Cowboy church riding high in the saddle
Cape County congregation thrives in livestock barn
By Allen Palmeri
August 9, 2005
FRUITLAND – Jim Matthews, who turns 50 in September, is living his dream. He is the full-time pastor of Cape County Cowboy Church, a young congregation of about 460 people (Thursday nights) and 330 people (Sunday mornings) that has been thriving in a livestock auction barn.
“Somebody’s got to reach that culture, and we believe that God’s raising up this church to be that somebody,” Matthews said.
“This has been my ministry, toward this culture, before there was ever a cowboy church. It’s always been who I went after. As long as I’m breathing and there’s a Gospel to be preached, my main heartbeat will be the cowboy.”
Matthews planted the cowboy church in January 2004 with Mike Parry, pastor, Fruitland Community Church, Jackson. It grew so quickly that Matthews was able to leave his church, Red Star Baptist Church, Cape Girardeau, to become full-time pastor of the cowboy church in June 2004. Ben Hess, Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) church planting specialist, calls this phenomenon “finding the person of peace,” or the entry point, into a tribe of people in need of spiritual guidance.
“He just happened to be a Southern Baptist pastor who was deeply connected to that cowboy community,” Hess said. “He is our person of peace, so it worked out real well.”
Way back in 1977, when he was a student at Southwest Baptist University, Matthews started to pray that he would one day be the pastor of a cowboy church. Now he is doing just that as the Fruitland livestock auction barn, which seats 400, is often filled to capacity on Thursdays. Flickerwood Arena in Jackson offers the church a bigger venue for special events, including one which recently drew 900. Sunday morning worship services, which began when Matthews came on board as full-time pastor, regularly draws about 325.
Matthews has found that the Thursday-Sunday worship combination works well for cowboy folk, who may only make it to one service a week.
“I see the horse culture as a particular group of people that are so busy, so devoted to their passion and occupation and hobby of horses, that it keeps them away from a weekend and a typical Sunday service,” Matthews said. “This has been a great way to find them and offer them a place to worship around a group of people they’re comfortable worshipping with.”
The Cape County Cowboy Church has a vision to plant other cowboy churches in the area. They have assisted with a new cowboy church plant in Keenes, Ill., that is running about 100 in a local livestock auction barn, and Aug. 17 they will be doing a horse clinic in Decatur, Ill., for a group that has started a Bible study there with the goal of planting a church. Another cowboy church is meeting down toward “The Bootheel” in Blodgett. A common characteristic of all of these churches, Matthew said, is that people will not think twice about driving 40-60 miles to get there.
The Cape County Cowboy Church reaches out in a variety of ways. It recently put on a non-riders horse clinic, a horseshoeing clinic, and a worship service at the 4-H rodeo.
“We develop relationships using the horse as a bridge and a tool,” Matthews said.
“We’ve reached a lot of people who were not of the Baptist faith. One night last June we baptized five people in their 70s.”
Because of the commitment of a core group that was immersed in the cowboy culture, the church has done well, Hess said. This is the beauty of indigenous ministry.
“You have a very natural flow of communication,” Hess said. “Instead of creating barriers in the style of worship or the place where you would worship or how you would communicate God’s truth, you actually went across the bridges that God put into that culture.”
Now the cowboy church is branching out through small groups. Coordinator Denah Siebert is working to have 20 Bible study “cells” operational by the end of the year.
“That’s the nucleus of building the believers and making disciples out of attenders,” Matthews said.