|A packed house sings along at Cowboy Church|
December 29, 2013
How does worship in a livestock sale barn resonate with people?
The Sunday after Christmas is typically a low attendance Sunday for many churches as members travel to visit family and friends. At SacRiver Cowboy Church, located at the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center, the low Sunday happened the week before, when precarious weather kept many people from attending worship. That week there were 710 people in three services.
SacRiver holds two services on Sunday and one on Thursday night.
At each of their services they feature music, preaching and they would say, friendliness. The music is contained in a self-published hymnbook. The 100 songs hail from the camp meeting tradition and feature a heavenward theology. The style of presentation is reminiscent of the TV show Hee-Haw, a mix between cowboy country and bluegrass.
During the song time three key things happened. First there was an elongated greeting time. It began with asking visitors to raise their hands. I was not going to raise my hand but those around me who knew me to be a visitor helped me raise it. This was followed by a song where everyone stood and shook hands with people all around. One would have thought the logistics were poor for such an activity, but they did not let theater seating deter from extending friendliness. This was followed up by calling out birthdays and anniversaries. The song leaders grand-son led the singing of "happy birthday/anniversary". He is 2 or 3 years old. The people next to me said he does it every week.
The second feature in the song time included the announcements. The placement had no clear indicator, it was simply time to have the announcements. The person who gave them is a "regular" and the band created a little intro ditty to precede his entrance. After highlighting 3 or 4 things happening in the church, one of which was a potluck following service, he gave a brief homily. He read a 3 or 4 paragraph story one might find in Chicken Soup for the Soul. He finished with these words, "something to think about." And then the band resumed.
The third feature was a musical number provided by a guest contributor. Before the guest sang the band leader indicated that they had gathered at his home to practice before coming to worship. While the feel was "folksy," "country," and whimsical, it was rehearsed.
Following several songs "the preacher" took up the mic to deliver a sermon. On the last Sunday of December the sermon came from 2 Corinthians 1 & 2. The thematic element centered on the importance of reconciling relationships. The tension that Paul and the church in Corinth faced was viewed as paralleling many relationships that people have today. Paul was viewed as a sage or psychological guide who knew how to reconcile relationships. He was someone who could guide the Corinthians and contemporary listeners. The place of Christ was that of doing that which we do not have the capacity to do, particularly, work change in another's heart toward us. We can forgive, we can extend kindness but for full restoration Christ will have to work in the space that exists between two people, and in the other persons heart.
The sermon followed the text in a brief commentary kind of style. The delivery was folksy. There were elements that showed it was a studied text.
After the sermon the band led the congregation in two songs, I Come to the Garden Alone, and Happy Trails. Following the singing the congregation stood and began to move toward the upper room, where the potluck meal would be served.
Missing from the service were two elements of worship that are generally considered essential in worship (for a protestant non-sacramental church); Prayer and Offering. The case can be made that singing is an act of prayer, even a vital element in prayer, yet if this is the thought, the lacking piece in prayer was a place for God to speak to the congregation and the persons gathered. It was a one way monologue and we did all the talking.
Also missing was a corporate offering. After reading the web site, which has a very brief explanation of beliefs and practices, it looks like SacRiver places a low priority on offerings to the Church. The Church has only one paid staff person and their facilities are either very low cost or free. Their need for offerings for the life of the organization is low. Upon reflection, I think they receive an offering - but it was received in boxes at two stations where regulars know they can also pick up a song book. Their stated focus is on two elements, worship and friendship, both of which they carry out with a simplistic approach.
Their web site is interesting both for its descriptions and its lack of completeness.
web site: https://sites.google.com/site/srccorg/what-we-believe
The ethnography of the Church is strikingly pagan - in a patristic sense of the word, culturally and theologically. Those who gather know that they are "from the country and we like it that way." A good guess would be that 70% of the congregation are 65 years of age or older. The population group with the lowest representation looked to be the middle age person, 35 - 65 years in age. The racial make-up was 99% anglo-saxon. The attire resembled the offerings at two major cowboy outfitters in Springfield, PFI and Race Brothers.
A number of questions come to my mind following a visit there.
1) How did a handful of people seven years ago grow into a gathering of over 800 people with an incredibly simple approach, and with very little by way of resource investment? Can their stated methodology of familial and friendship contact be enduring over time?
2) What about the next generation? Is there a concern for the next generation - musicality did not necessarily reflect that, unless you're a unique soul who likes bluegrass and cowboy country. However, it could have been concerns about the next generation that pushed many out of their established churches and into this non-orthodox approach.
3) How does the church growth/planting model(s) intersect and interact with this non-church growth model growth?
4) What are the 4 or 5 key motivations and what kind of a Kingdom construct does it portend? I wonder if cultural affinity and preservation is one of the leading motivators? I wonder if it parallels "simple theology"?
While I have questions, my overall experience was kind and warm, like Wesley's among the Moravians.