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Cowboy churches are local Christian churches within the cowboy culture that are distinctively Western heritage in character. A typical cowboy church may meet in a rural setting in a barn, metal building, arena, sale barn, or old western building, have its own rodeo arena, and a country gospel band. Baptisms are generally done in a stock tank. The sermons are usually short and simple, in order to better to be understood by the parishioners. Some cowboy churches have covered arenas where rodeo events such as bull riding, team roping, ranch sorting, team penning and equestrian events are held on weeknights. Many cowboy churches have existed throughout the western states for the past forty or fifty years, however just in the past fifteen or so years has there been an explosion of growth within the “movement”. Prior to 1980 there were no less than 5 cowboy churches in Texas, now the number exceeds 200, and there are an estimated 750 nationwide. There has been no definitive group that established the movement; rather it seems to have had a spontaneous beginning in diverse areas of the country at nearly the same time. Some of these cowboy churches are an outgrowth of ministries to professional rodeo or team roping events, while the roots of many can be traced back to ministry events associated with ranch rodeos, ranch horse competitions, chuck wagon cooking competitions, cowboy poetry gatherings and other “cowboy culture” events.
The "no barriers" cowboy church model pioneered by Ron Nolen of the Baptist General Convention of Texas has been used by the AFCC (American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches) to plant more than two hundred cowboy churches in sixteen states. This model removes from the worship service the traditions that are believed to have no biblical basis, such as the "altar call" and passing of the collection plate. Tithes and offerings are simply placed in a boot, hat, or wooden bird house at the rear of the meeting room. The model also utilizes a specialized leadership structure that empowers volunteers and teams to execute most of the functions of the church. This model was developed at the Cowboy Church of Ellis County in Waxahachie, Texas, currently the largest cowboy church in North America.
Not all cowboy churches use the "no barriers" model. Some denominations including the Church of the Nazarene and the Southern Baptist Convention have started cowboy churches using their own polity and leadership structure, and a large number of cowboy churches remain independent or loosely affiliated with various Pentecostal or Charismatic groups. Thus, there are significant differences in the polity and worship styles of various cowboy churches. Even though most of these churches are located in Texas and Oklahoma, the number of cowboy churches is expanding rapidly throughout the United States aided by a growing group of formal and informal cowboy church networks including the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, the Cowboy Church Network of North America, the International Cowboy Church Alliance Network, and others.
There are also cowboy ministries that hold cowboy church services at rodeos and other western events. A cowboy ministry may also hold rodeo schools, clinics, or camps.