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Wild west worship

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The next cowboy church will be at 7 p.m. July 2 at Cherry Grove United Methodist Church in Cherry Grove.

By Heather J. Carlson

hcarlson@postbulletin.com

CHERRY GROVE — Forget ties and dresses. Leather boots, Wranglers and cowboy hats are the favored attire at this local church.

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Cherry Grove United Methodist Church has launched a monthly "cowboy church," complete with country musicians, wagon wheel decorations and horse demonstrations. The rural church’s goal is simple: Reach out to people who may not otherwise go to church.

"You have to be willing to think outside the box today to try and reach people. There are so many demands on our time and attention," said the Rev. Mark Rader.

Since the 1950s, the rural church’s membership has declined from a high of 330 to 130. When Rader began brainstorming ways to reach out to non-churchgoers, all he had to do was look around.

"One of the things that kept popping up was all the horses in this area in Fillmore County. It seems like every acreage has horses," Rader said.

While the idea of a cowboy church might seem unusual in southeastern Minnesota, it has become a popular trend across the country — especially in western states. The Rev. Michael Mertes, former pastor of the Rugged Cross Cowboy Church in Byran, Texas, has long been involved with cowboy churches. He said the unique worship services started in the 1970s, with pastors trying to reach out to cowboys on the rodeo circuit. Since then, the churches have continued to gain in popularity — often meeting in barns and sometimes rodeo arenas.

"It’s kind of a come-as-you-are church," Mertes said. "I’ve had people turn up with the horses on the trailer and bring the dogs inside. It’s pretty casual."

When Rader first brought up the idea last year, he said some parishioners were skeptical.

"They thought I was nuts," he said with a laugh.

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Nonetheless, since launching the cowboy church last fall, Rader has begun to win support of longtime members — including Bernis Finke.

"I like the music, of course, because I like country music, and I like the message. Mark always does a good sermon," she said.

Been there

Rader knows what he is talking about when it comes to ranch life. The pastor and his wife, Susan, own several horses and lead Bible study trail rides. In his spare time, he builds saddles and can often be found at horse expos.

Until now, the church has offered the wild-west service once a month on a Saturday. Now, Rader said, they are moving the service to Wednesday nights in hopes of attracting more people. He is also busy recruiting talented country musicians to perform, including guitar players and fiddlers. After every service, the church invites a horse expert — such as a saddle maker, trainer or veterinarian — to speak.

In the future, Rader said the church might set up hitching posts to accommodate horse-riding parishioners.

While Finke is a wholehearted supporter of cowboy church — helping make posters to advertise the service — she admits her western wardrobe is still a little lacking.

"I don’t have a cowboy hat," she said. "I put a red bandana on and that is about as far as I go."

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For more information, go to Postbulletin.com/weblinks

A list of Cowboy Churches http://www.cowboychurch.net/

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