The lyrics to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings’ popular 1978 song “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” may preach against a life on horseback, but Pastor Louis Gibson of the Blue Ridge Cowboy Church would not have it any other way.
On a recent Tuesday night inside the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, Gibson stood in front of a rugged cross set up among bales of hay, wearing a white cowboy hat and well-worn brown leather boots as he shared the Gospel with a crowd of parishioners whose attire seemed more suited to a rodeo than a sermon.
“Imagine running a race with a 50 pound bag of feed on your back,” Gibson challenged his congregation in a demeanor more similar to a ranch hand than an evangelical preacher. “The death of Jesus tells us God has solved our sin problem and there’s just no need to carry that weight anymore.”
Gibson’s message that night also made references to the Andy Griffith Show, the struggles of a competitor on the Professional Bull Riders circuit and a recent trail ride where he was attacked by upset insects.
“God will guide you past the yellow jacket nests of life,” he said. “If not, you’ll just get stung over and over again on your way home.”
The Blue Ridge Cowboy Church held its first service in July 2007 as part of 20 other cowboy churches across the state affiliated with the Cowboy Church Network of North America, and a few months later Gibson was asked to be the permanent pastor.
Gibson also pastors Edgewood Baptist Church in Candler and its average Sunday attendance of 80 parishioners, but every Tuesday night he puts on a sparkling belt buckle with the inscription ‘Cowboy Church Network / Ridin’ For Jesus’ to bring his message to a congregation that is far less formal.
“Cowboy Church is a place where anyone can fit in regardless of their history or what you wear,” he says. “A lot of people for one reason or another are not going to go to a big brick building for church, but they will come here. Many people are busy working during the week or spend their time riding horses on Saturday and Sunday, so Tuesday nights is their best avenue for worship.”
While other places of worship may offer stained glass windows and lacquered pews, the Blue Ridge Cowboy Church provides sawdust covered floors and wooden benches centered around a small arena usually reserved for parading livestock and other animal exhibitions.
There are no hymnals or song books, but live country music with a spiritual message does accompany the scripture readings. Instead of pressed suits and dresses, members of the congregation mostly wear blue jeans and the occasional cowboy hat.
“This is a much more relaxed atmosphere where you don’t have to dress up, but it’s really not that much different as far as the elements of the service,” Gibson says of the 85 members ages 3 to 73 that regularly come out to hear his Baptist-based doctrine. “You can wear your cowboy hat if you want to, and some folks do, but it doesn’t matter if you wear boots and a hat or a fancy three-piece suit. Everyone is welcome.”
That atmosphere was certainly a draw for factory worker Dale Dalton, who made the 30-minute drive from Etowah to the WNC Ag Center that night as he had many weeks before.
“To me, it’s about being comfortable,” the member of the church’s missionary team said adjusting his faded camouflage Carhartt baseball cap. “You can come as you are and don’t have to dress up to impress anybody. That really makes me feel at home here.”
The church bulletin also promotes that sense of community by highlighting the ‘buckaroo church,’ where parents can drop off the kids during the service as well as the monthly ‘chuckwagon fellowship’ held on the last Tuesday of the month when members bring a covered dish to share. However, most traditional churches usually do not note their attendance records with special attention given to the number of horses and dogs that accompany the parishioners.
Another notable difference is that instead of submerging new converts in a Baptism pool, the Blue Ridge Cowboy Church holds that rite of passage in a horse trough.
In the last year, 42 new members of the cowboy congregation have taken that plunge, including Becky Case who also had funeral services for her son conducted at the Ag Center.
“For me, being here is like visiting with family,” the 61-year-old Mills River resident says. “When my son died unexpectedly of a heart attack, just being with my church family made it a whole lot easier on me.”
Fellow parishioner Angie Yates agreed that sense of family made cowboy church a special place for her spiritual life.
“So many churches look you up and down or judge you by the type of car that you drive, but here I immediately felt at home,” Yates says. “I have to work on the weekends, but every Tuesday night after I get home and feed my horse I can come here to get the food I need for my soul and my heart for the rest of the week.”
Gibson says his church, which has goals of finding a more permanent home somewhere in Western North Carolina in the future, really knows no boundaries because the weekly services are recorded and uploaded to www.brcowboychurch.com for all to see.
“I believe we need to use this technology for God’s glory,” he says. “When you place a ministry on the web, it becomes worldwide and that’s like taking the gospel to the ends of the earth.”