KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Despite the sweltering heat in the summer and freezing conditions in the winter, the fellowship grew. Over the years, two more cowboy churches were started by members of Circle J Cowboy Church; Cross Anchor Cowboy Church in Hawkins County by Steve Wade and Circle C Cowboy Church in Morristown by Kent Hightower.
In a given week, up to 200 people attend one of the three cowboy churches. Such growth is evident all across the country. A few decades ago, there was no such thing as a cowboy church. Today, according to the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, there are at least 200 churches in their organization alone, and hundreds more besides.
What is it that attracts people to cowboy church? According to Pastor Dan, one reason for the popularity is its simplicity. “Jesus met with regular people and made his message plain,” he said. “We try to do the same with the Gospel message.”
The church’s slogan is “Bringing simple church to a complicated world.” The dress is casual — usually jeans, boots and cowboy hats. The music is a combination of country gospel, cowboy gospel and bluegrass. People from all walks of life come to Circle J Cowboy Church.
“You don’t have to be a cowboy to love cowboy church,” said Pastor Dan. “If you enjoy listening to country music or watching a Western, you would probably enjoy cowboy church.”
Larry and Kathy Rhoton of Kingsport have attended Circle J Cowboy Church for over four years. They stay busy with a cattle farm in Mendota as well as keeping up their acreage in town. Larry said he first noticed the church sign at the auction barn.
“I knew there was something special going on there,” he said. Kathy said it was the simplicity and friendliness that attracted them to cowboy church. “Dan does such a great job of delivering a message in a way that anybody can understand it,” she said.
Horse owner and trainer Mateo Brianno of Blountville has been with Circle J Cowboy Church since its beginning.
“I identify with the cowboy lifestyle but also like the way the Gospel is preached in a simple and clean way,” he said.
Ray Horton of Kingsport also began attending the church when it met at the auction barn years ago. Ray said that his wife, Anne, who passed away four years ago, loved cowboy church.
“Her one last request was that I continue to go to cowboy church,” he said. Ray said he especially enjoys the fellowship of friendly people, and the good messages. “Everybody is friendly, and I never fail to take away something from the pastor’s teaching,” he said.
The church now meets at the Fordtown Ruritan Club in Kingsport. In the summer, baptisms take place in the nearby pool of a church member. In the winter, an indoor horse trough does the job.
Each week, Pastor Dan begins the service with a prayer and a cowboy poem, followed by a cowboy song. Musician Jim Mathes of Jonesborough leads in praise and worship music, which is followed by a “shake and howdy” time of fellowship. There is always food at the snack table and, of course, plenty of coffee. After the message, the service closes each week with the song “Happy Trails” which was made famous by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Besides the weekly services, the church is involved in several ongoing mission opportunities. Every Wednesday morning, a group of women meet for a home Bible study. In the past, the church has held several Cowboy Day events to bring awareness of the cowboy church to the community. The events included pony and wagon rides, chuck wagon cooking and cowboy music.
Ultimately, though, Pastor Dan stresses that the main purpose of Circle J Cowboy Church is to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “We want people to know that God loves them and has a plan for their life,” he said.