Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune newspaper sent a reporter to church — four hundred kilometers away in the little town of Mount Vernon, in southern Illinois.
And it was no ordinary house of worship. The congregation meets in a riding arena, normally home to horse shows and rodeos where bulls and bucking broncos toss cowboys into the dust. Its name is the New Frontier Cowboy Church.
At this cowboy and cowgirl — church, the minister preaches from the saddle. He wears a big,— white, ten-gallon hat like the hero in western movies. All hats come off during prayer, of course. And one of them gets passed around the bleachers when it comes time to collect the weekly cash offering.
There are more than 600 cowboy churches across America, meeting in arenas, barns, and out in the open in state fairgrounds. There's even an online directory of some of these homespun churches.
During the service, according to the Tribune article, Preachers tell corny jokes. Worshipers whoop, holler and clap. The bands jam with banjos, mandolins, guitars, drums and sometimes a worn washboard. It's not unusual to be baptized in a horse trough.
You don't see many suits and ties and Sunday-go-to-meetin' dresses at these services. Folks wear cowboy garb, right down to neckerchiefs and fancy belt buckles and spurs if they're riding.
According to the Tribune, the service in Mount Vernon closed, not with a traditional recessional hymn, but with a recording of the cowboy song made famous by the late King of the Cowboys, Roy Rogers, and his singing wife, Dale Evans: Happy Trails to You, Till We Meet Again.