There are no stained glass windows.
When these worshippers gather, the service isn’t on a Sunday.
And it isn’t in a church.
In Louisburg, Kan., it’s Tuesday night in a former furniture store.
In Holt, Mo., it’s Thursday night in a barn.
These unlikely settings are sanctuaries for cowboy church congregations.
Rooted in rural America, cowboy churches attract worshippers from ranches, farms, rodeos and other areas of the cattle or horse industry as well as those who share similar traits — an appreciation of the cowboy culture, a love of the Lord and a spirit of independence.
“We don’t have rules,” said Jay Bettis, 56, whose barn serves as the setting for the High Point Cowboy Church in Holt. “We want people to feel welcome and comfortable.”
Cowboy churches strive to avoid the trappings of traditional church, like many nondenominational churches. But cowboy churches go further: They don’t have a roster of members. They don’t pass a collection plate. They don’t have a dress code. Worshippers wear cowboy boots — and their cowboy hats, except during prayer.
Removing obstacles to attending is the reason cowboy churches meet at night on a weekday.
“If you’re in a rodeo or on a trail ride, you’re working Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” said Carl Garrett, pastor of Rutlader Outpost Cowboy Church in Louisburg, whose church attracts worshippers who drive from even northern Johnson County.
The church chose Tuesday nights to accommodate cowboy schedules and to avoid a conflict with traditional services often held on Wednesday nights.
Rutlader Outpost and High Point are two of hundreds of cowboy churches across the country. In Texas alone, some 160 cowboy churches belong to the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches. Nationwide, more than 1,000 are estimated to exist. A count doesn’t seem to exist for Kansas and Missouri, probably because no cowboy association represents all these churches.
The movement began more than 30 years ago with “a weakening of denominational loyalty and identity,” said Andy Pratt, dean of the chapel and a vice president at William Jewell College in Liberty.
Worshippers began to seek a church that is “culturally relevant, where they feel like they belong,” he said. “When a church becomes big and corporate, that’s not what they want.”
Most cowboy churches are nondenominational, but services closely resemble those of Protestant denominations.
“They come out of traditional church backgrounds and move toward informality,” Pratt said.
Being nondenominational makes start-up easier. The hierarchy of Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and other church structures restricts establishment of those denominations, Pratt said.
Baptist backgrounds, however, make it easy: “All the authority is at the congregational level,” Pratt said. “There is no hierarchy in a Baptist church.”
In the history of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, the Baptist General Convention of Texas is credited with starting many of the cowboy churches throughout Texas, beginning with the Cowboy Church of Ellis County in 2000.
“Christianity in the United States is very diverse,” said Travis Smith McKee, 33, co-minister of Fairview Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Gladstone. “Cowboy churches serve those who identify with a more rural and rugged lifestyle and want to practice their faith and worship.”
McKee compares the origins of the cowboy church to those of the 19th-century westward movement, when covered wagons moved across the country in search of new frontiers.
“That’s how the West was formed — by going out and seeking something new,” McKee said.
Two former rodeo clowns, Billy Collison, 62, of Kearney and Rusty Fritts, 46, of Holt, attend High Point Cowboy Church.
“We’re not in a megachurch here — you’re not just a number,” Fritts said. “We’re a small church, and they’re all my friends.”
Attendance averages around 30 worshippers who sit on metal folding chairs in the horse barn of Jay and Jennifer Bettis. Just outside the doors, horses graze in the pasture. Baptisms take place in a horse trough.
Seventeen worshippers came to the first service in April 2012, recalled Jay Bettis, who bought the barn four years ago.
“I had a vision from the Lord when I walked into the barn,” Bettis said.
What he saw was a chance to use the 90-foot-by-120-foot arena area of the barn as a place where “you can come as you are and worship.”
Collison helped him realize that vision.
“I’ve been going to cowboy churches for 25 years,” Collison said. “I know what they do and how they work.”
High Point is nondenominational, as is typical for cowboy churches.
“Being a Christian is more important than being a Baptist,” said Joe Brandt, 54, a co-pastor of the High Point Cowboy Church.
Niche churches are an effort to make worship services more accessible and to create a relaxed atmosphere.
For example, T-shirts, jeans, cowboy hats, Western wear and work clothes are worn to the weekly service in Holt. Bettis comes directly to the barn from his job as public works director for the city of Kearney to prepare the arena for the Thursday night services.
Yet, despite the casual attire, the faith of the followers is anything but casual.
In a sermon in June, Brandt read from the Book of James in the New Testament and discussed “spiritual maturity” and the need to “examine our lives in light of God’s word and to obey no matter what trials and testing” must be endured.
Brandt led the congregation through verses from the book written by James, who was Jesus’ half-brother, he said.
Midway through the sermon, giggling broke out in one corner of the church and soon the entire congregation was amused: One of the barn cats had caught a mouse and dropped it on the dirt floor in front of Pastor Joe’s pulpit. Brandt ad-libbed about the trials and tribulations facing the mouse.
