Cowboy church lassos in believers

LAWRENCE — They arrive in their coats and jeans, huddled on metal folding chairs that have seen better days. They dodge raindrops sneaking through holes in the yellow-and-white striped tent.

Outside, pickups and sedans share equal space, while a horse trailer is triple-parked on a patch of frozen earth moonlighting as a parking lot.

Inside, hats removed, they bow their heads and pray, cool breath visible from their lips as they follow the lead of a man wearing jeans at an altar emblazoned with a cross with a horseshoe at its center. On the south side of the tent, a wood-burning stove crackles, not doing much good on this November morning.

There's no stained glass, no pews with lavish cushions, nor a choir dressed in robes. But this is a place of God.

Welcome to Crossroads Cowboy Church.

Located in Williamstown, at the intersection of state highways 24 and 59, the church also is the intersection between Christianity and Western culture, says the Rev. Terry Newell, pastor to the church, which has grown to about 80 members since forming in March.

"It was just a vision that I had come up with. I mean, it's not an original idea for sure, but I've been involved with horses and riding all my life," says Newell, who was an associate pastor at the Williamstown Church of God before starting Crossroads as an offshoot operation.

"We wanted to further the ministry of the church I was at, and so we all thought it would be a great way to reach the Western culture."

The tent that houses Crossroads filled up for the first time March 1, when 22 people came to hear the message on a Sunday so cold the outside temperature was in the single digits. But the idea came the previous May when Newell began exploring the idea of such a worship service, inspired in part by a television show aptly called "Cowboy Church."

The show is co-hosted by singer Reba McEntire's sister, Susie McEntire Luchsinger, and the pastor of a successful cowboy church in Texas, Russ Weaver. Last fall, Newell attended a leadership conference headed by Weaver, hoping to learn how to form a cowboy church of his own.

Newell's wife, Shella, says not only has the church crammed nearly 100 people into the tent at times, but it has had only one week when someone new didn't attend.

"To me, it just goes to prove how many people out there of this culture had a hunger and a desire to go to church but just didn't feel like they fit in or had the time to go there,'' she said. "We do it a lot earlier so they can go and rodeo or whatever they're going to do that day.''

Despite its rapid growth, Crossroads hasn't caused Williamstown Assembly of God's membership to suffer. In fact, it may have even helped the traditional church gain members.

"We're averaging probably 135, and when we started the cowboy church, we sent over about 20 people and... we're averaging about the same," says the Rev. Rick Burcham, pastor of Williamstown, which is referred to as the "mother church" to Crossroads and is its landlord, too.

Bill McCall was one of several churchgoers who pointed out that this church — with its homespun, come-as-you-are vibe — is as much as about being at ease as it is being with God. He'd been looking for a church for five years since moving to Oskaloosa. In June, at the urging of a friend, he attended Crossroads, and now standing in the middle of the tent in a cowboy hat, coat and jeans, he fits right in.

"Well, the reason I attend here is because, first of all, our pastor preaches right from the word, and I mean he hits you right square in the face with his sermons. And the other reason is the fellowship that I've experienced since I've been coming here," McCall says.

"And plus the fact that the people here have a common interest in riding horses."

Indeed: On Wednesday nights, the church's youth group alternates horsemanship practice and mini-competitions, and the church had a full-on rodeo in July, something planned to become an annual event.

And though the rodeo will be at Crossroads in 2010, the church's yellow-and-white tent will not. This week, the church expects to have a permanent, pre-fab building delivered. But moving indoors won't change his church's focus, says Newell, unless you count the fact that the parishioners might be able to worship without their coats and scarves.

"Our primary focus is to share the gospel... and then our second is to mentor and develop others through living out our faith in every aspect of our lives, including our Western (activities)," Newell says. "And then, thirdly, one of our missions would be to bring back a sense of community and to help develop families through... equestrian events and activities, like rodeo Bible camps, barrel racing, team penning, all the different things that are related to Western culture."