CHRISTIANITY MEETS THE OLD WEST

Story by Malissa Watterson

Photos by Brandon Payne

Five times a week, Raymond Bell of Roanoke slips into his pair of faded, black leather cowboy boots. Embellished with tin on the toes and heels, these cowboy boots are specially worn for preaching the word of God.

Bell, 53, is senior pastor for the Cowboy Church of Virginia. While delivering Christian worship services throughout the Shenandoah Valley and western areas of the state, he also dons blue jeans and a cowboy hat. The latter sits on top of Bell’s short, black hair that’s peppered with bits of gray — the same color as his mustache. A non-denominational ministry with no dress code or mandatory offerings, the Cowboy Church of Virginia stands out. “We don’t have all the trappings you find in traditional churches,” Bell said of the ministry. “There’s no structure, no politics in Cowboy Church.” 

Attendees often meet in barns, farm pastures, livestock arenas and local club buildings, where they are served a “chuck wagon” meal before the worship service. Bell preaches at various locations throughout the week — Sunday mornings in Mount Crawford, Sunday nights in Roanoke, Tuesday nights in Blacksburg, Thursday nights in Moneta and Saturday nights in Mount Jackson. A Bible study also takes place Wednesday nights at Hollins University in Roanoke.

At each location, cowboys, cowgirls, farmers and people from all types of occupational and lifestyle backgrounds gather together for the informal worship services. Paula Bonin of Mathias, W. Va., is a regular attendee at the Sunday morning service held inside Mount Crawford’s Ruritan Club, about an hour away from Mathias. Bonin discovered the Cowboy Church of Virginia about a year ago after she searched the Internet for a different kind of worship service. “I wanted a church that did the full gospel but that didn’t have the formalities, the gossiping or mandatory offerings,” Bonin said. “And Cowboy Church kept popping up.” Bell was introduced to the concept of a Cowboy Church in 2004 while attending the Professional Bull Riders National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas with his wife, Linda, who was a fan of bull riding at that time. At the event, professional bull riders publicly led worship services and shared faith testimonies to attendees.

“The service lasted two and a half hours but no one cared,” Bell said. “The power of God was so dramatic that nobody wanted to leave.” On the drive back from Las Vegas, Bell says God gave him the concepts for starting up a Cowboy Church in Virginia and he began writing down the model for the ministry on the back of envelopes and on napkins. The model contains principles practiced within fellow Cowboy Churches in the country, such as providing a laid-back worship atmosphere with no dress code or mandatory offering. Bell’s model includes his own structured worship service, which begins with an opening song followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag. “A lot of people experience Cowboy Church at rodeos or fairs, so the Pledge of Allegiance is something they’re familiar with,” Bell said. After discovering the Cowboy Church, Bell and his wife worked together to find the ministry’s first location in Virginia.

“Our first challenge was figuring out what to do,” Bell said. “It was hard to explain what Cowboy Church was to others.” He soon heard of a Cowboy Church pastor in North Carolina reaching out to livestock arenas, asking herders if they were interested in starting up a Cowboy Church. Bell then decided to contact livestock arenas in Virginia, and The Wythe County Livestock Exchange in Wytheville, an hour west of Blacksburg, quickly responded. In 2005, the first Cowboy Church of Virginia was established in Wytheville. Months later, word spread about the ministry, and people were contacting Bell about setting up additional locations. “We never thought there would be but just one,” he said. Cowboy Church of Virginia has expanded mainly through word of mouth. Other avenues of promotion for the ministry are its brochures distributed during worship services and its website, cowboychurchofva.com.

Today, there are 14 Cowboy Churches in Virginia, nine of which Bell and other members of the ministry started. Between 12 and 30 people usually attend the five Cowboy Church services held throughout the week, according to Bell. On Sundays, Bell and his wife wake up at 6 a.m. and drive 110 miles from Roanoke to Mount Crawford’s Ruritan Club for the morning worship service. Upon arrival, Bell and other church attendees unload two trucks filled with portable audio and computer equipment, including three small computer monitors, three microphones, a soundboard, a 42-inch flat screen LCD television, a large speaker and spools of cables. So much technology is incorporated into a Cowboy Church service because the ministry needs to be transported to multiple locations during the week, as well as to rodeos, trail rides, county fairs and several other events throughout the year. “A lot of people think it’s odd that cowboys are using technology,” Bell said. “That’s a complete misnomer because I haven’t been on a trail ride in five years where someone hasn’t used a GPS.”

