Church in a bar, can you believe it? Not only a bar but the biggest honky-tonk in the world. How did that happen? Well, it was the fall of 1985 and everything was changing. I had been teaching calf roping schools all over North America; but suddenly they had come to a halt. I was president of the Cowboy Chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. All I knew about my life was that I was preaching at the first National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Sherry and I were praying and seeking God for His plan for our lives.
On Saturday before church I met Billy Bob Barnett (who owned Billy Bob’s) and his manager Tex Whitson. I invited them to the coliseum church service the next morning. That Saturday was Billy Bob’s birthday; so I didn’t expect them to show. However, Tex said, “I’ll be there.” Sure enough, he shows up, but he looked like it was a real short night. We were informed that we had 38 minutes for the entire service. Susie McEntire (Reba’s sister) sang awesome (as always).
My calf roper friend Broadus Gravette gave his testimony and I preached. Well, God was there and Tex came up to me after the service and asked me to come and see him when I got home in Fort Worth. Long story short; when I met with Tex in Fort Worth, he asked me if I would have church at Billy Bob’s in their bull riding arena. It would be for 3 weeks during the Fort Worth Rodeo in January. We called it Cowboy Church and we had three awesome services. Champion cowboys Bruce Ford, Bobby Del Vecchio and others gave their testimonies.
Over 200 people attended those services. Some were “sure-nuff” cowboys and cowgirls and some were just curious of what was going on. What they heard was the Good News of Jesus Christ, that God loved them and He wanted to have a personal relationship with them. In the three Stock Show Sundays at Billy Bob’s, dozens made professions of faith. It was a glorious beginning, and it prompted Tex Whitson to ask me if I wanted to keep having services every Sunday after the rodeo was over. He came up to me and said, “Do you want to keep having church?” I surprised myself as I said, “Yup.” Not the response you would expect from a rodeo cowboy – and the rest is history. Cowboy Church was born. God was doing a new thing. We had church in Billy Bob’s for two years, then the old auction barn and then the Stockyards hotel. Looking back now, it’s pretty special that “America’s first Cowboy Church” started in the old Fort Worth Stockyards – itself one of America’s great monuments to the old west.
In the early years when we were in Billy Bob’s, little did we know that people would come to one of our services and then go home and start a Cowboy Church in a bar, auction barn, hotel, a feed store, barn, or any number of other creative places to have church. Also, while we were at Billy Bob’s, we had all kinds of rodeo arena events at the Cowtown Coliseum, which is immediately next door to Billy Bob’s – stick horse rodeos for the kids, rodeo schools, bull ridings, rodeos, ropings, etc.
One of our events was called the “Bullslingin.” It was a match bull riding with the bull riders giving their testimony with a cordless microphone immediately after they got off their bull. There was a match calf roping with the calf ropers doing the same. It was awesome! The audience loved it. Following this pattern, most Cowboy Churches today have arenas next to the church to hold these outreach events.
One year after we started, Canadian Hall of Fame Cowboy, Phil Doan, began weekly services in the Ranchman’s Bar in Calgary, Alberta. They were the second Cowboy Church. Joanne Cash Yates (Johnny Cash’s sister) and her husband Harry Yates came to speak at Calgary and they were so excited about Cowboy Church that they went home to Nashville, Tennessee to have Cowboy Church in the Sweetwater lounge at the Holiday Inn. That was the third Cowboy Church and boy did it spread from there. Today there are hundreds, probably thousands of Cowboy Churches world wide today.
Click on the images below to see pictures from the original Cowboy Church.
Click on the links below to check out some of the original newsletters from Cowboy Church.