I had told my brother I would go with him to a new church being formed near his home. Which was why I was following him on a Tuesday evening as we navigated about five miles of narrow, winding, country roads in Church Hill, Tenn. He led the way in his pickup truck while I followed on my Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Just as it was about to get dark on a cool but pleasant evening, he turned right into a dirt and gravel driveway. The driveway then gave way to open fields, something the Harley and its rider weren’t accustomed to. Then there we were. I was about to attend my first service ever at the Cross Anchor Cowboy Church.
The small but friendly congregation parked their vehicles in the grass in the field and then walked into the three-sided barn where services were held. The floor of the barn was covered by gravel and a portable toilet, located outside and around the corner, served the congregation’s needs. It was well lit and the guitar and microphones were powered up.
My brother, Wayne, told me that he thought that pastor, Steve Wade, was a former cowboy from Oklahoma. He certainly fit the part. Looking a great deal like a white-headed Sam Elliot, complete with mustache, an actor famous for cowboy and tough guy roles, Wade had the deep voice and western drawl of an Elliot-like cowboy.
He was dressed casually, as were all the attendees, and wore a white cowboy hat.
The joyous music was led by a group of folks accompanied by a guitar and violin (or a fiddle). There was a welcoming “down home” country sound to some old gospel hymns such as “Over in the Glory Land” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”
Sweet tea (I mean so sweet that it’s a wonder the spoon didn’t stand up in the glass) and coffee were available for congregants to take back to their folding chairs during the service. A bucket hung on a nail on the wall where church members deposited their offerings — there was no formal “offertory.”
Pastor Wade, a bi-vocational pastor who works as a brick mason by day, talked leisurely with the people for a while before beginning his sermon. He asked one of the men to share what had happened at the Hawkins County Jail.
As new and as small (16 present that night) as the church is, it has a jail ministry. The man shared that, after the jail service, three young inmates lingered and made a commitment to serve Christ as their Lord. Pastor Wade also shared that, that very day, he had been able to lead a man at work to Christ. “Not bad,” he smiled and said, “for a church in the dirt.”
Not bad at all, I thought.
The sermon was uplifting and pointed people to Jesus. There was no fire, brimstone, judging, or condemnation. Wade said that, if it hadn’t been for Christ, he would be a lost alcoholic and drug addict. What the sermon did proclaim was grace, mercy, and love.
Afterwards, people lingered and talked as they cleaned up and prepared to leave. There, on a moon-lit night, with the sounds of crickets plainly heard, in an open-sided barn in the middle of a field in rural Tennessee, people had worshipped with and had met God.
I thought, on the bike ride back to the hotel in the cool night mountain air, about people who insisted that God had to be worshipped in just a certain way and with just the right forms or the right liturgy.
(And I admit that I prefer the historic sacramental expression of worship combined with the evangelical and the charismatic expressions added to the mix).
“No,” I mused, “they have to have the right heart — a heart for and a hunger for God.” That is found in many places. I found it to be true at the Cowboy Church.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277. Services are held Sundays at 8:30 and 10 a.m. (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org). He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]