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It is Monday evening and the Boone County Fairgrounds arena is filled with people. Sitting on metal bleachers and folding chairs with blankets, this community gathers weekly to bask in a warm, encouraging atmosphere filled with faith and friends. First-time visitors receive colorful bandanas amid the smells of sawdust and horses, and the sounds of guitars tuning.

This is the weekly worship service of Gateway to the High Country Cowboy Church. From 7 to 8 p.m., the Rev. Dale Larison leads this Baptist congregation from a steer-horn-decorated pulpit in the main indoor arena of Boone County Fairgrounds.

A large rug with a woven image of a horse serves as an altar of sorts, lying on the floor between the congregation and the pulpit. Country music, cowboy metaphors and horse stories embellish Larison’s message to the 80 or 90 parishioners. Most clap or sing along while a few sit quietly wearing meditative expressions. Everybody’s feet bounce or tap to the music of the Ten Gallon Hat Christian Cowboy Band. Horses hang their heads over the arena railing and seem to follow the service with intermittent nods and a polite, reserved quietness.

“This setting attracts an element of American culture that other churches aren’t necessarily tapping into,” Larison says.

Cowboy church is a growing phenomenon that is sweeping the country, Larison says. Several organizations have been established to facilitate the founding of new cowboy churches and serve as resources for those seeking to attend or found a cowboy church in their area. Yet there is no central, organized governing body or committee that regulates the churches; congregations are born out of word-of-mouth suggestions and community support.

Saddle Up
“It is harder to make a cowboy out of a preacher than it is to make a preacher out of a cowboy,” Larison says.

Perhaps that is why, after serving as a pastor in central Missouri for many years, the self-proclaimed “wannabe cowboy” found himself asking friends and local congregations for support to establish a cowboy church in Columbia. And now Larison finds himself at the head of his “herd” every Monday evening at the Boone County Fairgrounds. The church previously met at Midway Exposition Center, but when the well-lit, heated, indoor arena at the fairgrounds became available two years ago, the congregation welcomed the opportunity to change locations.

You don’t have to be a cowboy to attend cowboy church, Larison says, “Seventy percent of our people aren’t cowboys or don’t have a horse, but [they] like the atmosphere and music.”

Cowboy church member Jan Bradley enjoys the atmosphere. “It’s just been a lot of fun,” says Bradley, a former barrel racer. “We’ve made a lot of friends … and we hope that it will just keep growing.”

The evening has the feel of a family gathering. Before and after the service, worshippers chat with each other about how their week is going, and about horses, the weather and their children. There’s no passing of the collection plate at this service; instead, worshippers place donations in cowboy boots set on a table to the side of the congregation, where cardboard cutouts of John Wayne and Roy Rogers overlook them.

Parents watch as children come to the front of the congregation at the beginning of each service for “buckaroo time” with Larison. Most of the children wear cowboy boots, and some wear cowboy hats. During buckaroo time, Larison sits with the children on the rug in front of the pulpit and tells a story — often about horses. He uses the story as a metaphor for how to better connect with God and help the children understand their faith as young Christians.

“Cowboys come in all shapes and forms,” Larison says. “There are some that are true-blue cowboys, who were raised on a horse, rode in the rodeo, did the rope, and rode broncos and those kinds of things — and there’s the cowboy wannabes like me.”

No Barriers
The services attract a variety of curious visitors. “Some stick and others think ‘this is amusing,’ but don’t come back,” Larison says. But there is always a steady inflow of curious newcomers, he says, eager to enjoy cowboy church’s simple program based on a “no-barriers” style of worship. This means that traditions with no Biblical basis are not present in Columbia’s cowboy church service.

Gateway to the High Country Cowboy Church also aims to deliver the word of God straight from Biblical passages, Larison says. Baptisms take place in a horse trough. Those who wish to join the church in the winter are encouraged to wait until warmer weather heats up the water.

 “Cowboy culture is that American independent cowboy spirit, a free spirit,” Larison says. “If you’ve got that independent cowboy spirit — even if you don’t have a horse — you’re welcome at cowboy church. For that matter, everyone is welcome at cowboy church.”

The Cowboy Church will begin hosting Sunday Services in April, at the R.V. Park adjacent to the main arena, at 10 a.m.

For more information, visit the Gateway to the High Country Cowboy Church of Columbia website atwww.gtthccc.com.

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