For many, Sunday mornings in Texas are synonymous with combed hair, button-down shirts, dresses, ties and wrangling the family into the car to go to church. But for those who attend Cowboy Church, getting dressed up isn’t as big of a deal as just being there — but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any freshly-shined boots or cowboy hats in the congregation.
Cowboy Churches, which can be found nationwide, are non-denominational churches. Their mission, according to the Cowboy Church of the Hill Country is “to round up those in the Western heritage culture to be on that trail ride to heaven.”
“Cowboy Churches reach the people who are into Western heritage,” said the Rev. Jeff Van Ryswyk, co-founder of the Cowboy Church of the Hill Country. “It’s not all working cowboys. Our target is the working cowboy, but we’re looking for anybody. People who just like the whole idea of John Wayne, God and country and all that kind of stuff. We meet in a more laid-back atmosphere — I mean it’s an open-air barn, you know?”
According to the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, there are 199 Cowboy Churches in Texas and 46 in the rest of the country. The churches cater to people who enjoy a “Western heritage” lifestyle, a term that Van Ryswyk said is used to describe people who identify with a culture of cowboys, horses, cattle, agriculture, country music and rodeo.
“A lot of people think that the people in the mainstream churches — the brick-and-mortar churches — have their act together, but it’s not true,” Van Ryswyk said. “I’ve been in both and I’m pointing back at myself, too. The Cowboy Church, people come in and it’s a barn. We’ve got concrete floors. It’s just low key. People don’t think we’re as pretentious, and we may be, but what we’re trying to do is get people to come to Jesus without a barrier. Some people think you have to be this, that and that to get to Jesus. If we could work it out to where we could just go on the mountainside like Jesus did we’d do that, but this is about as close as we can get.”
The Cowboy Church of the Hill Country, which was founded five years ago, looks like an open-air barn from the outside, but the inside is a lot less rustic. There is a stage, a screen for projecting song lyrics and church announcements, an assortment of chairs (recliners and plastic porch furniture alike), Texas-shaped iron-rod wall decors and plenty of ceiling and standing fans. On Sundays, the fans keep the summer heat at bay as cars and trucks fill the grassy parking area outside. About 50 people gather at the church during morning worship to chat, sing songs and listen to a sermon — no dress-up required.
“That’s just not the way we are,” said Lois Rodriguez, who has been attending the church since last June. “There’s no pretense. You just show up. It’s real life here. It doesn’t matter what you wear, what you look like, what you’ve done or what you do for a living. We’ve got real-life cowboys here and people in the corporate world; a little bit of everything. It’s not people just dressing up for Sunday church. We’re coming here to fellowship with each other because we enjoy being here. It’s not stuffy.”
The church’s praise band, The Head ‘Em Up Band, led by Van Ryswyk on lead guitar and vocals, fires up the crowd with a few country-infused hymns and praise choruses. After singing, the pastor prays and the cowboy hats, worn by about half the congregation, come off as everyone bows their heads. The service continues, everyone paying attention to the preacher’s sermon except for the occasional wandering eye, or more accurately, nose. The smell of the brisket that’s cooking on one of the grills outside — part of the potluck dinner that will be served after church — is too delicious to ignore.
“We have a lot of cool activities.” Rodriguez said. “We do a lot of play-days, a lot of horse racing. There are catfish fries and a bluegrass festival. Just a lot of fun stuff. We have a potluck dinner every month. It’s just about getting together and doing the Western-heritage-type activities that we all love to do. We’ve got some people who have never owned a pair of cowboy boots and they show up here and they get addicted.”
The Hill Country Church hosts rodeo events in an arena nearby, built and paid for by church members in order to reach out to people of the community. The activities, which include everything from sorting and penning cattle to “extreme cowboy events,” keep people involved and coming to the church.
“That’s how we reach people,” Van Ryswyk said. “We’ve done extreme cowboy events where you go through obstacles and you’re timed and you get points for how well you go through each obstacle. It’s all just to get some exposure for the church. Some churches have some pretty nice facilities, I’ve got to say. And that’s great for them. But here in Austin where land is pretty expensive, we’ve had to be very humble and very careful with our spending. It’s real low-key, it’s as frugal as we can be. We don’t put in as much money in the building. We’re more into reaching people.”
Hats come off again as the church service ends in prayer, and people stand up while the final potluck lunch preparations are attended to. Everyone talks warmly amongst themselves, but with that mouth-watering brisket smell all around, no one is leaving yet.
“The brisket is top-notch,” Rodriguez said. “You go to Salt Lick and you think you’re getting brisket — no, you need to come here. This is where they do the real stuff.”