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Amens and yeeehaws in Cowboy Church

Gene Gordner baptizes Lee Rice in a stock tank at the Flathead Valley Cowboy Church near Kalispell, Mont.
Gene Gordner baptizes Lee Rice in a stock tank at the Flathead Valley Cowboy Church near Kalispell, Mont.
Tom Bauer, Associated Press

KALISPELL, Mont. — Taylor Diehl set her cowboy hat carefully aside and stepped, fully dressed, into the shining metal horse trough.

The 8-year-old sat back, plugged her nose and took the plunge, staying under just long enough for the warm water to still — long enough to be reborn.

In many other churches, the congregation would sit quietly, reverently, showing respect and reserved dignity as the rite of baptism was sanctified. But not here. Not in the house of the trough.

Here the crowd hoots, hollers, stomps hard-heeled boots against a well-worn floor, whistles, claps and cuts loose with a roof-raising "yeeeehaaw" or two.

"This is Cowboy Church," said Robyn Redpath. "It's what you might call a user-friendly church, for people who absolutely would not set foot in a traditional church building. It's church for the rest of us."

Tonight, "the rest of us" consists mostly of ranchers and farmers, saddle makers and horse trainers. They've come straight in from hunting, still sporting bright orange. They wear Wranglers and flannel, NASCAR T-shirts, stiff-brimmed cowboy hats, grimy ball caps with bent bills.

In the long hour before the 5:59 p.m. Sunday service begins, their pickup trucks start rumbling up to the Stillwater Grange Hall west of Kalispell.

The expansive brilliance of evening's last gasp is contrasted sharply inside the hall, where dark-paneled walls and a low ceiling bear down hard. No lofty spires for Cowboy Church. No soaring ceilings and glowing stained glass.

Instead, a small plaque on the wall, words from Isaiah: "You will find your joy in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land."

There are pictures of rodeos, pictures of cowboys, a small wooden sign that says "God Bless Cowgirls."

At the front of the room, straw bales are draped in saddles and hats and dusty boots, all backed by that big old trough like some rustic altar.

At the back is a table sagging with food, sweet cakes and homemade summer sausage that until a week ago was an antelope.

The scene is casual, but not indifferent. In fact, the informal look has been carefully and consciously orchestrated.

"We're looking to make a place that emphasizes a relationship with the Lord rather than with religion," said Toni Robinson. "The informality here is a real drawing card."

The formality of mainstream churches serves as a "barrier" for many, she said. Here, there is "no nonsense," she said, no pretensions, no social competitions, no daunting spires that can be, well, daunting.

Here, it's OK to bring your dog, and it's OK if the dog howls along when the congregation sings.

They meet Sunday evenings, Robinson said, because mornings are busy with ranch chores and animals. They meet to sing cowboy songs, not hymns, and they meet "as a family," all in the name of removing barriers.

And when strangers meet for the first time here at the Grange, they meet with a hug, especially if one of the strangers happens to be Gene Gordner. Gordner is a saddlemaker recently turned circuit-boardmaker, and his hands are constantly moving as he works the door, slapping backs, pressing palms.

One after another, the tooled-leather belts pass through — "Hey, buckaroo," Gordner says, "Howdy, big guy," "Evenin', pardner."

Gordner's been coming on and off for a couple of years now, nearly as long as the Cowboy Church has been around, "but four months ago, I made a decision."

"This is the only church I've been to where God shows up every time," Gordner said.

Lots of folk go to church the way they pull on their boots, he said, out of a lifetime's habit and without a whole lot of thought. But the 60 or so who show up here at the Grange are a different breed.

People move about as the sermon moves on, browsing the food table, stretching their legs, visiting in quiet whispers, scratching old dogs behind the ears.

Pastor Paul Arends and his wife Margie don't seem to mind much, though, and when he really gets down to business the crowd settles in. It's an evangelical message, a fundamental and literal reading of the Bible grounded in what Pastor Arends calls the "truth, love and power of God."

He delivers the sermon with his hat on, in jeans and a work shirt, with a guitar slung around his neck. He's officially affiliated with the Vineyard Church movement, but here he's just a nondenominational Christian cowboy.

Pastor Arends, it seems, has tapped into the myth of the West, as have a remarkable and growing number of Cowboy Church pastors around the nation, part of an increasingly popular rural movement. This Montana transplant, raised white-collar and packing a master's degree, is riding the all-American image of the cowboy all the way to salvation.

Without the cowboy connection, the pastor admits, it might be seen as a bit disrespectful of religion and tradition and the sacred.

But somehow it works here.