Before long, another barn cat joined the mouse-play, and that’s when 17-year-old Brianna Porter, a junior at Kearney High School, rescued the poor church mouse and turned it loose outside.
“Hey, Karen, the mouse is gone,” someone yelled out to Brianna’s mother, Karen Porter, who had been sitting at her keyboard at the front of the church until she saw the mouse and bolted for the door.
Karen Porter plays the keyboard for the church while her husband, Doug Porter, plays the guitar and leads the congregation in singing.
Doug Porter is the music director and third founding member of High Point Cowboy Church, along with Bettis and Collison.
Gary Porter, 62, Doug’s brother, is the other pastor at High Point.
“The cowboy church reaches people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church,” Gary Porter said. “People come to a church in a barn and they find acceptance — they’re not judged by their clothing, race or the baggage in their lives.”
High Point was chosen as the name for the church, Bettis explained, because having their own church is the high point in their lives.
When word got out that they were starting a church, Bettis said a local church wanted to fund them. But they declined: “We wanted to be independent,” he said.
Free-will donations are deposited in one of Bettis’ old cowboy boots, which is placed on a card table before the service begins. Last year, the congregation adopted a family at Christmas and hopes to continue to do so.
When the service closes, cowboy hats are removed and extended toward heaven as the congregation in unison praises, “Well glory!”
The Rutlader Outpost Cowboy Church in Louisburg is the older of the two local cowboy churches. It was established in September 2008 in a complex anchored by a recreational vehicle park south of Louisburg on Metcalf Avenue.
Thirty-four people attended the first service. Now, attendance ranges from 75 to 125. Church participants sit at long tables covered with red-and-white checked vinyl tablecloths and drink coffee during the service.
Those wanting to make an offering drop their money into a blue plastic bucket in the middle of the table. Separate envelopes allow worshippers to contribute to the associate pastor’s mission trip to Chile.
A PowerPoint presentation shows the order of the service and the lyrics to all songs. A 13-member band plays old hymns such as “In the Sweet By and By” and country music classics such as “Dust on the Bible.”
Tresa Mote, 53, of Linn Valley is the lead singer.
“Pastor Carl asked me to lead the music here and I told him ‘no’ three times,” she recalled after a service in June. “I am a rock person. I don’t do country.”
When she finally agreed, Mote discovered a church setting much like that of her childhood in Indiana: “It feels like a little country church.”
And she found herself so at home with the music that she has written several hymns that have become part of the program.
Band members arrive early before the service begins at 7 p.m. Their hour together before church starts is the only time they practice. Yet they have established a reputation and are in demand to play at festivals, in parades, at the Missouri State Fair, at county rodeos, for other churches and elsewhere.
“We could play every weekend if we wanted to,” Mote said.
Mote is also the pianist at Nall Avenue Baptist Church in Prairie Village and persuaded John Simon, another Nall Avenue member, to join the Rutlader Outpost band.
Simon, 59, of Lenexa, plays bass for the band and admitted that he, too, was more of a “rock guy” but has learned to appreciate a different kind of music.
“I pretend to be a cowboy,” he said.
When he’s not playing for the church band, Simon, a social worker, helps students in the Hickman Mills School District.
At Rutlader Outpost Cowboy Church, Simon said he enjoys the “music, fellowship and old-fashioned preaching.”
Pastor Carl Garrett, he said, is “not fire and brimstone but more relational and practical” in his preaching.
During a June service, Garrett delivered a sermon, “On Your Terms or God’s?” based on the second Book of Kings from the Old Testament.
Gary and Louise Hicks of Overland Park said they were seeking inspiration and instruction from a church when they began attending Rutlader Outpost about three years ago.
The Hickses felt their previous church had become focused on entertainment, and they wanted to do “more than simply sing praise songs.” In trying to attract younger members, the church praised God but no longer emphasized his message, they said.
“We came here seeking acceptance, simplicity of ministry and the relevance of God’s word to our lives,” said Gary Hicks, 68.
The Hickses said they were longing for music with a message and participation in a church family.
“God is a parent to us. He teaches us how to live through the Scriptures,” Louise Hicks said.
The Rutlader Outpost Cowboy Church has no committees, no business meetings and no formal structure. If a job needs doing, Garrett said, he delegates it to an individual.
Garrett, who also plays guitar in the band, is a Baptist minister with more than 50 years in the ministry. For 16 years, he was the senior pastor at an Overland Park church.
If you ask Garrett what denomination the cowboy church is, he’ll tell you: “Whatever you want it to be.”
▪ High Point Cowboy Church
6339 S.E. Missouri 33
Holt, MO 64068
Church meets at 7 p.m. on Thursday.
(Services are relocated during the winter.)
▪ Rutlader Outpost Cowboy Church
33565 Metcalf Ave.
Louisburg, KS 66053
Church meets at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
For more information on cowboy churches, see American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches