ARCHDALE — It’s a hot Tuesday night at the dirt-floored Triad Livestock Arena and horses are walking, guitars are twanging and Doug Davis is wearing his red shirt, jeans and cowboy hat as he prepares to preach.
The Triad Cowboy Church is rolling.
Some people wear cowboy clothes and others are just comfortable in jeans and T-shirts. They sing southern gospel songs and do the pledges: members on horseback bring up the U.S. and Christian flags inside the corral and the congregation stands to pledge allegiance.
Davis holds up the Bible for the third pledge. He preaches a simple gospel message and at the end, a man comes forward for membership.
After the service, members stand around chatting for quite a while as darkness falls. It’s a casual atmosphere, but the gospel is unchanged, Davis said.
Cowboy churches have become a growing phenomenon in North Carolina. Two dozen or more have been started in recent years, many with the guidance of cowboy missionary Jeff Smith, supported through the Cooperative Program and the North Carolina Missions Offering supported by Baptist State Convention churches.
Smith coordinates reaching the cowboy culture in North Carolina with efforts across the country through the Cowboy Church Network of North America.
Cowboy churches are part of the Convention’s wider church planting strategy that calls for starting new churches aimed at affinity groups. That involves organizing a church less on geographical terms and more around life interests.
That’s why the Convention has started churches for motorcycle riders, skateboarders and cowboys, among others. These affinity group churches were among the 99 new churches started by Convention-affiliated workers during 2007.
Cowboys are more common in North Carolina than you might think. American Horse Council figures put the state among the top 10 in horse population.
Smith started the Triad Cowboy Church and moved on to other work; a year ago the church called Davis as pastor. Davis, 58, had served several traditional Baptist churches, including the previous nine years at nearby Glenola Baptist Church.
For a time Glenola supported the Triad Cowboy Church by letting Davis lead mid-week services. When Triad needed a full-time pastor, Davis said, “I just felt a tug on my heart saying this was where God wanted me to work and serve.”
Davis grew up on a farm and loves hunting and fishing, but he does not own a horse. A member with several horses provides him the use of Shadow, a Tennessee walking horse, any time Davis needs a horse for the congregation’s frequent trail rides. Horseback riding on trails in parks at Greensboro and other area locations is a standard outreach technique for cowboy churches.
“The rides are fellowship opportunities for our church members, but we hold Bible studies with the rides to reach people who are non-Christians. And then we take Christian literature to share with people we meet along the trail,” Davis said.
Triad has begun to attract farmers and even some “city slickers” outside the cowboy culture, Davis said.
“The important thing about our church is that people can be who they are,” he said. “People like that, one, they don’t have to dress up and, two, our people are genuine. Some of our people like to look at horses and be around horses, but they would be afraid to actually get on one. But they like our cowboy church. It’s not about a building. It’s about the people.”
Davis tells of a family who moved to the area from the North and has several horses. The man tried to involve his family in area churches but his wife would have none of them.
When the family visited Triad, they immediately fell in love with the cowboy/casual approach to the gospel and have become regular attendees.
Earlier this year Triad began holding Sunday services in the gym of a local school. The location eliminates the use of horses, but in return members get to have Bible study and discipleship lessons in air-conditioned comfort.
Davis dreams of creating the first cowboy-style worship center in the state.