It’s a cool Sunday morning at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center. Folks with wide-brimmed hats and cowboy boots slowly take their seats on wooden benches in a grandstand. A livestock showing area is complete with a hay-covered dirt floor. Bluegrass music blares, and a man wearing a cowboy hat stands up. He has a microphone in one hand and a Bible in the other. “Welcome to Cowboy Church!” pastor Louis Gibson says to cheers.
This is a church trying to be culturally relevant—but not in the way you might suspect. Blue Ridge Cowboy Church is in Fletcher, N.C., just outside Asheville, which is a spiritual city but not in the traditional sense. CBS News has called the Asheville area “New Age Mecca.” Rolling Stone magazine has described it as the “New Freak Capital of the U.S.” But Western North Carolina remains a big agricultural area, and Cowboy Church isn’t so much about horses and boots as it is about a lifestyle—a laid back approach to life that Cowboy Church member Terry Cathy described as “stopping to smell the roses.”
“We like to feel like to belong to the Cowboy Church you don’t have to own a horse,” Cathy said. “It’s the ‘cowboy way.’ It’s like the John Wayne movies … when right was right and wrong was wrong. We’ve progressed, and the Cowboy Church is more of just a way of life that we hope people would want to be a part of.” Many do. Cowboy churches are popping up across America. This one is part of the Cowboy Church Network of North America, and about 30 others meet in North Carolina alone. Some start as outreaches from traditional churches. Blue Ridge emerged from a nearby Southern Baptist megachurch with thousands of members.
As the Cowboy Church ministry became established, though, that church moved on to other outreach ministries. Blue Ridge is now more affiliated with another nearby Baptist church, which Gibson also pastors. On Sundays, Gibson preaches at a 9 a.m. cowboy service before heading over to preach to his other congregation at 11. “The Word of God is the Word of God,” he says. “It’s the same, never changes. But it applies differently to different people. When Jesus was with fishermen, he spoke about catching fish. When he was with farmers, he spoke about sowing the seed.”
Donna Cathy visited Blue Ridge Cowboy Church three years ago after being invited by a friend, and she hasn’t looked back. Now, on top of her full-time job as a hotel sales manager, she looks after her 10 horses and a church ministry called Riding on Faith. She and 18 helpers perform as a “God and Country” flag team at schools and prisons. “It gives us an opportunity to use our horses and our animals to go out there and spread the Word,” she says. Cathy also enjoys the church’s trail rides. “We have a lot of beautiful places here with waterfalls,” she said. “We pack a lunch and we bring our Bibles. We ride up to the top of a mountain, like 5,000 feet, and we’ll do a devotion.”
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