Jesus Take the Reins

In the fast-growing cowboy church movement, the trappings of traditional worship are eschewed to entice people through the door, dung-covered boots and all.

The first thing you should know about Bryn Thiessen is that he’s the type of person your hip barber is trying to be.

Thiessen wears a wool vest and black felt hat whose brim is wide but still narrower than the waxed, twirled moustache that protrudes at least 12 inches past his cheeks. He has a leather satchel and brown leather boots and a collection of brightly coloured silk scarves, and is usually wearing suspenders. He goes into Calgary once a week, for a chiropractor appointment, but the rest of the time he lives and works on his property, the Helmer Creek Ranch, which is about an hour and a half outside the city amongst the province’s rolling foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

Years ago, Thiessen took me on a ride in the cab of his work truck to check on the pens that he installs to capture wild horses on his pasture. It was a longer ride than I expected and it soon became apparent that Bryn is a talker. Thiessen speaks in a drawl with a slight twang even though Texan inflection is not a native tongue of Alberta—it is both affectation and aspiration. He writes poetry and has a weekly service where he preaches to locals.

His is the Cowboy Trail Church. He is full of catchy phrases and during a sermon in May he recites a poem about a horse named Termite that likes to eat wood and spins it into a parable about stubbornness and the banishing of evil. You know stubbornness, he says, if you’ve owned a Dodge. After addressing part of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah he takes a deep breath and looks at the crowd: “Now, how’s that for wordin’?” he asks.

Thiessen’s cowboy church is one of dozens across the country, according to the Evangelical Fellowship for Canada, where a mixture of Christian faith and rural lifestyle meet. “The church is either a barn or a round corral,” he says. “A barn is where you’re fed and sheltered and someone cleans up after you. A round corral is where you’re exercising and growing. In either case, it’s a long building.” A cowboy church is a “seeker-sensitive” gathering, where the trappings of traditional worship are eschewed in order to entice people through the door. Often, cowboy churches meet on a weekday evening, because weekends are busy for farm families. There is no dress code: “When you go to a church with deep pile carpet, you’re not welcome if you’ve got dung on your boots,” is a common refrain. Services are held in settings from a barn to the side of a lake to a community centre. A handbook to starting your own cowboy church says “church words” are to be avoided, even in praying: “You need to launch your first service stirring up all the dust you can.” There has been an explosion of growth in the cowboy church movement over the past fifteen years. In a Texas Monthly article, one cowboy church pastor said cowboy churches were spreading like a grassfire.

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Glenn Smith figured he had been bucked off a horse one too many times for there to be no God.

A former cowboy and rodeo clown, Smith is considered the father of the modern cowboy church movement—he called himself a “cowboy apostle,” which leads nicely into the name of his memoir: Apostle Cowboy Style. On Sunday mornings during rodeo competitions in Texas in the 1970s, Smith would preach from a corral to spectators and competitors. He was known to baptize people in tin troughs.

But cowboy churches were more of a nostalgic callback than new religion: the style of sermon is meant to replicate the oral storytelling that took place at campgrounds during the expansion of the West. The cowboys we had then (freelance prospectors and ranch hands) are not the competitive sport cowboys we have now, but if there’s a group that needs some saving it would probably be both – cowboy life is transient, which makes sinning an easy option. By profession, cowboys are disenfranchised from a regular community because their career takes them from rodeo to rodeo on a weekly basis. Most cowboys are single men with little personal responsibility and so there is little accountability involved in heavy drinking and promiscuous sex.

The largest cowboy church in North America, in Ellis County, Texas, is a “megachurch” that draws close to 1700 people to three weekly sermons to sit on folding chairs in a barn (the state’s Baptist General Convention says that 40,000 people attend cowboy churches weekly). The American Fellowship of Christian Cowboys counts more than 200 member churches in North America and Australia. In Canada, there are churches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as Alberta. For a while, there was a church operating through Shady Lane Hereford Farms in North Gower, Ontario. “We farm here, but you guys call it ranching,” says Karl Allen, who ran the province’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys through his business, Rugged Cross Stables. At one point, his congregation of one hundred people would put on pancake breakfasts and hay rides. “But in fairness, it’s been a bit of a flop,” he says. “Rodeo in Ontario is really slim.”

In Alberta, one of the first cowboy churches took place during the Calgary Stampede: “It was a real Western atmosphere, guys wore their hats,” says Phil Doan, who started the service in an empty room at Ranchman’s bar (later, he would conduct baptisms in the hotel pool across the street). “We started telling people that Jesus loves everyone, even cowboys… it worked real well in the bar. Anyway, when the frontier opened up, those were the only places they had. That’s one of the ways the west was won.”

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While far from traditional, cowboy churches are not revolutionary in social acceptances. Marriages are to be between heterosexual couples only. I see fewer than a handful of visible minorities when I visit Cowboy Trail in Cochrane, Alberta. The churches are not known for a giving spirit—“We’re not need-meeters,” says Thiessen. “It’s western thinking. You have to pack your own load.”

