When the first cowboy churches were planted in Texas, they sought to reach out to a unique group of people who might not feel comfortable walking in the doors of a traditional church building. Boots, hats and spurs were welcomed. Greeters could be found riding horses outside the church building to welcome guests. Baptisms were often held in horse troughs. The offering might be collected in a cowboy boot and the worship music likely had a Country Western flair. The reception to this new approach was welcomed and more cowboy churches were planted around the state.
“For 20 years, this ministry has been a successful avenue for starting churches and reaching people with different traditions,” said Jason Bryant, consultant and church starter for Western Heritage Ministries. We have been blessed to start 191 cowboy churches in these 20 years. They make a difference in their communities by reaching the unchurched and discipling those they reach,” Bryant continued.
Since the first church was planted, more than $6 million of Cooperative Program funding has been used to expand this ministry and thousands have come to faith in Christ. God has done amazing work through the Western Heritage movement in the state. From thriving established churches to new church plants, the momentum has continued to move forward.
Cowboy Church of Ellis County (CCEC), founded through a partnership with Texas Baptists in 2000, was one of Western Heritage Ministries’ first church plants, in Waxahachie. Now led by Pastor Gary Morgan, CCEC has faithfully partnered with Texas Baptists for the past 20 years.
“We partner with Texas Baptists because of their faithful work with cowboy churches and their strong commitment to missions around the world,” said Morgan. “Planting churches and spreading the Gospel is important to our church, and Texas Baptists helps us do that.”
CCEC seeks to reach the cowboy culture in Ellis County for Christ. The church incorporates familiar aspects of the cowboy community into its Gospel-centered ministries, creating spaces where people in cowboy culture, anyone from ranch hands to cowboy enthusiasts, feel comfortable engaging.
Two of these ministries are Arena Church, held every week in a fully-functional, on-campus rodeo arena, and Buck Out, an amateur bull-riding ministry geared toward reaching youth.
“These ministries give cowboys an opportunity to learn about the Gospel in a setting that is normal to them,” said Morgan.
CCEC also takes the Gospel off campus and into the cowboy community by participating in the annual Livestock Show and Rodeo at the Ellis County Expo Center. During this week-long event, CCEC members and staff host morning devotionals and interact with cowboy families.
“This is the biggest event of the year for the cowboy community in Ellis County,” said Morgan. “We want to be there to serve them as representatives of Jesus Christ.”
Like many cowboy churches, CCEC cultivates a church culture that is different from the traditional model in order to better reach cowboys.
“Our motto is ‘come as you are, but leave changed.’ If you are in trouble, we will accept you. If you are unsure, we will pray with you. If you are searching, we will teach you,” said Morgan. “We don’t believe in trying to clean people up before they accept Christ. How can anyone become clean before they receive Jesus and the Holy Spirit enters their heart? That is putting the cart before the horse.”
In May 2018, God began laying the foundation for a new cowboy church plant, Coastal Bend Cowboy Fellowship in Kingsville.
“Jason Bryant got a hold of my name and asked if I would be interested in planting a cowboy church,” said Christopher Sprenger, pastor at Coastal Bend. “I prayed about it and talked to my wife, and we ended up feeling called. I’d been thinking about mission work, and what greater mission is there than to reach people you’re familiar with in your own backyard?”
Coastal Bend began as a group of nine people holding services at a farmer’s market in downtown Kingsville.
“We’d play the guitar and worship, then people would sit in folding lawn chairs for the sermon,” said Sprenger. “Each week more people would come and by the end of that first year, we had 45 people.”
As God continued to draw cowboy families to Coastal Bend, the church began meeting in an exposition center in Kingsville where they could host indoor worship services and rodeo events.
“Arena events are our main ministry. That’s what attracts people,” said Sprenger. “When we put on arena events, it creates common ground. People who have gone to livestock shows or country western concerts their whole lives feel comfortable there and are willing to come. It’s a real source of evangelism.”
In addition to reaching cowboys in the local community for Christ, Coastal Bend wants to have a positive impact across the state of Texas.
“We believe in missions,” said Sprenger. “But we’re not big enough and we don’t have the funds to support our own missionaries or church starting. That’s why we give to Texas Baptists. They supported us with guidance and encouragement when we were getting started, and we want to support the missions and church starting they do in return.”
Coastal Bend continues to put down roots and reach cowboy culture for Christ through partnership with Western Heritage Ministries.
“Planting a cowboy church is lots of hard work,” said Springer. “But God is using us to reach folks that no one else is reaching.”
As Bryant looks back on the 20-year history of Western Heritage Ministries, he is excited about future opportunities for growth in the ministry.
Despite the pandemic, Bryant continues working toward the start of the first Cowboy Church Pastoral Center, a program that will identify and equip new cowboy church pastors who are committed to planting churches. With the help of the Texas Baptists Missions Team, Bryant is seeking to generate interest and identify potential candidates for the program at this time.
“As we look to the future, we’re excited to cultivate more cowboy church leaders. God is not done with Western Heritage Ministries. He is just getting started,” Bryant said.
To learn more about Texas Baptist Western Heritage Ministries, visit txb.org/westernheritage.