Cowboy Church Worships in Casual Atmosphere
"It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand." — Mark Twain
Men, women, boys and girls showed up at the Big Valley Rodeo Arena dressed in cowboy hats, boots and faded jeans. There’s an excitement in the air and hot, campfire coffee on the boil. The smell of freshly-plowed arena dirt drifted through the crowd as a lean, tall cowboy named Troy Crosson approached the microphone.
Instead of rallying the crowd to cheer for the cowboy coming out of the first chute, he read scripture from a leather bound, worn Bible. The crowd answered with "amens" and nods of their heads. On that Sunday in Alexandria, there was no rodeo. Instead, it was what Pastor Byron Houck calls "Church in the Dirt," and he and Crosson led the Big Valley Arena Cowboy Church as they worshipped in this casual atmosphere.
The service begins with music worship in the form of acoustic guitars and vocals, as a teenage girl, Julie Ann Henney, begins to strum and sing. The earthy-sounding music seems to reflect the back-to-basics atmosphere of this church and its surroundings. There was only one time in the entire service when you saw anyone remove a hat — during the prayer.
You might have heard a horse whinny or snort from the stalls in the back of the arena or seen a cat or dog wandering through the wooden bleachers, but none of these distractions seemed to take away from the preacher’s message.
He asked them in a booming voice, "Why are y’all here?"
The crowd answered, "To worship God."
Then, the service began with the topic focusing on taking faith to the next level.
The Big Valley Arena Cowboy Church is affiliated with the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, which is linked to the Texas fellowship of Cowboy Churches. Houck said this church is definitely different from the traditional church setting.
"We baptize people in a nine-foot horse trough here in the arena, and our altar is the tailgate of a pickup truck," Houck explained. "The Holy Spirit is what serves as our guide."
Houck, whose denomination is Baptist, admitted the atmosphere may be unusual to those used to going to traditional church services.
"We knew God was leading us in the right direction because we saw how people’s lives could be changed," Houck recalled. "We want people to come here to worship regardless of their background or what they’ve done because there’s only one judge and, it ain’t us, it’s God."
Houck is happy there is a lot of interest in this church in his community of Alexandria.
"I’m glad we’ve got something to offer to the community," Houck said. "There are plenty of folks not going to church anywhere or they may have had a bad experience, but we want to meet them, wherever they are, and welcome them in."
According to recent numbers, there are approximately 27 cowboy churches in Alabama affiliated with the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches (AFCC). If you do a Google search of "cowboy churches in Alabama," you will find there are far more cowboy churches than the 27, but they may be under another affiliation or have no particular affiliation with a larger group at all. The original cowboy church began in Nashville, TN, by the late Johnny Cash’s sister, Joanne Cash Yates.
There are many theories on why cowboy churches have recently grown in numbers. Some say people like the casual atmosphere and some say it’s because they are often held in areas where the cowboy culture already exists. There’s no doubt, based upon the growing numbers, something is going on drawing people to worship in this unique setting.
Todd Mitchell, executive director of the AFCC in Waxahachie, TX, was a pastor in Marshall County before working with the cowboy churches.
"We have 207 cowboy churches registered with the AFCC across the country," Mitchell said. "We are not setting out to change the theology, just the methodology."
For more information about the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, visit www.americanfcc.org.
"We want to meet the people where they are and bring the gospel to them any way we can," Houck explained.
The Big Valley Arena Cowboy Church meets on Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. They are located just off Highway 431 in Alexandria on Highway 144. If you are looking for a "church in the dirt," give them a visit.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.