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Gospel riders
Cowboy churches appeal to those more comfortable in the saddle than a pew
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Jeff Smith, a cowboy missionary, speaks on Thursday afternoon at Poplar Springs Baptist Church to people interested in planting cowboy churches. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

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Cowboy missionary Jeff Smith describes a cowboy church service.

GAINESVILLE — At a cowboy church, wearing belt buckles with boots and preaching in a barn with horses is not uncommon.

Cowboy missionary the Rev. Jeff Smith, along with the help of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, is hoping to bring the casual services to the Northeast Georgia area.

"My goal is to plant a cowboy church in every county and that will take a lifetime of work," said Smith, a pastor for 20 years. "It’s the flavor; it’s the style; it’s going to the people on their turf and on their terms, planting a church that they can relate to."

On Thursday, Smith held a cowboy church seminar called Brass Tacks for Cowboy Church Planting at Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Oakwood. There, Smith spoke to those interested about how to start a cowboy church, the functions of the church, ways to promote the church and mistakes of a cowboy preacher.

"There are a lot of people out there who are either horse oriented, cowboy oriented," said the Rev. Mike Taylor, new church strategist at the CBA. "They are not the kind of people that like to slip into a sport coat and a necktie to go to church on Sunday. What we are trying to do is lower the barriers that keep people away from church."

Cowboy Church is a ministry of the Cowboy Church Network of North America, based in Midland, N.C. Smith has been affiliated with the group for four and a half years.

"I was just blown away by the great interest there was in that church when I started my first one," Smith said. "Then I started some in other areas and since then in the past four and a half years we have planted at least 45 cowboy churches from here to Canada."

Taylor said he believes, from the seminar, at least one cowboy church is in the works for the Hall County area.

"I think we are going to have another new church maybe by the start of late spring or early summer," he said. Rebecca Hampton began her own Cowboy Church about a year and a half ago in the Jerusalem community, near Rome.

"I own the HH Ranch, the ranch of hope and healing," she said. "God started sending children there that have hurts and need safer places to go. They would come help with the barn and I would teach them riding lessons; we would ride and share our hearts. It’s been a really neat ministry.

"It was hard to take all the children to church so I thought, ‘Let’s have the Cowboy Church and bring it to the people.’"

At Hampton’s cowboy church, each service begins with a grand entry with everyone on horseback.

"We have the American flag and the Christian flag that rides up front and the horses come in behind ... it is so exciting," she said. "Then we have a welcome, a prayer, and we have the cowboy service."

After the first few services, which meet one Saturday a month, Hampton couldn’t believe the turnout.

"I was amazed at the people that came. They came in the rain, in the snow, when it was so hot you couldn’t stand it," she said.

Smith adds that when he steps out in front of his congregation on Sundays, it’s in his normal cowboy garb.

"I step out there and preach with my belt buckle, my jeans and my boots; and when we baptize it’s in a horse trough," he said. "Our communion tray is made out of wood, not fancy plated steel."

There are currently three cowboy churches in Georgia, located in Ringgold, LaFayette and Jerusalem.

"What we are trying to do is make church and the gospel more readily available so they can hear it in a cultural setting that they are familiar with," Taylor said. "Right now we have four new churches, and hopefully at least one new cowboy church, in the pipelines that are ready to start between now and Easter."

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