Imagine a church where spurs and sweat and cowboy hats are the order of the day.
That’s the reality at many cowboy churches across the state, including Pastor Douglas Goforth’s Bended Knee Cowboy Church in Morganton, held each Thursday at 7 p.m. at Hillside Farms and Arena, a horse farm owned by Lauren and Jeremy Reed.
Goforth’s unique congregation is part and parcel of one of the latest nontraditional church trends: cowboy church. It’s difficult to determine exactly when and where the idea originated, but it seems to have developed in Texas in the 1970s with the late Glenn Smith’s Rodeo Cowboy Ministries.
These days it’s a popular trend in North Carolina: More than 25 cowboy churches have sprung up around the state. According to Pastor Jeff Smith, the trend is a national one.
A Cowboy Hat and A Mission
Smith serves as a missionary for the Cowboy Church Network of North America, and in 2004, he created a website portal of national cowboy churches.
Smith and Goforth are both part of the Cowboy Church Network of North America. Goforth says the network is made up of like-minded Southern Baptist Cowboy Churches. They have partnered in giving, praying, witnessing and hosting cowboy church to reach out to people “who are not saved, are ‘unchurched’ for whatever reason or just like the Western flavor of the services.”
According to Smith, cowboy churches represent a variety of denominations and are growing like wildfire.
“It’s hard to say how many cowboy churches there are in America,” Smith says. “Cowboy churches are spreading like fire ants. Trying to count them would be frustrating. I can tell you there are more than 70 cowboy churches in partnership with the Cowboy Church Network of North America. I have trained several hundred people to plant cowboy churches.”
The appeal is simple: Churches offer the word of God in a comfortable, accepting and oftentimes natural setting.
Goforth serves both Bended Knee and a traditional church in Morganton, where attendees don the usual formal church clothes, including ties and dresses.
“That’s how people are expected to dress at a traditional church on Sunday morning, but at the cowboy church, you throw all of that out the window,” he says. “People show up with jeans, boots, hats, spurs on their boots, tennis shoes, and as casual as you can get and still be decent. We have some people who come straight from work, right out of the field all sweaty and dirty, and maybe not smelling the best, but they know they can come and no one says a thing.”
Thinking Outside the Sanctuary
At Bended Knee, the emphasis is not on how you look, but on the person’s spiritual needs. Goforth’s goal is to make people feel comfortable, wanted and welcomed. The church has approximately 40 regular attendees.
“Many come back week after week because they know someone cares about them,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. Jesus is the focus of the service, and all the glory belongs to Him.”
In August 2015, Goforth celebrated 20 years of service with Asheville Street Baptist Church in Morganton, a traditional Southern Baptist Church. However, he says today, in order to reach the people, you have to think outside of the sanctuary.
“Years ago, the thought was, ‘If we build it, they will come,’ ” he says. “That no longer works. We have to get out of the seat and into the street to tell people about Jesus and His love. Someone is waiting to hear a message of hope and life. Many are waiting to see a message lived in someone’s life. The cowboy church goes to where people are: rodeo arenas, horse shows, rough-cut cowboy races, roping events, team penning events, etc.”
Smith agrees this type of church appeals to a broad spectrum of people. He started his first church in June 2003 to reach cowboys with whom he’d shared the gospel while on the trail. His personal goal is to “get a light burning in every barn.” He has helped begin churches in 24 states, and says with a laugh, “I’m beginning to feel a little like Johnny Cash – ‘I’ve been everywhere!’ ”
While the idea of cowboy church was created for cowboys, the trend is appealing to people who don’t rope and ride.
“I started a church to reach the cowboy culture. I soon found that only 25 percent in attendance owned a horse or a cow and knew which end to feed,” Smith says. “About 50 percent were country folks, and the remaining 25 percent were city slickers who were just amused by it all. At first this bothered me, but then I realized, I’m not using the church to reach the cowboy culture, I’m using the cowboy culture to reach the world.”
– Karsen Price