Every Sunday during the August Rodeo in Payson, a small group gathers before the events of the day get under way.
It is not a big group; it is not a rowdy group — it is a group of working ranch people and rodeo competitors who know from where their strength, courage and tenacity comes. They are the congregation of the Cowboy Church and they have come to reflect, rest and make ready for the day ahead.
The Payson Rodeo is not the only home of the Cowboy Church. There is a Cowboy Church service at just about every contest on the circuit. Ministers lead some services, but most are led by fellow competitors who have a connection with the contestants and a special way of sharing God’s word.
Penny Conway, 2001 Professional Women’s Rodeo Association World Champion Team Roper, a barrel racer and former Payson school teacher, believes the Cowboy Church movement is growing. She has been involved in Cowboy Church for many years and she and her husband Bill Conway even host an Easter Cowboy Church service at their Green Back Valley Ranch.
“Last year there were about 50 attending the August Cowboy Church,” she said.
This year she hopes to see more there. Her daughter-in-law Sarah, a roper, will be leading the service.
“She has a real gift. She spoke at the 2012 Mountain Bible Women’s Retreat and is taking classes through Chalice Bible School,” Conway said.
Conway will be organizing the service along with Rob Smets, who is one of the announcers for the rodeo.
“I feel like it’s grassroots and a comfortable place for people to come. It’s outside and non-threatening,” she said.
One of the founders of the Cowboy Church movement is Coy Huffman of California, Conway said. He led services at rodeos all through the West for many years. He has led services in Payson and when he was in the area, he would stay with Conway and her family and they would help with the services.
“It was birthed out of traveling contestants not knowing where to go (for church) in the host communities where they were competing,” Conway said. She said local people liked to come to the services too.
In addition to the message from the primary leaders of the service, often competitors will share their testimony. It is all related in a way that is analogous to Western culture and the cowboy and ranching life.
Conway asked others about Cowboy Church in preparation for her visit with the Roundup:
• The first Cowboy Church I attended was at the Payson Event Center and Jake Barnes was the speaker. I think Cowboy Church is successful because no matter what the venue is, worship can be held. Four walls and a roof are not necessary to feel the spirit of the Lord. I loved being around people who are what is termed “salt of the earth.” —Charlene Creach Brown
• For me, I believe it is the casual “come as you are” atmosphere. It is the simple Gospel without all the religious formalism, four-walled intimidation. When a cowboy preacher is standing there in his hat and normal clothes, he/she is a real person, in a real world, with a real message. People can relate to that. Pure and simple Word and worship. — Bruce Repka
• I think that many people don’t go to church is because they haven’t been before or went to an unfriendly church. They are afraid to go to a new place so put it off. So if they are at a race or roping, it makes it easy for them to just wander over and check it out ... it gives them the opportunity to be able to walk away so they don’t feel trapped by walls and people that would see them leave ... so just the freedom they feel will make them more relaxed, plus they know someone there. — Carol Anne Ferguson
• For many years I wanted to learn about Jesus but my family was far from church and I did not know how or where to go. I tried church once and was not dressed to fit in or did not know what the rules were. Then came Coy and Cowboy Church at the pro rodeos and my walk with Christ started. It has been the best walk ever and now I miss that, but Christ has me in new places all the time. — Joanie Cowden
• I completely believe in prayer. We pray before the rodeo ... with the rodeo and as Trey is in the box I always bow my head with McKinley and as she says “dear God help rip that steer’s head off and keep Dad safe!” Amen ... It’s so important and God is everywhere keeping our life safe and our animals and our friends and our family! – Shea Candace Nahrgang
The Cowboy Church at the 2013 World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo in Payson will be held at 9:30 a.m., Sunday, Aug. 18 under the big, white tent by the rodeo arena.