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Cowboy church: Worshiping in boots, jeans growing fast

April 1, 2011 at 10 p.m.

There are more boots than suits in the Bar None Church on Texas 43 between Tatum and Henderson – and in the Cowboy Church of Harrison County on FM 450 in Hallsville – and in the Frontier Cowboy Church of Northeast Texas on FM 593 near Gilmer.

Seem like a trend? It is.

According to the Baylor University Survey on Religion, nondenominational churches are now the second largest group of Protestant churches in America, and also the fastest growing. In fact, Charles Higgs, director of Western Heritage Ministries for the Baptist General Convention of Texas said Cowboy churches are the fastest growing church phenomena of any kind in America.

Not since fireants has East Texas seen such growth.

Jason Taylor, pastor of the Bar None Cowboy Church, didn't hesitate when asked why such churches have seen such a remarkable population explosion.

"I don't know about other churches, and I can't speak for them," he immediately replied. Decked in blue jeans and boots, Taylor had just left the podium after a Wednesday night service. "But here, did you see that big sign on our church? It says 'Bar None.' That's exactly what it means. We don't bar anyone. We don't care what you look like. We don't care if you're dirty, or smelly. Let me tell ya, we've had some come in who are smelly and dirty. We don't care what you wear. We don't care what you have done in your past. We just aren't interested. We are here for the primary purpose of teaching the word of God as brought to us in the Scriptures, saving souls, and worship. We worship in a relaxed, comfortable setting. Most of us enjoy a Western lifestyle."

Bristling at the title of reverend, Taylor said, "I am the preacher here."

Taylor did not graduate or even attend a seminary, he said. He has not attended college. He seemingly bragged that he had not even graduated first in his Carlisle High School class.

Whatever he is doing, it's popular.

It was just four years ago when the church consisted of 13 people meeting in a private home in Elderville. The congregation moved into a building about Easter of 2007 and by Thanksgiving of that same year had hundreds in attendance on Sunday mornings. Since then, he said, the church has expanded in both people and floor space, removing both the north and south walls to make space for the average of 1,100 in worship service on Sunday morning.

"We've certainly been blessed," he said.

"We tried having a morning and late service," said member Wyn Billingsley of Henderson, "but found out that people who came to it just stayed for the second one, so it didn't relieve congestion at all."

Billingsley said even though she doesn't consider herself a cowgirl "at all," she "loves this church."

With unbridled enthusiasm, Billingsley spoke of the warmth and friendship she had found at the church. "It is holy ground here. You can feel it as soon as you walk into the door," she said with the breathless awe of one in the presence of holiness.

Billingsley said it was a place her "authentic cowboy" husband Carl truly felt at home, though she joined before he did, and was among the first 30 or so people, she said.

Warren Powell is not a cowboy, but also spoke of his church enthusiastically. He and his wife found the church when others were late for their former church home and stopped at Bar None instead. Three years later, they still come.

Powell, who teaches at Full Armor School in Henderson, said a person does need to be a cowboy or even a lover of the Western lifestyle to enjoy the camaraderie, fellowship and relaxing atmosphere at the church.

"These are good, everyday people, the people you see in the grocery store. They aren't here to show off – not their clothes or shoes or even hats," he said.

The preaching at the church is so good, Powell said, that his brother, who visited the church, asks for the CDs.

"Our preacher is just a good, common sense, preacher of the word. People want to hear it. People are hungry for it," Powell said.

Even though the average attendance has reached four digits, Taylor retains his job as a cowboy and rancher. He is bi-vocational, he said, and believes he is called to it.

The pastor at The Cowboy Church of Harrison County is also bi-vocational. In fact, he moved to the area from Waxahachie when he was transferred, he said.

Like Taylor, the Rev. Joe C. Hall at the Cowboy Church of Harrison County is a boot-and- blue jean wearing, horse-riding cowboy.

Hall, who was a Baptist preacher prior to becoming the pastor of the Cowboy Church of Harrison County, called his congregation of about "blessed" to be from a variety of religious backgrounds.

Hall doesn't have anything against the Baptist doctrine, and said his church's beliefs are most closely aligned with that, but he believes there are people who have felt hurt by the actions of a denomination or a person in that denomination, and those people might be reluctant to attend a church affiliated with a denomination.

"We want to be open to everyone, from every background," he said.

Tonya Cinotto of Longview is one person who welcomes the opportunity to worship at a church that is open to everyone.

The single mother of three said her children "love coming to church."

"You are loved here," she stated simply. "Usually, people come up and hug you and tell you that they love you. … Everyone is accepted. We don't look at tattoos and say 'oh, we might not want to associate with that person.' This is not a place of judgment. This is a house of worship."

Cinotto does not consider herself a cowgirl, "Just a young mom raising three kids who is grateful to have Jesus in my life and a place where I can serve him."

Don Burr has been a part of the Frontier Cowboy Baptist Church in Gilmer since it started 14 years ago.

"I was raised Catholic, but hadn't been to church since I was 10 years old," he said.

He and friends were looking for a church home, and he felt like this kind of church would be right for him.

"I was number 14," he said of the 50 or so people that started the church. About 300 are on the membership books now, with an average attendance of between 100 to 175, he said.

"The people here are a family, like brothers and sisters," he said.

Like members at other cowboy churches, he is most at home in the relaxed atmosphere. No one dresses up, he said. "If you're wearing new jeans, you're overdressed," he said.

"We are a 'just as you are' church," he said. "One time a man came to church straight from feeding his chickens, and the ladies hugged his neck just the same. That's just the kind of church this is," he said. "That's the kind of people we are."



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