IF YOU GO
What: Cowboy Church
Where: Tennessee Guest Ranch, 1050 Ray Hixson Road, Dunlap, TN
Date: The next service will be held Aug. 8
Time: 5 p.m. Central time, pony rides and "chuck wagon chow"; church service starts at 6 p.m. Central
DUNLAP, Tenn. - After the pony rides but before the line dancing, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse galloped onto the scene.
Over the loudspeaker, an exaggerated voice billowed verses from the book of Revelation as the four horses solemnly circled the gravel arena. It was, as some joked, a Dixie Stampede for Jesus.
A white horse with a conqueror atop was armed with bow and crown. A rider dressed in red wielded a sword. A black horse with a rider carried a balance. A fourth, a pale horse, carried a rider and its name was death. A child draped in a crimson cloth and a Halloween mask followed. He was supposed to be the devil.
"There is no doubt that this is going to happen," said Chris Young, preaching about the end times. "This is going to happen if you believe. If you don't believe, this is still going to happen."
Conquest. War. Famine. Death. Parts of John's revelation are already happening, but there is more to come, Young says. Better have your nation in order, he warned. Better have your soul saved.
Welcome to Cowboy Church.
Originally a tradition of the American West, these rugged services have spread across the country in the past decade and are now sprinkled across the Southeast. An estimated 75o Cowboy Churches exist nationwide, but, since every church is independent, the true number is unknown.
No two cowboy churches are exactly alike, but most are decidedly casual. And they often include livestock, barns or other aspects of the cowboy culture.
Still, participants say farm experience isn't a requirement.
"Most of our members don't even own a horse. Cowboy Church isn't about cowboys," reads Cleveland Cowboy Church's website. "It's about the independent spirit and friendliness of the cowboy way. The messages at cowboy church help us live out our faith in the real world."
James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University, said cowboy churches can help evangelize people who won't set foot in a traditional church.
"Part of cowboy churches' appeal is to do evangelical religion in a place that doesn't make you as a potential worshiper feel like you are going to church," Hudnut-Beumler said. "The whole scheme, if you will, is to make it as simple as possible without the trappings of organs and pews and all that stuff that makes some people nervous and uncomfortable. They strip it down to you, the great outdoors and praising God who made you and Christ who saved you."
The Cowboy Church of LaFayette launched 10 years ago. Back then, founding pastors Randy and Sandy Harden hadn't even heard of another cowboy church. They sold feed and horse supplies and kept meeting unchurched people. So they went with what they knew and opened up their 92-acre farm.
"We just thought these folks would like to do church and the only place we got is a barn," Sandy Harden said. "And it's just snowballed."
Now services in their North Georgia barn often hold as many as 500 people a week. Randy and Sandy take turns preaching and often welcome in guest preachers. They don't use animals in church, though they offer a rodeo clown ministry, a dance ministry and rodeo Bible school.
Harden says other churches have softball teams and basketball tournaments. Theirs has cowboy stuff.
"The only difference in cowboy churches versus traditional churches is our outreach," she said.
At the Cowboy Church of Sequatchie Valley, Chris and Tammy Young often use horses, goats and other animals to help them preach the Word.
Tammy says people relate to animals. And animals are sprinkled throughout Bible stories. She counted more than 200 times that the Bible uses horses to teach.
"God used animals to teach because in those times people were always with animals," she said. "I think if the Bible were written today he would have used iPhones or texting."
The service is set near the barn and stables of the Youngs' Tennessee Guest Ranch, a farm tucked between the rolling hills of the Sequatchie Valley. The ranch is a nondenominational Christian ministry that supports overseas missions, holds horse camps and hosts horseback Bible studies, among other Christian activities.
The Youngs started their cowboy church about two years ago. And it has grown a faithful following -- up to 50 or 60 people some months. Services are held on the second Saturday of each month, April through November.
Like at any other church, a crying baby was rushed out on a recent Saturday evening. And an old man or two dozed off.
On Sunday morning many of those visiting will be in pews at more traditional services. At Cowboy Church, they expect an event.
The services are meant to be approachable. The casual environment is perfect for nonbelievers. And the animals are a draw for people of all faith backgrounds, said John Perez, a former Honduran missionary who now lives on the ranch.
"It's fun. It's casual," he said. "It's not in your face like some churches."
Before the service, kids trotted around on ponies and reached up to pet horses in their stalls. Guests grabbed snacks from a covered chuck wagon. And the sound of Gospel on guitars got toes tapping, even in the 90-degree heat.
After the service, the ranch put on a barbecue feast and a dance.
As others took a quick line-dancing lesson, Imogene Cribbs stretched back in a patio chair. She's no dancer, but is happy to watch. She came to cowboy church out of curiosity, after seeing a flier about it in Dunlap.
Cribbs is religious, faithfully attends a local Baptist church. She loved cowboy church and plans to come again next month. She was touched by the message delivered through the performance, the beauty of the horses and the end times story.
"It's different from anything I've been to in my life," she said. "I go to church, but it's nothing like this."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.