What draws a community to these churches is not the talk of cattle branding or the prayers for rain or the request for a healthy calving season. It’s that, as Thiessen says, “People want to find a place where they can live the life they think they remember.” There is very little progressive change acknowledged within the walls of a cowboy church sermon—it may not be overtly religious, but it’s definitely conservative. It’s a place where you can wear the bedazzled western garb you might normally save for weddings. The Cowboy Trail Church’s congregation is smattered with young families (“I call them the ‘younger-than-my-moustache crowd,’” says Thiessen) and new immigrants.

The first time I attended Cowboy Trail, I was an hour early and already late—trucks and horse trailers filled the parking lot of the Cochrane RancheHouse and, inside, just over a hundred people had gathered to worship. All of Alberta’s denim was in this room, with the big bay windows that overlook the coulee the building was nestled in. I was greeted at the door by two cowboy-hatted men in perfect jeans and brown boots, who informed me that “We don’t say hello, we say howdy,” and pointed me in the direction of two men, dressed the same, who could tell me what was going on. “Would you really call it a church? It’s more of a meeting,” said Allan Wiley, a member of the congregation and a former police officer. “I have worn cowboy boots and jeans for decades. I take my hat off for prayer, but only because it gives me a headache.” There were tables set up with photo albums and a boot at the door for donations, though none were solicited. On the stage, an upturned barrel and wooden cross wrapped in burlap surrounded the band (known as Some Assembly Required), a remarkably full ensemble with a lead singer who dresses in blue fringe.

So, here’s the good news: a cowboy church service is really short. It usually starts with a story rooted in agricultural wisdom and leads into your predictable preaching about trusting in the plan of the Lord. There is more singing than talking—at Cowboy Trail they were six songs in before anyone said a word. “Do you like to sing? Man, I love to sing,” whispers the man sitting next to me.

The music is a key player in a cowboy church service—there is a separate red duotang folder at Cowboy Trail that’s full of songs that tie together the land and the lord, as well as a heavy hymnal for traditional songs. There is no modern hymnal here, no effort to attract youth through “rock.” But while the music is old and repentant (“God watches o’er all righteous men/But all the wicked will not stand/Their way will perish from the land/Like chaff in wind,” goes one song called “Put Your Hand in the Hand”), everything else can seem lackadaisical.

There’s a section where part of the Bible is recited, certain words emphasized repeatedly and members of the crowd will nod and mumble in agreement and the importance of fellowship will be agreed upon while squares are laid on a plastic tablecloth. If you don’t want to stay behind, no one will bug you as you leave.

A week after I attend the service, Thiessen receives a prayer request via text message from a local rancher: “Please pray for my strength,” it says. “Otherwise I’ll need strength and bail money.”

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Thiessen’s father helped establish a series of Christian summer camps, where Bryn spent most of his time riding horses. “In the evening, you sat and told stories and sang songs. It was just the natural flow.” He conducted his first funeral sermon for a salamander, at the age of five or six at his grandmother’s house. Years later, he met a group called the Christian Cowboys at a rodeo and heard the rhythm of their words—it was a kind of patter of worship, where every story sounded like it might end in a dirty joke, and the descriptions were all examples from everyday life.

It’s one thing to hear about the grace of God and another to experience it after being trampled on by a horse and surviving. The latter happens in competitions, but also during a regular day’s work: a post at the back of Cowboy Trail’s hall has an update on a congregation member who, after a horse riding accident, had found a way to ride with her wheelchair. “We find the culture and meet them where they’re at,” he says.

Of course, each church is different. For instance, the crowd at James River Cowboy Church congregation, that I visit on a Thursday night when they’ve got a bonfire going, is a bit older and a bit smaller. Tom King, their pastor, is a real estate agent and, as he explains to me, the only guy in a wheelchair in the lot. King has MS and came to religion through Thiessen after his wife died years ago. Now he’s remarried and has a weekly gig that has him being introduced as a voice that “puts true-life experiences to the word in the book, in this church under the great blue skies and the slopes of the eastern Rockies.” He was once a pastor at the nearby Clearwater Cowboy Church, but split off to start his own.

King’s sermon style is subdued compared to that of Thiessen’s, who can take on an earthy, fire-and-brimstone force when the mood strikes and who, the week before, took it upon himself to read the Book of Revelations while a wildfire raged in Fort McMurray (“They can talk about climate change but they can’t even put out a fire.”) There is little religion in King’s talk—we are compared, in our darkest and most confusing times, to a gopher panicking while trying to cross the road. King, whose friends and family have prayed for him to walk again, says he is not unfamiliar with the “heaviness of church.” He follows the cowboy church guidelines, so that’s not what he peddles.

“People just miss the hymns, the music is a big part of it,” he says. “We tell them the truth and give them good coffee.”

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