The 1-year-old Cowboy Church is a monthly event organized by a Pentecostal congregation near Gettysburg. Horse trainer Clay France is assisted Sunday by
The 1-year-old Cowboy Church is a monthly event organized by a Pentecostal congregation near Gettysburg. Horse trainer Clay France is assisted Sunday by Bentley, a 4-year-old Dutch Warmblood. (Daily Record/Sunday News - Paul Kuehnel)

The driveway to Cowboy Church was lined with horse trailers.

Inside, visitors stomped the mud from their boots as country music filled the length of the arena.

Riders on horseback meandered to a corner pen, and the audience hung over a low wall, waiting on the action.

"Lord, we pray you grant us safekeeping," Vaughn Crago, pastor of Cowboy Church, prayed into the loudspeaker.

"That the animals will all be well and hold up well. And we pray that you may be honored today."

Cowboy Church celebrated its first anniversary Sunday afternoon, drawing 90 people to the York Springs Equestrian Center in Huntington Township, Adams County, for a sermon, birthday cake, barrel racing and other rodeo events.

A church tailored to the cowboy culture might seem novel in the midstate, but cowboy churches have thrived for years in the American West.

"We feel like it's an end-times movement of God -- to reach the cowboys," said Wayne Ellis, a pastor and horseman from Carlisle who will preach at Cowboy Church this spring. "They're some of the last unreached people. This is a new form of evangelism."

Cowboy Church's mission is to reach those in the equestrian world who don't regularly attend church or have felt injured or intimidated by conventional Christian settings.

"They're a community that don't go into a church that often," said Brandy Crago, Vaughn's wife and a trick rider at rodeos and circuses for 20 years. "For some reason, rodeos and horse shows are often on Sundays."

Cowboy Church, which meets monthly, advertises in the regional publications Equine Marketer and The Paper Horse to attract riders.

Non-equestrians also flock to Cowboy Church, a sister church to Freedom Valley Worship Center, an Assemblies of God congregation near Gettysburg. Brandy helped begin a therapeutic horseback riding program there five years ago, and several program volunteers also assist or ride at Cowboy Church each month.

Matt Ruppert sings at the start of Cowboy Church while Crystal Spahr, right, warms up for the first riding event.
Matt Ruppert sings at the start of Cowboy Church while Crystal Spahr, right, warms up for the first riding event. (Daily Record/Sunday News - Paul Kuehnel)

The volunteers passed a collection bucket, cards and pens among the benches Sunday asking visitors to fill out prayer requests and contact information.

Visitors donned no fancy duds but many a cowboy hat. The atmosphere was relaxed, the sermon straightforward and assisted by Bentley, a 4-year-old Dutch Warmblood.

"We have a ball," said D'ann Breckbiel, a rider from York Springs who doesn't regularly attend church.

"I bring the kids with me. We have a sermon going on, and it's fun for them."

Crystal Spahr, 28, of Reading Township said more riders should rely on faith in the rodeo ring.

"It's a dangerous sport," she said. "You need to have God out there when you're riding those barrels."

Horse owner Pat Gentry of Cumberland Township is a member of Freedom Valley who has attended Cowboy Church since its launch.

She's found it allows those in the horse and rodeo community to learn about God on their own turf.

"Some people I've invited to church won't come," she said, "but they will come here because there are horses and it's not a 'church.' "

771-2024; mburke@ydr.com

THE CHURCH

What: Cowboy Church usually involves a horse-related seminar and a spiritual message. It's a site church of Freedom Valley Worship Center in Straban Township, Adams County.

When: 3 p.m. on the last Sunday of each month

Where: York Springs Equestrian Center, 821 S. Ridge Road in Huntington Township until May. (Meets at an outdoor arena at Freedom Valley Worship Center, 3185 York Road, from May through September.)

Details: 586-1122 or 624-3411

Online

Freedom Valley Cowboy Church, freedomvalley.org

Cowboy Church Net, cowboychurch.net

Cowboy Church Network of North America, www.cowboycn.

Cowboy Church International Inc., prorodeoministries.com