Cowboy churches feel like home for many

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The church occupies a corner of the shopping center, behind the Taco Express, squeezed between the karate dojo and the massage and tattoo parlors, a few doors down from the medical marijuana shop.

“Lord God, we thank you for this place, this church,” the Rev. Brian Badger says at the start of the service. “We know it may be small, but Lord, we love filling it up.”

And the fold-out chairs are filling up all right — 31 folks, leaving a dozen or so seats open. “Amen,” they say.

Then the man up front in his cowboy hat and cowboy boots picks up his acoustic guitar. His wife in an old-timey dress takes her place at the keyboard.

“We’re gonna have cowboy church,” Badger says. “That all right?”

“Yeehaw!” the congregation might respond at Colorado Springs’ two other cowboy churches, where people do dress like the leaders up front — blouses, bolo ties, blue jeans and all. But here at Integrity Cowboy Church, the congregants don’t look much different from the crowd you’d find up the street at Walmart.

“Look at the people in here. You’d be surprised we actually call ourselves a cowboy church,” Badger said before worship, a time he takes to greet whoever walks through the door, with hugs for the ladies, firm handshakes for the men.

But make no mistake: They are here for cowboy church, which doesn’t simply imply country style and rowdy remarks. In this ever-urbanizing city, cowboy churches survive on something much more.

The night before, after leading worship with guitar and fiddle, Vern Thomson and Joe Stephenson reflected in the pews of Colorado Cowboys for Jesus.

“It’s just an ol’ relaxed atmosphere,” Stephenson said.

The band’s audience was 64 people clapping and stomping along. From the stage, Thomson asked a man how his heart was. “So it’s OK? OK. Just checkin’.”

He asked another where his wife was. “Couldn’t make it tonight,” the man said, “but she says, ‘Hey.'”

They sang happy birthday to another.

“We want them to feel like we’re in their living room,” Thomson said. “But we’d just as soon be out in the barn as well.”

At the Springs’ biggest cowboy church, aesthetics factor in, but not prominently, the Rev. Scotty Vaughn likes to think. Church on the Ranch is a church on pavement, a parking lot just about accommodating the 700 or 800 people who show for two Sunday services, a red brick building off Academy Boulevard.

The front is mostly red brick anyway. White siding replaced a portion, fashioned with a cross to somewhat resemble the little chapel at Flying W Ranch, where the church started in 2008.

Vaughn, who sports a thick, salt-and-pepper mustache, wasn’t sure about this building when he scouted it a few years ago. “It was like, ‘What the heck? Church on the Ranch in front of Academy Boulevard?'”

Then he realized the building had little to do with the church’s mission. What was it the board discussed in the early days? “Keep it simple, welcoming, and homey,” they wrote in an outline Vaughn keeps in his office, near the rack where he hangs his hat.

“No official membership,” the list says. “No name tags or anything else that separates the in crowd from the out crowd … All the administration that we have to have, and not one bit more … Sing the old hymns Western style … Don’t ever get program driven, building or otherwise …”

The building would fit the numbers who came, and that’s all that mattered. The hundreds — Vaughn still can’t believe it. “Considering the pastor’s a knothead, I’m as stunned by that as anybody else.”

Self-deprecation goes with the banjos and harmonicas at cowboy church. At Colorado Cowboys for Jesus, Thomson is always good for a fat joke, his belly a bit hung over his belt.

But for Thomson and Vaughn, former musicians at the Flying W Ranch, the past is no laughing matter. It is a story they tell to get real with their listeners.

“On any given week, I might say I’m the most broken person in this place,” Vaughn says.

Both men fell into alcoholism. Thomson thanks God every day for the family that stayed with him. Amid his own “road dog” days as a traveling singer-songwriter, Vaughn divorced his wife.

“We had an abortion,” he says. “And it was my fault, my deal all the way. I was a self-centered booger all the way.”

At the Flying W, Thomson figured he’d straighten up. But the concerts only put him and Vaughn around more booze. Not until they picked up a Bible, they say, did they turn the other way. They started their sober lives going on 30 years.

They hit the road to evangelize, spreading the good word and singing old hymns to people around the country. They came together at the Flying W, soon outgrowing the little chapel and moving to “the chuckwagon,” the gravel spot where tourists ate supper at picnic tables.

After the ranch burned in the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, worship moved to the rodeo arena at the Norris-Penrose Event Center. By then, Thomson and Stephenson had parted with Vaughn to grow another church.

No hard feelings, the good friends say. It’s just that Vaughn no longer had the same passion for music.

“I realized I wasn’t being called to entertain people,” he says. “I was being called to speak truth into some real brokenness.”

So he tries every Sunday. His sermons have been described as fireside chats.

Around the time he got clean, “I met an angel,” he says, and they’ve been married 32 years. Cindy keeps him grounded, he says, calling him out for using preachy words like “sanctification.”

“Getting cut out of the herd,” he might instead say.

“One thing I like about this church,” Stephenson says onstage at Colorado Cowboys for Jesus, “we aren’t afraid to have fun, are we?”

“We ain’t sceered!” proclaims his wife next to him, causing an uproar of laughter.

She’s got a voice that takes you somewhere else, sweet and echoing over the prairie. Thomson complements with a grainy baritone. And Stephenson is fit to bust out a solo with his fiddle, or he might do a quick jig with his feet.

He was raised Baptist. “I didn’t particularly like it because I had to sit down and be quiet and only talk when I was talked to,” he says. “That’s what makes this church special. We encourage laughter, we encourage sharing our problems and our blessings with one another.”

Badger thinks the same of Integrity Cowboy Church. He and his wife have led for more than a decade now, and every year seems to bring someone new. Someone who’s recently moved from a much smaller town, searching for something.

“Where they’re from, it’s not called cowboy church, it’s just church,” says Badger’s wife, Lynn. “They come to a city with all these megachurches, and it’s not that those churches are doing something wrong. But they don’t feel that same home-ness.”

We’re losing something in the West, Badger says. “And it’s connected to those small churches in those small towns. … I think people still need that.”

At the start of service, he hears problems. A mother needs a good, reliable car. A man needs to be free from his debt. Badger prays for them.

And when it’s time to sing, they all stand, and the kids shake tambourines alongside grandma, and not everyone knows the old Western tune, but they sway and sing along anyway.