Cowboy church welcomes all
A church for the unchurched.
That’s how Kevin Garber, pastor at Saltgrass Cowboy Church in Santa Fe, describes his place of worship.
On a recent Sunday morning, several church members on horseback welcomed visitors, waving as each person entered the grounds at 5622 FM 646.
The church building itself is about the furthest thing from a traditional church as one can imagine.
“You won’t find any stained-glass windows or padded pews here,” the church’s website states.
The space resembles the inside of a fairgrounds building, and visitors are immediately greeted with a smile and a hug.
If you’re lucky, you’ll go on a Sunday when food is served before church, which happens to be most Sundays, Garber said.
“We joke that pretty much anytime we meet, there will be food,” Garber said.
After enjoying the food and finding a place to sit, it’s almost time for the service to start.
Each service begins with music, a mix of country praise and worship and remade country songs, Garber said.
After about four songs, Garber and his fellow congregants take prayer requests. He then spends about 45 minutes preaching to the crowd.
Of course, no service would be complete without a final rendition of the 1952 hit “Happy Trails.”
Saltgrass Cowboy Church is one of a growing number of cowboy churches across America, perhaps most particularly in Texas, where members might meet in rural settings with Western themes.
“It’s definitely a cowboy church boom,” Garber said. “It’s extremely popular because it’s come as you are.”
Garber’s church is part of the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches, which is organized under the Baptist General Convention of Texas and has about 200 churches across the United States.
The American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches used an earlier model of cowboy church, developed in the 1970s, and emphasizes the unchurched attitude Garber said.
“Cowboy churches strive to remove as many of the barriers and formalities as possible that might be found in the more traditional church settings and offer a more relaxed come as you are atmosphere, where everyone is welcome,” organization officials said.
While Galveston County is known for coastal communities, it also has plenty of cowboy culture, Garber said.
“There are a lot more cowboys than people realize around here,” Garber said. “There are a lot of day ranchers who go work some of the other farms around the area.”
But it’s not so much the cowboy culture that draws people into the church as it is the open-armed approach to welcoming people, Garber said.
“We’ve had several who were going to the Catholic church now coming here,” Garber said. “We’re all Bible-based. But some people are scared of the traditions and the things going on at the other churches. But if you show up here and a stranger gives you a big hug, it’s going to brighten your day. Everyone who shows up here is considered family.”
Garber said it was the same approach that drew him into the Saltgrass Cowboy Church, which is now about 10 years old.
“I was not raised with church and attended seldomly as a kid,” he said. “I was baptized in high school. Then I met my wife — we’ve been married 25 years. She started coming here five or six years ago and eventually I showed up and got comfortable with it.”
When the Saltgrass Cowboy Church first started, about 50 people attended. That number has grown to about 165 each Sunday, Garber said.
Though many of the people who go may look like a cowboy, or at the very least have a passing interest in Western culture, that’s not what unites them, Garber said.
“The cowboy culture is more what’s in your heart than in what you wear or do,” Garber said.