Cowboy Church movement springs up in the southwest

Friday, November 25, 2011 | 4:10 p.m. CST

DEXTER — There is no collection plate, but rather a galvanized bucket in which attendees may toss what can be afforded. There is no altar, as such, but rather a wood plank floor. There are no pews. Instead, there are 250 old theater seats that ironically are fixed underneath with a coil of sorts, designed over 75 years ago, upon which cowboys placed their Stetsons. There is no stained glass, only metal walls — no baptismal; instead, a water trough.

This is Cowboy Church. Its location and facility lend itself to the name. The 4,800 square foot church sits upon five acres southwest of Puxico — cowboy country.

The Cowboy Church movement has sprung up in the southwest in recent years, and may be found in the Deep South, the Northern Plains, and even the East Coast. In May 2010, the movement caught on in Puxico, a southeastern Missouri town where dusty cowboy boots, western-yoked shirts and Stetsons remain commonplace.

Puxico's Cowboy Church pastor, Scott Sifford, is a Puxico native who most recently served as associate pastor at Liberty Hill Baptist Church near Aid. His philosophy follows that of all Cowboy Church ministers.

"We keep it simple," Sifford said. "We offer the same gospel message. We just offer it at a different setting and at a different time than others."

The local Cowboy Church is referred to as a "mission" of Liberty Hill. While for insurance purposes, the church falls under the umbrella of the Baptist Ministries, organizers say the church is a non-denominational church, welcoming all faiths and beliefs.

"This entire project has been very much a 'God thing,'" said Melanie Stoelting, who has been in on the church's founding and eventual construction.

The concept of establishing a Cowboy Church locally was in the minds of Liberty Hill Church deacons, including Stoelting's husband, Keith, and Gary Deardorff, along with Sifford, and pastor Phil Warren visited a similar facility in Cape Girardeau. The three met with the minister of the Cape church, and from there, they said, the idea just "took off."

The church began to meet at the Puxico Sale Barn initially, later moving to the local VFW, and then to the city park.

It wasn't long before a local musician, Cody Mosbey, offered his services. He's become a fixture at the church, providing a variety of music for appreciative attendees.

"The park just wasn't a practical long-term idea," Melanie Stoelting explained. "It wasn't long before Lennis Stroud approached us and offered us five acres on County Road 295 with an arena already on the grounds. The price was great. We went right to work acquiring the land and putting up the metal building."

On a visit to Springfield, Keith and Melanie Stoelting came across the theater seats at a bargain price. They seemed a perfect fit for a Cowboy Church.

"They came out of the old Independence High School, and when we saw the hat holders underneath, we knew we had to have them," Melanie Stoelting said.

The entire project, those involved with the Cowboy Church agree, has transpired without any type of organized plan.

"This has been an amazing journey," Keith Stoelting said. "Everything seems to have just fallen into place along the way."

The concept of the Cowboy Church, like the building itself, is a simple one. The services are simple, and no formal membership is required.

"We do have a collection bucket," Sifford explained. "I tell folks to put a little money in if they can afford it, or to take a little out if they need to."

And that philosophy seems to best define the character of the Cowboy Church. Guests come when they can; sometimes by car, sometimes by pickup, sometimes on horseback. Dress is casual, right down to the boots. Neighbors, many of whom have never greeted each other in a church setting, relax in their denim to hear the gospel message.

"The idea here is to church the unchurched," Melanie Stoelting said. "It wouldn't be fair to say all of our attendees are unchurched, because many of them do attend regular services elsewhere and choose sometimes to visit us, but it is designed to encourage those who are usually tied up with the western way of life to spend some time in worship in comfortable and familiar surroundings."

The spacious arena on the grounds provides for family-oriented rodeo activities whenever weather conditions allow. An event earlier in November drew a significant crowd, with horse trailers and pickup trucks covering the grounds. The tiniest of cowboys and cowgirls tried their hand at riding sheep and calves, while their "bigger" counterparts straddled the "mature" variety of livestock. There was calf roping and breakaway roping, pole-bending and barrel racing. And in the end, there was more pride hurt than there were elbows and knees. Not a broken bone in the bunch.

The first service of Stoddard County's only Cowboy Church was held in the new building just weeks ago on a Thursday night. Recently, the church held its first Sunday service.

"We don't want to detract from any of the neighboring churches," Melanie Stoelting said. "But we've had excellent attendance, with about 110 attending last week. We feel like we're attracting just the people for which the church was intended, and that makes us joyful!"

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