Within 20 minutes, everything is set up to display PowerPoint slides from the computer monitors to the large television screen. These slides contain biblical scripture and lyrics to worship songs — a mixture of country gospel, christian hymns and Christian secular music. While Bell is busy setting up the audio and computer equipment inside the Ruritan club’s social hall, his wife Linda lays out the prepared “chuck wagon” breakfast on folding tables. This breakfast often includes coffee, fresh fruit, bagels, scrambled eggs, sausage and gravy. In addition to preparing the “chuckwagon” meals for the five weekly worship services, Linda attends a Wednesday night Bible study and frequently shares her testimony of surviving a recent bout with breast cancer. “God motivates Cowboy Church, and we just love it,” she said. “There’s a big hole in your day if you miss a service.”

Annette Franke of Mathias, W. Va., often helps Linda with the “chuck wagon” breakfast. A Cowboy Church attendee for almost a year, Franke says the church has strengthened her relationship with God. “I actually get something out of church now,” Franke said. “I feel like God’s coming down and speaking directly to me.” As attendees walk in for their 9 a.m. meal, they’re greeted with “hellos” and “good mornings” from Franke, Linda and a few others, most of whom are dressed in the casual attire of blue jeans and T-shirts. Before they eat, all attendees and Bell form a tight circle and join hands for a prayer. At 10 a.m., everyone takes their seats in folding chairs, placed in multiple rows in front of a the cowboy version of a pulpit — a wooden chest adorned with carvings of horseshoes that form the shape of a cross. Behind the pulpit stands Bell and his “bandwagoneers” Angie Hamilton and Stan Bennett, praise and worship leaders who direct the worship songs.

“Bandwagoneer” is one of several cowboy terms used within Cowboy Church. Other terms include, “nighthawk,” an attendee who watches over the “herd” or the ministry through prayer, and the “cowman,” a reference to Bell because he’s the boss who runs the operation of the herd. “The cowboy lingo contributes to the idea that this is Cowboy Church and it’s different,” Bell said. After the worship service opens with a song and the Pledge of Allegiance, the LCD television screen displays a biblical scripture, which is then followed by a “cowboy talk” translation, a simplified, more easily understood interpretation of biblical scripture. Attendees then break for a few minutes to give hugs and handshakes with one another and to welcome any newcomers.

For another 20 minutes, attendees are led in song by Hamilton’s soprano voice that’s interspersed with a subtle, country twang. Unlike typical Christian worship services, attendees at Cowboy Church can choose to stand or sit during worship songs. Next is Bell’s sermon, which typically lasts between 20 and 30 minutes. It is largely based on biblical scripture and is mixed with personal anecdotes and a few jokes. In February, Bell traveled to Harrisonburg’s Eastern Mennonite High School to give an exhibition on horse roping, as well as a short sermon on how the process of breaking, or “joining up,” a horse is similar to entering a new relationship with God. An avid horse rider for the last 40 years, Bell has ample experience with “pleasure riding,” or riding horses on public trails. Throughout the year, Bell travels with his five horses to county fairs and colleges, where he offers horse rides and rope exhibitions.

Last year at the Rockbridge County Fair in Lexington, Va., Bell gave 588 horse rides to raise funds for the local 4-H club. “God told us to be proactive in our communities,” Bell said. “We go anywhere we’re asked to go.” Some future plans for expanding Cowboy Church’s ministry are training more people to lead services and implementing more Cowboy Churches in Virginia and other states, including California. Wherever he delivers his sermon, Bell says he interacts with people from all types of Christian denominations, many of whom aren’t considered a cowboy or cowgirl.

“I’ve met Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, drug addicts and alcoholics. At Cowboy Church there’s no kind of norm. Everybody is somebody and Jesus Christ is Lord.”