Like the parable Jesus told about searching for a lost sheep, Cowboy at the Church is gathering up strays and sharing the word of God. With sawdust covering the floor and dust settling on the chairs, the church "sanctuary" may seem a bit rustic, but families coming off the farm feel right at home.
"Our Sunday morning worship is definitely a little different than you're going to see in other churches," said Shane Kier, church pastor.
First off, services are held in a barn described as "cowboy insulated." Folks are casually dressed. The worship team selects music that's got a country-western flair. The message is biblically grounded, but peppered with stories and terms that reflect the cowboy culture. Usually there's a cowboy poem that ties into the message. Sometimes services are held outdoors; Pastor Shane leads a horse into the arena and talks about how an individual's relationship with his horse isn't that much different from his relationship with God.
The ministry also includes Sunday school, children's church, youth group and Bible studies.
At the conclusion of morning worship, which starts at 10 a.m., families unload their horses for some friendly competition. Team roping, barrel racing and ranch rodeos take place just about every week.
Located along Tongue Creek Road in Austin, Cowboy at the Cross draws ranching families from miles around. They catch up over breakfast of biscuits and gravy. Once a month, they share a potluck meal. When the weather is nice, Sunday morning worship turns into an all-day family affair.
The cowboy ministry is growing so quickly, Sunday morning services will be moved to the Delta sale barn this winter.
"We've outgrown our current facilities," Kier said. Some mornings, it's standing room only.
While temporarily occupying the sale barn, Cowboy at the Cross will be praying and looking for a place to move the ministry, which includes summer camps for kids. "The building will still be fairly rustic, and will probably still have sawdust floors, but we'd like something warm and comfortable," Kier said. "We pretty much need to expand in every direction, from bathroom facilities to kitchen to parking. Eventually what we'd really like to do is build an indoor arena that would tie in directly to the church."
The growth of the cowboy ministry has been nothing short of amazing, Kier said.
Kier's ranching heritage is deep-rooted. His ancestors homesteaded in Toponas, between Vail and Steamboat Springs. His family sold a portion of that property and moved to Delta when he was a teen.
Kier says his family went to church off and on, but his walk with God actually began with a rodeo Bible camp in Oak Creek. After moving to Delta, he attended Delta Christian Church and then First Baptist Church of Delta. He graduated from Delta High School in 1996 and ranched with his dad for about five years. He also trained horses and was a Delta County sheriff's deputy.
During a Rick Barton revival at Delta First Baptist in 1999, Kier felt led to put on a rodeo Bible camp. With encouragement and practical advice from Pastor James Conley, Pastor Terry Hedrick, and Mike and Wanda Volz, he and his wife Amanda organized a trail ride to raise funds for camp. Kier got to know Mike and Wanda Volz when he was living in the Steamboat Springs area and attending Fellowship of Christian Cowboys events they organized.
The first camp was offered in the summer of 2001. While participation has increased, the format remains the same for the three-day camp. Horse/rodeo clinicans work with boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 18 to develop technique in team roping, barrel racing, saddle bronc riding, bull riding and other events. Time is set aside to study God's word both in chapel and small groups.
With incredible support from volunteers and businesses, the ministry has expanded to include Pony Camp, a day camp for kids 7 and under, and Horse Training Camp, another three-day Bible camp for kids 8-18.
New this year is an outreach to Fort Apache, Ariz. This ministry grew from a desire of youth pastor Andrew Bowman to take the church's youth on a mission trip. That led to a vacation Bible school at Fort Apache during the Christmas break last December. While sharing radio time with Pastor Edmond Cosay of Fire on the Mountain Church, Kier talked about his desire to bring rodeo Bible camp to the Apache tribe.
"Rodeo is a huge part of their culture so it's a great vehicle for sharing the gospel," Kier said. While he and his leadership team were looking toward the future, radio listeners got so excited about the idea they convinced Cowboy at the Church to get the camp up and running immediately. So, in late July Kier and his volunteers will be running a camp on the White Mountain Apache Tribal Fairgrounds.
They've also lent support to the Stillwater Rodeo Bible Camp at the Mesa County Fairgrounds last week.
"When you are able to bring men and women in that love the Lord, that have a passion for the same thing you're teaching, you already have a kid's interest right there," Kier said. "To be able to use that to speak God's truth into their lives is a great opportunity. A lot of camps have rope courses and other activities to challenge kids; most of the kids who come to our camps are pretty challenged in their events, especially rough stock events. Those kids are a little out of their element. They have to put everything into what they're doing. It becomes an opportunity to really take a look at where we're at in life and how we're going about it, if we're going about it properly, as God designed."
After a promising start in 2001, "We continued putting on camps, rodeos, team ropings, barrel racing, ranch rodeos and so on, partially to continue ministering in the community and partially to help fundraise for the camps.
"What we were doing was definitely positive," Kier said. "We were sharing the Good News, but Jesus called us to make disciples and I felt we were falling short in that."
As they developed relationships with the families participating in camps and rodeos, the Kiers did their best to plug them into local churches they thought would be a good fit. "But they kept coming back to our leadership for everything from weddings to funerals. I started feeling the need to start a church to minister to the cowboy culture. We started praying about it and in 2011 started Cowboy at the Cross Church."
Now Kier had two full-time jobs -- ranching and his ministry -- but he started taking college Bible courses online, with the goal of becoming an ordained minister.
When asked about the cowboy culture, he talks about the roots of our Western heritage -- honesty, integrity and the traits that honor God -- going out and doing right by your neighbor; a handshake is as good as your word.
There are times, though, when "our fun-lovin' ways" go too far, he added.
"With these camps, and in worship, we stress the good qualities and make a strong stand against unhealthy behavior," Kier said.
To learn more about Cowboy at the Cross, visit ww.cowboyatthecross.com.