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Cowboy Christianity catching on?

Howdy, buckaroos.

Howzabout we strap the saddles on the horses and mosey out to the GetReligion Ranch?

In case you haven't figured it out, I'm compensating for my lack of knowledge of cowboy culture by pretending — in an extremely awkward way — to understand the lingo.

For the record, I did grow up watching "Gunsmoke" and enjoyed both the original 1969 "True Grit" starring John Wayne and the 2010 remake with Jeff Bridges.

In my Associated Press reporting days, I had fun with a feature on a West Texas school that trains cowboy preachers:

MIDLAND, Texas — Across the street from a flea market, in the shadow of oil wells and tumbleweeds, Glenn Smith trains aspiring ministers in a building that looks more like a steakhouse than a seminary. But that’s OK – these are cowboy ministers.

“Preaching Jesus, Western style,” reads the sign out front.

“These boys and girls will come out of here full-fledged ministers, but they’ll be ministers that look like I do,” said Smith, 70, sporting a Resistol hat and ostrich-skin boots.

At the School of Western Ministries, pickup-driving pupils don colorful cowboy shirts, Wrangler jeans and belt buckles with messages such as “Jesus Christ: Champion of Champions.”

From Alabama to Australia, students come to West Texas to study how to teach the Bible in places where a barn might double as a sanctuary, and where horse tanks and farm ponds make do as baptisteries. They’re awarded certificates of completion at the end of their coursework.

Given my (admittedly limited) experience with the subject, I am always interested when I come across mainstream media reports on cowboy churches.

The Denver Post ran a feature Sunday on a Colorado-based organization that helps link interdenominational cowboy ministries. The story was tied to the National Western Stock Show in Denver.

Here's the top of the 800-word trend piece:

At age 36, Jim Chamley says a lifetime of alcohol abuse and living the "cowboy way" left him physically and morally bankrupt."

He'd lost his business and his wife, had filed for divorce and was contemplating suicide in a Kansas City, Mo., hospital as he awaited back surgery.

"The only reason I didn't go through with it," he says, "was because I was only on the third floor, and I was afraid I'd screw that up too."

Chamley, a native of rural northwestern North Dakota, says he cried out to God to "come into his life and change him" in the midst of his despair, even though, he says, being both a Christian and a cowboy was something of a contradiction in those days.

"If you were a Christian cowboy back then — I wasn't — you were in the closet," he says, "and when you went to the rodeos, you sure didn't thump the Bible or talk about religion or spiritual things."

Now 68, Chamley is among those who have transformation stories within a group that once occupied society's moral and spiritual bottom rungs.

As the story goes on, it develops the premise that cowboys — up until the 1970s — were all immoral bad dudes. Then the cowboy church movement started, and suddenly, the first Christians who wear Western hats were converted. It's a nice storyline, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading an oversimplified version of events.

To the Post's credit, the paper does go outside the movement (presumably) to quote a historian:

Retired University of Tulsa professor and cowboy historian Guy Logsdon thinks cowboy churches and ministries have played a significant role in a shift in cowboy culture.

"It's a freestyle way for cowboys and cattlemen to express themselves without a denominational policy," he said.

Logsdon says the migration of cowboys toward Christianity is a significant and new moral chapter in the cowboy narrative, which historically was even more scandalous than movies are able to portray.

In reference to that specific section, I wish the story had elaborated on the direct quote. I'm not entirely clear on what it means concerning denominational policy.

The piece attempts to provide numerical evidence to back up its thesis:

A 2009 count conducted by the Baptist General Convention of Texas found cowboy churches accounted for more than 10 percent of the state's total baptisms since 2000.

Still, at the end of the story, I felt like I'd eaten a cheap hot dog, not devoured a thick, juicy steak cooked on a cattle-run campfire.

But partner, I'd urge you to read the story yourself and twirl your lasso in the comments section.

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