Originally created 12/16/06

The cowboy way



The Rev. Lynn Kirkland was preaching recently to a new congregation when a dog decided the best place to snooze was at his feet. The minister let the sleeping dog lie and kept preaching.

"He went to sleep, but nobody else did," said the Rev. Kirkland, the lead pastor behind the first weekly cowboy church in Aiken County.

The start up congregation by Heights Baptist Church in Beech Island meets Tuesdays in a barn behind the Double W Tack and More shop on Pine Log Road in Warrenville. Tuesday services amid the sawdust, hay, dogs and horses create a welcoming environment for people who make their living in the horse industry or just enjoy country music and a relaxed, jeans-and-boots atmosphere.

"The cowboy's mind goes back to the rodeo," said the Rev. Jeff Smith in a phone interview from his home in Midland, N.C.

His love for people in the horse culture led him to start a string of cowboy churches in the past three years. Many are listed with the Cowboy Church Network of North America, which he oversees for the North American Mission Board, of Alpharetta, Ga. The board overseas the mission agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Rev. Smith also leads three cowboy churches and a fledging congregation in North Carolina.

"Some people think you can't worship in a barn, but Jesus was born in a barn," said the Rev. Smith, who baptizes new members in horse troughs bought for that use.

The cowboy church movement stems from the evangelists and ministers who followed horse events over the years and conducted services periodically, he said. The month-old Aiken church probably will list with the network in 2007, based on response , the Rev. Kirkland said.

"We didn't think anybody would want to do it, but up here there is so much equestrian sport, it is catching on. This is really cool," said Michelle Morris, part of the M&M band, which plays country Christian and contemporary Christian music for the Warrenville cowboy church.

She and her husband, Mitch, and six of their seven children moved to the area from Griffin, Ga. All of the Morrises in the area (the oldest son, 19-year-old Matthew, plays in Florida) perform in the band.

"We have been looking for cowboy church for a long time," she said. "It's been in the back of everybody's minds. We have all been thinking of the same thing, and it is finally coming together."

Reach Virginia Norton at (706) 823-3336 or virginia.norton@augustachronicle.com.