By Jake Harris | Published Saturday, May 2, 2015
This article was originally published in the May 2 edition of The Wise County Messenger. Photos by Jimmy Alford.
The typical church-going environment on a Sunday morning in the South revolves around a pulpit, pews and a sanctuary in a church building.
The Wise County Cowboy Church is not like that.
Situated in a remodeled sale barn on Old Denton Road in Decatur, the floors of this church are concrete and the walls are wood-paneled.
The service is structured a little differently than the typical Sunday service, too. There’s the regular meetandgreet time before the service starts, and there’s some worship music played before a sermon. However, the music and fellowship are distinctly more Southern than most. A worship band with drums, an upright bass, guitar and banjo plays everything from “Victory in Jesus” to gospel covers of outlaw country hits like “Mama Tried” and “Good Hearted Woman” (changed to “Mama Prayed” and “Good Hearted Savior.”)
A cow bell calls the congregation back when they need to sit down for the sermon after greeting others with coffee and donuts during the intermission. There’s also no offering plates passed throughout the entire service.
On March 29, Pastor Ron Geeslin preaches from Psalm 119, emphasizing that the Bible is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path in this over-stimulated, increasingly technological world.
The congregation is dressed mostly in jeans and flannel. Some are more dressed up than others, but for the most part, it feels casual.
On the whole, the service is a throwback to when times were simpler, especially for many of the church’s members.
“The things we do are more ‘country’ than other churches – we focus mainly on reaching people who are ingrained in the Western culture, whether that’s the way you dress, the music you like, or if you run cows or horses,” Geeslin said in an interview before the service.
Geeslin has been the head pastor at Wise County Cowboy Church since November and has attended the church since it started on Easter Sunday 2007.
One thing Geeslin is proud of is his church’s ability to increase male attendance. Indeed, a Pew Research study from 2007 found 10 percent more women than men attend church on a regular basis. Another more recent study from the Hartford Institute of Religion Research found less than 20 percent of Americans in total attend church regularly, and a 2012 Pew Research study showed the amount of Americans who don’t affiliate with any religion jumped 5 percent from 2007 to 2012.
In this day and age, it seems, catering to a demographic for church attendance is the ultimate strategy to reach members. That’s exactly how the Cowboy Church movement got started. The Wise County Cowboy Church is a part of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches (AFCC). The church traces its roots back to the ’70s when Glenn Smith founded Rodeo Cowboy Ministries in Midland after he wondered why there wasn’t a ministry for the cowboys he was meeting on a regular basis. Smith died in 2010, but the ministry he created is alive and well.
Now there are hundreds of churches in Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, North Carolina, New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mexico.
According to the AFCC’s website, anyone who wants to plant a cowboy church can start one, and the group offers clinics on how to grow a congregation. Equality among members is a key tenant of the denomination.
That attitude carries over into its treatment of the hard-working members the church caters to.
If you’re a man who runs a ranch or a farm, regular church attendance is a tough commitment, especially if you have to go somewhere in your Sunday best and not smell like the cows you just milked.
Not so with the Cowboy Church.
“A guy could walk into this building with dirt and stuff all over his clothes and shoes and we’d accept him,” Geeslin said.
Hence, the concrete flooring in the sanctuary.
“A lot of churches say ‘Come as you are, and we’ll accept you,’ but they don’t really live by it,” Geeslin said. “We know how tough it is to get men to come to church, and this way we accept them the way they are and we don’t make them feel pressured.”
Geeslin’s church seems to draw more men than women – a quick glance at the crowd on the 29th revealed at least half men and half women, including children.
One member of the church said it felt like home compared to all the other churches he visited. “It just feels right,” Yank Underhill said. “I’d been to Baptist churches and looked around at a bunch of other places, but this one was the only one that really struck a chord with me.”
Underhill used to own some cattle but now runs a trucking company in Wise County. He lets his wife take care of their horses, “but the cowboy church people are my people. That’s what drew me to them.”
The church also offers outreach opportunities that are more Western. In addition to Bible study and Sunday School, the group meets every Thursday for roping practice as well.
“We try to make sure we cater to the needs of the congregation, and this is a great way for them to practice as well as fellowship,” Geeslin said. “We’re just trying to reach as many people as we can.”
The Wise County Cowboy Church meets every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and every Wednesday for Bible study and youth group.