numbers ascribed to their existence is as wide as the West Texas plains. CowboyChurch.net lists cowboy churches in the hundreds in their directory, with Texas alone holding down 441 of those spots. Today, the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches counts at least two hundred churches among its ranks. Still others estimate up to 5,000 exist nationwide. Truly, no one knows. According to Texas Monthly, “In Texas, the epicenter of the movement, the Baptist General Convention claims that 40,000 people attend cowboy churches weekly. And that’s just the Baptists.”
Additionally, many cowboy-church-related organizations have sprung up across the country to foster growth and development of the movement. Entities such as the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, which is now known as the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, the Cowboy Church Network, and the Ranchhouse School of Cowboy Planting have all contributed to or grown out of cowboy churches. Baylor University’s Truett Seminary and Dallas Baptist University even offer courses in cowboy church leadership.
While no one knows how many cowboy churches there are and where they truly came from, what binds cowboy churches together is a desire to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t regularly go to church. And they do so in a way that is appealing to those with a Western heritage culture.
Katie Murray is a lifelong promoter of agriculture and lover of good stories. She enjoys communicating the story of agriculture and of the people behind our industry.