The cowboy church movement is spreading faster than a dry Texas prairie fire – and it had its origin right here in Waxahachie.

Even the names of the church suggest places of worship in frontier days – names like Choctaw Creek, Buffalo Soldiers, Chisum Trails, Diamond J or High Mesa Cowboy Church.

Décor is rustic, with a large, pine floor stage sporting a cedar post pulpit. Positioned to the side or perhaps recessed into the floor might be an oval-shaped galvanized trough used for watering cattle, but, in church, used as a baptistery.

And the music – well, western of course – is usually old gospel hymns with a western flair that would make the Sons of the Pioneers proud.

Beginning in March 2004 in what became known as the Cowboy Church of Ellis County, the simple agenda of the movement is to reach people who have a bent toward the outdoors with riding and roping while providing a worship experience.  And the movement has had astonishing success in reaching a sector of the population that may not have otherwise set foot inside a church house.

And if it could be said there was a point man instrumental in starting up the phenomenon, everyone in the association would point to Ron Nolan, founding pastor of the Cowboy Church of Ellis County in March 2000.

“I grew up in Lancaster and became a Christian when I was 22 years old,” he said. “I had served in the traditional church through the years and worked for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.”

He said his son, Matt, took him to a team roping in Glen Rose several years ago and when he saw the large crowd of cowboys that was gathered at the roping, he couldn’t help but think about the need to have a church for them.

“My son told me that I just needed to relax – that all I talked about was church,” he said. “He told me that those guys there would never set foot in a church.”

About three months later, Matt told him he ought to start a cowboy church. The result was Cowboy Church of Ellis County.

“It has just exploded with growth,” Ron Nolan said. “By the second year, we had reached 767 in attendance. I called Gary Morgan out in West Texas and told him we needed help and he came to be the pastor.”

Today, Nolan serves as executive director of the Texas Fellowship of Cowboy Churches and the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches.

Sponsored by First Baptist Church of Waxahachie, the 10-year-old CCEC, that had more than 2,300 people to pack into its worship center several weeks ago Easter Sunday, is the flagship church of the movement, which has grown into 144 cowboy congregations throughout Texas and other states including Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama, Colorado, North Carolina, New Mexico, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Mexico.

Frank Sanchez, who for 42 years, never walked inside a church, has become a fixture in Cowboy Church of Ellis County. He serves as a member of Circuit Riders Cowboy Church, a group that assists other groups desiring to start another church. Also called chase team leaders, the group coaches pastors and lay leaders, training and familiarizing church leaders with the cowboy church model and strategy.

“It’s as simple as one pastor training another pastor – one lay leader training another lay leader,” he said.

Sanchez said people in western culture have become leery of some of the staples observed in more traditional churches.

“Unchurched people view a traditional church as an organization that just wants their money and they also feel that the institutional church is too ‘righteous’ for them,” he said. “What we want to do in the cowboy church is to lower those barriers built up between the church and the unchurched, and make people feel comfortable – that they can come as they are.”

He said there’s no altar call and there are no offering plates passed.

“We just want to relax and let God move,” he said. “We don’t do house calls. If someone who has visited our church wants to make a decision to join the church or to come to Christ and be baptized, they sign a list at the back of the building and someone will give them a call. Everybody today has a cell phone and can be contacted easily.”

Sanchez said he feels the cowboy church movement is perhaps the most phenomenal Christian movement in 100 years.

Ray Lane, pastor of Triple Cross Cowboy Church of Hood County, located in Granbury, agrees.

“We started our church in Granbury about two and one half years ago with about a dozen people,” he said. “Last Sunday, we had over 700 in attendance.”

Mike Morrow, who for six years has been pastor of Crossbrand Cowboy Church of Tyler, preached to 950 people last week.

“To me, the cowboy church movement has given me the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s comfortable and it’s simple. No barriers – no fences.”

Lance Rogers, who said he was called to the ministry at an early age, was raised in a traditional church. He said he wanted to get his family into a cowboy church – he had a desire to just blend in and be a part of a crowd without any commitment.

“We joined the Cowboy Church of Ellis County,” he said. “And I got involved in the worship band and then ended up being a lay minister in the church.”

E-mail Paul at paul.gauntt@wninewscom