Cowboy fellowships are a fast-growing segment in Christianity today, even as overall church attendance in America is slipping.
Ridin’ the River Cowboy Fellowship, located about four miles north of Bandera at 5767 Highway 173, is typical of how the movement is progressing.
It is far from being a mega-church, so big it’s difficult for members to get to know each other, but instead is a smaller, intimate group of folks that show concern for each other, fellowship officials said.
The fellowship, or RRCF, started 10 years ago with three cowboys meeting on a porch at a local dude ranch for Bible studies each Sunday morning.
As it grew, the church moved to the Mansfield Park arena for services.
The church moved to the old Bandera Downs for more space and then built the new church building on Highway 173 so it could have more space three years ago.
Attendance now reaches almost 500 each Sunday, fellowship officials said.
The crowds have grown so fast, RRCF just expanded its worship center to house more than 600 worshippers. The congregation held its first service in the expanded facility Dec. 22.
RRCF allows attendees to come as they are in attitude and dress. A significant number of attendees are real life cowboys and cowgirls - ropers, bull riders, barrel racers, and livestock show enthusiasts.
Some wear championship belt buckles.
Cowboy churches are filled with people from all backgrounds, income levels and interests and strive to offer a more relaxed, atmosphere, where everyone feels welcome.
You don’t have to be a cowboy or cowgirl to worship at the fellowship.
Cowboy fellowships sponsor a variety of events that provide opportunities to spread God’s word. Ranch rodeos are commonplace, and so are summer camps for youngsters and teens.
Each summer, attendees get to not only hear the word of God, but also participate in events that bring the history of the cowboy and Western culture to their collective attention.
We call it “getting in the dirt for Christ.” It’s all about breaking down barriers that keep people from hearing the word of God.
The procedures at cowboy fellowships are different from those typically found in denominational churches.
“We have no offering plates where everyone can see what you are donating,” said Pastor Jeff Bishop.
“If you want to financially support the church, just drop it in the old cowboy boot at the door. We also offer real cowboy breakfasts the third Sunday of each month cooked the cattle-drive way in cast-iron skillets,” he said.
If you want to be baptized, it may be in a horse trough, oftentimes filled with not-so-warm water.
Worshippers can hear down-home Christian music for the half-hour before the sermon. Many times, traveling Christian musical groups stop by to spread the word of Jesus.
At RRCF, the fellowship’s goals are straight to the point, said Bishop.
“Our ministry will remain Biblical, uncompromising, unapologetic and bold; our worship will be raw and real; we will pray with greater intensity and fasting; our love for people will reach those in our culture and beyond; and, our fire for Jesus will burn hotter each day,” the pastor said.
Terry Arnold is a member of the fellowship’s media team.