Barrel racin', bull ridin', boots 'n' hats ... in Jesus' name (with a twang).
Gary Morgan is an iconic cowboy. Tall and lean, clad in jeans, a Western shirt and boots, his look embodies the Code of the West—justice, fairness, honesty. Morgan leads the 1,500-member Cowboy Church of Ellis County in Waxahachie, Texas, the largest such congregation in the world.
Nearly everything about the church has a cowboy connection. "We have something going on pretty near every night," Morgan says with a typical Texas twang. Other churches might build a gymnasium to draw young parishioners; not Cowboy Church. They built a riding arena instead that's open and available for riding after Sunday services. Barrel racing is held Tuesday evening, and team roping practice on Wednesday evening.
One of the most popular events the church sponsors is the Thursday night "Buck Out," which allows high school- and college-age guys the opportunity to climb on the back of an ornery bull and see if they can ride for the required seven seconds.
It's a great outreach tool, Morgan says. In addition to bull-riding practice, the church makes sure attendees get a meal and a slice of the gospel. Morgan estimates about 50 people a year are added to the church through the bull-riding event.
Although head wear is usually discouraged in most churches, the Texas pastor often preaches in a Western hat. Many in the congregation also wear hats, removing them only for prayer.
The Western lifestyle is a respected way of life in this part of Texas, but it isn't just ranchers and cowboys who are attracted to the laid-back, no-nonsense style of the church. Its location adjacent to Dallas-Fort Worth Metro has also brought city folks to the church's door. Morgan says he's just as likely to use a "driving to work on the freeway" analogy in his sermons as he is a ranching or cowboy reference.
That open approach to church—a "don't fence me in" concept—has been key to the church's success. Morgan is proud that visitors of all types can come without being buttonholed. "Our No. 1 comment from people is that the moment they came in the door, they felt at home here," he says.
The worship service is designed to be low participation, including a minimum of congregational singing. The church's music ministry isn't entirely country or Western, but spills over into a variety of styles, including music "the average person might be listening to on his radio," Morgan says.
No offering is taken. A basket is placed at the rear of the church for those who desire to give. Those making salvation decisions are allowed to do so in private, rather than being asked to step in front of the congregation. "We're not here to make church people comfortable, but to provide a place for the lost and unchurched to have an encounter with Jesus Christ," Morgan says. "We take every practice of the church and ask, 'Will this keep a person from coming to church?'"
Morgan, who took over the church plant six years ago, believes the key to his approach is simplicity. He doesn't use big words nor does he talk down to his congregation. This has made the cowboy church concept one of the fastest growing in the United States. A church plant in San Angelo, Texas, grew from zero to 100 in 30 days—and many cowboy churches grow from zero to 500 in as little as six months.
By Morgan's count, there are more than 200 churches similar to his dotted mostly across Texas but increasing out of cowboy country. Though his Cowboy Church has become a training ground for other cowboy churches everywhere, this pastor is one cowboy happy to share more than a Western lifestyle.
Paul Wahl has been a journalist for more than 30 years and lives in Eden Prairie, Minn.