To Cowboy Church we're going today
ain't no pews just bales of hay
singing and clapping while the guitars play
praising the Lord, the cowboy way.
Lyrics from the song 'Cowboy Church' by Pastor Ron Moore.
Texas is peppered with small churches; their gaudy neon crosses create rhythmic breaks in the steady ebb and flow of advertising billboards that dominate the views from their vast interstates. Most evangelical churches are easy to spot, giant effigies of Christ coupled with commandingly bold modern architecture; America, the birthplace of modern consumerism and celebrity certainly knows how to market one of earth's oldest icons. In contrast there are surprisingly few signs to take you to the 1,000 Hills Cowboy Church. Located in the remote Texas Hill Country, the entrance, an ornate traditional Texan metal sign, frames a dirt road that leads you past a single wooden cross to a large steel barn. The parking lot slowly fills with pick- up trucks, whilst young cowboy kids practice roping on metal bulls; a band can be heard playing country & western ballads that echo around the barn and out across over the horses that are roaming around the pastures adjacent. The band greets the crowd with cover songs of Johnny Cash and other classics with alternative Christian friendly lyrics. The inside of the building looks more like a rodeo arena than a church, with a chuck wagon, paddock, commentator box and bull riding chutes. In the centre there is a large wooden stage. A distinctive altar-piece, a Texan pastiche of both an altar and a musician's stage, decorated with hay, saddles stools and skulls.
A man walks through the hay bales, for a moment he shares an uncanny resemblance with George Bush in his Western White House cowboy get-up, maybe George has found a new passion in his retirement? In reality, it is Head Pastor Ron Moore, and unlike George, Ron is a commanding orator. Ron was a top Bronco rider when he was in his twenties. He made a living flying from rodeo to rodeo, an indulgent lifestyle, until he realized he could have more with Jesus. Ron was a parishner at the nearby Evangelical Church for a number of years; he then heard God's calling and took it upon himself to take the word to other people. His way of getting the word out was to make church more accessible, a place without the formal attire seen at most evangelical churches; you won't find a single suit at cowboy church, just good local folk in their hats and boots.
In his preaching Ron uses his own anecdotes of being a cowboy to convey stories from Biblical texts, these analogies often paralleling the lives of the families who attend the church giving them a way to relate. Sometimes they focus on how you break a horse for roping and how God uses the same approach to put us on the right path. Other sermons focus on the events that take place at the church, giving context to the activities with Christian allegory. Roping Cattle is conducted in the rodeo arena in the church every week, now a sport, it originated from when cowboys had to move a herd across open ranges and would have to use the lasso to rope in the lost, wayward cattle. Clearly not what the Bible originally intended when shepherding the weak through the valley of darkness, but like all of Ron's ideas with his cowboy church, it's the message of Jesus that is important, not the method.
At the end of each sermon Ron asks his congregation if anybody wants prayer, if one of the parishners do, they walk over to a group of senior members of the cowboy church who proceed with the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. The prayers are said aloud. Whether you're a God fearing believer or hard nose cynic this method of prayer does work, for the faithful it is a way of speaking to God and asking for assistance, to the cynic, it is a way of announcing to the entire congregation what issues they may have. Either way you see it, one of those methods could get a result, either God answers your prayers or maybe one of the congregation does.
Pastor Ron's way with words have led him to produce over four albums of Christian cowboy poetry, he writes about his adventures as a cowboy with his faithful cattle-dog Will. Together they battle the devil and offer advice to other would-be travelers of the range. Before each song there is a small sermon/poem introduction:
Christians are looking forward to the day when Jesus returns from Heaven to set up his kingdom here on earth, the Bible says that Jesus will return on a white horse, and the army of heaven will be following him, and they also will also be riding white horses, this army is made of born again Christians who have been caught up to be with Jesus prior to his return, when I thought about all the Christians who have lived and died, I realized that this was going to be one big army and a lot of white horses, now someone is going to have to round up all those horses that God has prepared for this great day of battle, one of these days Jesus is going to turn to his army and say "Mount up, it's time to ride" -
Pastor Ron Moore From the album The Outlaw Luke-Warm
Bull riding, another popular sport with cowboys has also been appropriated into the church activities with two Christian parallels; the first is that the rider, through prayer/faith can be protected by Jesus during the bull ride, similar to the practice of snake handling. The second is that it symbolizes the tackling of life's obstacles and of combat with the Devil. The head of the Bible & Bulls nights at the church is Jay Clark; he was previously the bass player in the 13th Floor Elevators, the original psychedelic rock band which had its fair share of acid casualties, a man who played for the devil for a lot of years and a man who was born again on May 12th 1996.
The biggest asset I have ministering to the youth with the bull riding is the years of drug and alcohol addiction that God set me free from, I can show these young people that there is hope, the devil is really after our youth today with drugs, alcohol, sex, all this stuff, bringing the bull riding out here and getting the message to them that Jesus loves all of us, there's nothing we've done that he can't forgive us. And you know I'm living proof of that, he took me and cleaned me up after 30 years of drug and alcohol addiction.
Jay Clark - Bull Riding Director
The bull riding attracts a lot of interest from local young people, and certainly the element of adrenalin and danger is enough to drag any videogamer away from his playstation or xbox. The youngest bull rider of the night was seven year old Ethan; he was going to ride his first bull. As he was walked over to the bull riding shoot various teenage riders were giving him advice and offering him the armor of Christ, a small prayer was said then off he went on a 2 second ride. It's amusing to look at the activities with a European perspective, and although there is a sense of insanity about putting a seven year old on a bull, at least the embodiment of the Devil is a bull whose had its horns carved down to a blunt nub, rather than a gang of youths with more razor sharp items at their disposal. Not to condone or promote bull riding in the UK as an alternative youth club activity, but at least it's a focus of attention/aggression, beating a bull in a caged rodeo arena monitored by adults seems better than a gang beating on a CCTV monitored street.
The American psyche is filled with archetypical hero cowboys, from John Wayne to John McLane, the lone voices in the wilderness struggling for truth, justice and the American way. Although anti-American sentiment has been rife in the past eight years, especially for people who act like cowboys at home and abroad, there has been a day of political change, a metamorphosis of America in the form of Barack Obama, the black sheriff. Maybe it's time to give the new sheriff and his America another chance.
Essay written by Ed Thompson in June 2007.
All photographs copyright Edward Thompson 2017.