The Cowboy Church — bringing Jesus to rodeo riders, barrel racers, ranchers, farmers and Western wannabes — is spreading across Florida and the Southeast in a growing effort to bring religion to those who don't much care for church.
"We are seeing a lot of people come into the cowboy-church movement who don't normally go to church," said Jay Avant, pastor of Milltown Cowboy Church near Davenport.
Meeting in barns, horse arenas and pastures, the Cowboy Church appeals to the unpretentious, the plain-spoken and the keepers of the culture of saddles, Stetsons and pointy-toed boots.
There are baptisms in horse troughs, a Cowboy Bible and the Ten Commandments translated into the language of John Wayne: No foolin' around with another fellow's gal; don't be hankerin' for yer buddy's stuff; honor yer Ma and Pa.
"They don't want it sugarcoated," Avant said. "They want the plain truth, and they want it to where they can understand it."
Avant's two churches — one that meets on a ranch near Davenport and another that congregates in a St. Cloud open-air barn — belong to the Cowboy Church Network of North America, which has grown to more than 60 churches in the Southeast and Canada since its founding in 2004.
"Florida is going to become one of the great states in cowboy churches," said Jeff Smith, executive director of the church network. "It has a great heritage."
Took off in TexasCowboy churches have been around since the 1980s, but the Baptist General Convention of Texas is credited with starting the contemporary movement in 2000. Texas remains the epicenter of boots-and-bridles Christians, with more than 136 cowboy churches, including the nation's largest: the 2,000-member Cowboy Church of Ellis County.
But Florida — especially Central Florida, with its strong ranch culture — has plenty of people attracted by the cowboy-church ethos of "come as you are." Manure on the boots is acceptable.
"They come as they are, and we accept them as they are," said Avant, 48, who pastored three traditional Baptist churches before devoting himself to the cowboy ministry.
Many services take place weekdays for those whose weekends are spent at rodeos, horse shows, county fairs and trail rides. The Milltown church meets during the week on the Heart H Ranch of former cattleman Clinton Bass, whose daughters barrel-race.
In good weather, the services take place outdoors by the corrals, riding rings and the elevated "birdhouse" where the barrel-racing judges oversee the competition. In poor weather, they take place in the breezeway by the barn amid the smell of hay and feed grain, the sound of thunder and the banging of horses against their stalls.
On a table is a tin bucket with "Donations" written on the side, the closest thing the cowboy church has to a collection plate.
About a dozen people, many in jeans, boots and cowboy hats, sit on metal folding chairs listening to Avant preach his homespun sermon of Christ's sacrifice. He reminds his congregation that Jesus was born in a manger not unlike the horse barn.
British cowboys?Among those gathered are two British tourists, drawn to the service by the Milltown Cowboy Church sign at the entrance to the ranch. They've been in Orlando for a week, done the Disney thing, the Universal thing, the SeaWorld thing.
None of the attractions seemed so exotic, so ... so genuinely American. They took pictures of the horse trough where cowboy Christians are baptized. They mistook Bass' white ranch house for the church.
"All I knew about cowboys is they ride horses," said Melissa Bullimore, 23. "It was definitely not what I expected. This is exhilarating."
Heather Burrell, 40, said she was impressed by how warm and friendly the church was, but she qualified her comments by saying she was not religious or church-oriented. Turns out, British tourists qualify as the cowboy-church target audience.
"We are not trying to find people who are already in church," Smith said. "I'm looking for people who aren't found yet."