JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
They call themselves cowboy churches. And if that term conjures up images of freewheeling wranglers bowing their heads in prayer, then you wouldn't be far off the mark. The churches offer a bare-bones Bible service held in simple metal buildings with toe-tapping country western bands. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, all kinds of people from Texas to Alaska are crowding in the doors.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning at the Cowboy Church of Santa Fe County, New Mexico. You know you're there by the chuck wagon parked out by the highway. You couldn't find a more unreligious-looking building. The church is a charmless metal warehouse on a concrete slab. Inside, they've done up the altar like a set from a 1950s western with saddles, hats, boots, a lasso and a wagon wheel.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're going to kick it off this morning with our welcome song. We do the Christian version of "Happy Trails."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY TRAILS")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Happy trails to you, it's great to say hello.
BURNETT: About 30 people have come out this morning. The pastor is Steve "Doc" Timmons, a husky 57-year-old Arkansan in jeans, boots and a straw hat.
STEVE TIMMONS: So here's this morning's eight-second ride. The history books of the Old Testament make one thing crystal clear: It is impossible for man to keep the Mosaic law.
BURNETT: Everybody here is dressed down. There are a few honest-to-gosh cowboy types, but others look like they could be baristas or CPAs, in jeans and bolo ties. There's no collection plate, no stained glass and no altar call to give your life to Jesus.
STEVE MEADOR: It was kind of a finding of a home for me after going to a lot of different churches through the years.
BURNETT: Steve Meador, a 63-year-old Teamster and wrangler for the movie industry, leans on a post outside. He's been coming to the Santa Fe Cowboy Church for two years, making him a founding member.
MEADOR: What I found with this cowboy church is a group of people that are very serious about their relationship with Jesus Christ, and a total lack of pretentiousness.
BURNETT: Back inside the church, Martha Cannon, who's a state telephone operator and a great-grandmother, is visiting with friends after the service.
MARTHA CANNON: People are so friendly, you don't have to dress like you're going to a celebrity ball. Just come as you are. You just let your faith come out.
BURNETT: This is the pastor's first pulpit. Doc Timmons spent 25 years as a crisis intervention consultant working in disaster zones around the world. He says cowboy churches are stripped down for a reason.
TIMMONS: In a lot of ways, what you would call unchurchy. You know, it's just a very simple way of doing church. It's more about relationship than it is about religion. And I think that's why these churches have been exploding.
BURNETT: Nobody actually knows how many cowboy churches there are, because by nature, they're ruggedly independent. The website cowboychurch.net lists more than 400 of them in 36 states, but church leaders say there are many more than that, from the Hope Corral Cowboy Church in Milton, Florida, to the Cowboy Church of Anchorage, Alaska, to the Barbwire Halo Cowboy Church in Gilmer, Texas.
Texas has far more than any other state. There are so many cowboy churches in the Lone Star State that Baylor University's Truett Seminary and Dallas Baptist University now offer courses in cowboy church leadership.
RICK PENNER: Cowboy church is a little unconventional.
BURNETT: Rick Penner is associate pastor of Open Range Cowboy Church in Whitney, northwest of Waco.
PENNER: Our sanctuary is really situated more like a barn than a fancy church building. Ours is built out of barn wood and steel. Up until recently we had hay bales for people to sit on, but the scorpions kind of got a little bad in there with the hay bales.
BURNETT: A distinguishing feature of a cowboy church is the rodeo arena on the grounds. Conventional churches have family life centers. Cowboy churches have places to rope and ride.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
PENNER: Little kids, under 55 pounds, they put on helmets and vests, and they bust muttons. When they ride that sheep, these little boys are living their 4- and 5-, 6-year-old dream as a cowboy.
BURNETT: The cowboy church solves a problem for evangelical churches that are experiencing sagging attendance. They attract the unchurched, those who never went to church or stopped going long ago. In Texas, Baptist churches have been planting new cowboy churches across town. In some instances, the new congregation has outdistanced the parent church.
In Waxahachie, an hour south of Dallas, First Baptist, with an attendance of 500, started the Cowboy Church of Ellis County. With a Sunday attendance of 1,700, today it's known as the world's largest cowboy church. Charles Higgs is coordinator of the Western Heritage program for Texas Baptists, which has helped to fund many cowboy churches.
CHARLES HIGGS: One thing about the traditional churches is they're going to have to change. They're going to have to change if they're going to survive. They're going to have to go beyond their walls. They're going to have to do church different. They're going to have to actually go out and see different ways that they can reach people.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BURNETT: Cowboy churches have discovered how to do church different. They've taken organs and candles and liturgy and drowned them in a horse trough, and they've replaced them with something that's not for everybody, but it's enough to create a movement. John Burnett, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD MUST BE A COWBOY AT HEART")
DAN SEALS: (Singing) I think God must be a cowboy at heart.