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Old West church saddles up with boost from CP Missions

WAXAHACHIE, Texas (BP)–Before others noticed a trend, CP Missions was riding it.

Two years before the events of Sept. 11 brought Americans to a new appreciation of home and family, church starter Ron Nolen lassoed the Cooperative Program for the tie needed to successfully start a cowboy church.

Matter of fact, that’s its name: Cowboy Church of Ellis County, just south of Dallas.

“CP missions is absolutely indispensable to what we’re doing,” said Nolen, who is now in his second plant of an Old West Culture church and is a consultant for similar church starts across the state and nation.

“No one knew there was this much Old West Culture people in Ellis County,” Nolen said in a distinctively Texan twang. “These are people who tend to be cowboyed-up or they have an affinity for Old West values and culture, the cowboy mentality, the values that pretty much settled this country — ‘man’s word is his bond,’ that kind of thing.”

This blue-collar people group for the most part has been ignored by upwardly mobile Southern Baptists, Nolen said. “And that’s a shame, because you can tell from country music that they’re everywhere. They don’t all have horses, but they have an affinity for the values and the culture.

“That’s what the Cooperative Program is for — to help break down barriers here in the United States as well as around the world. Some think America is gospel-hardened, but the fact is, they’re gospel-ignorant. God is using CP Missions and cowboy churches to change that.”

Each week, more than 40 million American adults tune to one of the nation’s 2,186 country radio stations, according to statistics compiled by the Country Music Association. Country format is nearly double that of second-place Adult Contemporary, which has 1,128 stations. News/talk format has 1,118 stations.

Country radio stations were rated No. 1 in 22 of America’s top 100 markets in 2001, including Toledo, Ohio, Syracuse, N.Y., and Riverside, Calif., the CMA report shows. And 55 percent of those who purchase country music have annual incomes of more than $50,000.

That’s the people group Nolen is tapping into.

More than 300 people showed up Easter 2000 for Cowboy Church’s first service, which took place in a Waxahachie agricultural arena where 4-H exhibitions and cattle/sheep/horse/pig auctions usually take place.

This year nearly 1,000 joined in at Cowboy Church for the Easter celebration.

“They had been here all this time, but no one was noticing them as a distinct group, so when Cowboy Church was begun, it gave them a comfort level to come and seek the Lord,” Nolen said. “We know all our Baptist churches have a vision for all people, but they didn’t know that.”

Cowboy Church reflects Old West Culture folks through worship services complete with a cowboy band that plays the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ song “Happy Trails” at the close of services, small group discipleship that introduces them to Southern Baptists, and community outreach/church inreach team-roping events in the church’s arena.

Yup, the congregation that once met in a livestock arena has built a worship center and — in contrast to the gymnasiums of an earlier generation — an outdoor arena where team-roping, barrel-racing and similar sports take place on a weekly basis.

CP Missions provided the resources needed to outfit (or establish) Cowboy Church and begin reaching people. In addition to advertising in the local media — newspapers, country radio and direct mail — CP Missions support provided fans in the shape of cowboy hats (the metal livestock arena wasn’t air-conditioned), ball caps with the church’s bronc-busting logo, and 1,000 Cowboy Bibles from The Bible League.

These works “would never have come into existence” without churches which have provided support through the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention, Nolen said.

Cowboy Church, which gives 7 percent of its offerings to BGCT/SBC missions and 3 percent to Ellis County Baptist Association, moseyed 12 miles down the road to start Frontier Church in October 2001. About 500 people attend Cowboy Church on a regular basis; Gary Morgan is now pastor. Frontier Church, where Nolen is the startup pastor to about 120 people, gives the same missions tithe. And an as-yet-unnamed cowboy church in eastern Ellis County is expected to start later this year.

“With 20-plus million people in Texas, we believe now there are at least a million people we can reach out to through these Old West Culture churches,” Nolen said. “If we could reach 125,000 in the next 10 years, it would take 400 churches running 300 each to disciple them. This is probably one of the most overlooked church planting opportunities we have — maybe in America, but certainly in Texas.

“For sure it’s not limited to Texas,” Nolen continued. “I have a note to call a guy in Longview, Calif., who wants to start one of these churches. There’s two planned for San Antone’, one already started in Eastland, Terrell and Commerce will start the first Sunday in May with 60 people already in their core group.”

The idea for a cowboy church came from attending team roping events with his son Matt, Nolen said.

“Team roping is one of the oldest cowboy activities, carried over from the American frontier days where a header and a heeler roped the steer in the fastest time,” Nolen recounted. “It came back strong about 20 years ago and in fact, it’s one of the dynamics driving the Old West Culture in America. It’s an amazing thing to see.”

In talking with other parents, it became obvious that many team-roping families were not going to church because they thought church wasn’t for them, Nolen said.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding in this culture about religion,” he explained. “So what we did was to try to figure out what are the barriers to get the gospel a hearing amongst these Old West Culture people.”

Location was one barrier, so Cowboy Church started in a familiar setting, and when they built, it was a metal building with a concrete floor — same as that first sale arena.

Attire, money and the time-honored “invitation” also were seen as barriers, Nolen said. So, during country worship services, cowboy hats don’t come off except during prayer time — Nolen even preaches wearing one. No offering is taken — though one is received in upended cowboy hats. No invitation is given — though the sinner’s prayer of repentance is prayed at the close of every service.

“It’s not about traditions. It’s not about money. It’s not about hats,” Nolen said. “It’s about people being able to gain a comfort level where the gospel does what only it can do, and that’s what the church is here for.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: NEW FAITH IN OLD WEST, WESTWARD FAITH and SADDLED UP.