Cowboy churchgoers find comfort in simple worship

Sunday, June 26, 2011 | 4:17 p.m. CDT; updated 7:06 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 26, 2011

HIGHLANDVILLE — In jeans, boots and plaid shirts, they come as they are.

Filing into the pole barn a couple of hours before sunset, they pick up spiral-bound hymnals and sit in theater seats. Fans whir above them; advertisement signs and deer heads hang on the metal walls.

And below the railing where one gentleman hooks his cane, a seven-piece bluegrass band warms up, playing a tune or two.

Then, "Howdy!"

Wearing boots, blue jeans, a cowboy hat and his own plaid shirt, Jim "J.R." Rantz greets his congregation at the sixth service of the Finley River Cowboy Church in Highlandville.

The smiling circuit-riding preacher leans against the railing to read a lighthearted poem called "Top 10 Lessons from Noah's Ark."

Lesson No. 1? "Don't miss the boat!" Rantz says as the group of about 50 chuckles.

Next, they open their hymnals, but not to contemporary praise songs often heard on Christian radio or even to modern-day mainstream church standards.

No, they open them to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and "Unclouded Day," songs more likely to bring to mind old-fashioned fellowship dinners on the ground and tent revival meetings, rural customs remembered by some in the congregation and desired by others.

Then comes Rantz's uncluttered sermon — "Life is hard, God is good, heaven is real" — delivered from a simple wooden lectern topped by an open Bible and punctuated by Scripture and occasional rounds of "Amen."

"First of all, if you've got religion, get rid of it," Rantz says as he begins. "Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is a one-on-one relationship with Jesus Christ."

That's the core belief of the new church, formed this spring as an offshoot of the Sac River Cowboy Church in Springfield.

A cattle farmer and buyer for Nixa Hardware and Seed, Rantz decided to follow a calling to the ministry as he watched Sac River, where his brother-in-law Denny Gold preaches, grow quickly from one weekly service to two services on Sunday.

"We could see a need in this area to start something like that, you know," Rantz says, sitting along with a few others at concessions tables after a recent service.

With barn owners Roger and Carolyn Smith willing to offer space for worship, Rantz says he was amazed — "and I shouldn't be amazed, because it's God" — by how easily the church formed.

Yet the appeal of cowboy churches may be in their shunning of complicated liturgy — not counting prayer, preaching, singing, playing music and perhaps harmonica solos and recitations from a cowboy poet like Gold.

"We don't have a lot of rituals," Rantz said, "and religion, sad to say, is its own worst enemy."

"A lot of people just aren't comfortable in churches anymore," he added. "We wanted to do something a little different so they'd feel comfortable in coming."

The new church is attracting rural folks who appreciate that simplicity, not to mention the old-time hymns.

Herschel Henry, who grew up near Hootentown, is a member of the Nixa Church of the Nazarene, but the 81-year-old enjoys attending the cowboy church, too.

"I like this good entertainment — more than entertainment, really," he says after the service, as musicians continue to play and sing in the barn. "I like anything about the Lord Jesus."

Thirty-two-year-old Spokane resident Amanda Stewart and her daughter, Lindsay, 12, are also finding a home there. Stewart, who has read everything from four versions of the Bible to angelistic and Pagan treatises, says she would not feel accepted in the Southern Baptist denomination in which she was raised.

"The pastor knows about my faith, he knows what all I've read, and he accepts me, wholeheartedly," Stewart says of Rantz.

Saundra Earhardt of Springfield says the casual atmosphere and people make her feel comfortable offering up praise.

"I like to praise God, so I'm in the right place," she says. "You can do that here."

Her amens join others as Rantz continues his sermon.

"Heaven doesn't make this life less important," he says as he concludes. "Heaven makes this life more important. We've got work to do."

After church, Rantz and other church leaders laugh when they're asked if committees could form someday at the cowboy church, although Missy Maples, wife of song leader Brent Maples, adds seriously that she would like to see fellowship dinners take place.

No one seems worried about how organized the church is or whether they'll baptize believers in a stock tank or the nearby Finley.

"Right now, we just want to get things rolling," Rantz says. "And really, we're just seeing where God wants to take it."

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