Nashville's cowboy church has no organ, no bulletin, no altar, and no stained-glass windows. Worshipers wear their Stetson hats indoors, and ushers pass their hats to collect the offering. As country music pours from speakers on the stage, a three-year-old boy sits on his father's lap, kicking his booted feet in time with the melody. Men and women in jeans and sweatshirts sit in pews, listening to Harry Yates preach a simple message on repentance and the forgiveness of God.

The church's worship services at the Texas Troubadour Theater, near Opryland, feature a ten-piece country and western band. Joanne Cash Yates, one of Johnny Cash's five siblings, headlines the musical portion of the service. Harry and Joanne Yates founded the church 12 years ago. Dreaming of a church that appealed both to the unchurched and to musicians, the couple held their first services in a rented bar. From its beginnings of six people, the church now attracts six hundred.

"I've always been a cowboy at heart," says Yates, who grew up on a ranch in west Texas. "I didn't fit in with the three-piece suit and tie bunch—and I met a lot of people who wouldn't go to church for that reason. We created an atmosphere that was appealing to those folks, so they'd listen to the Word of God."

Websites indicate that in recent years at least 100 cowboy churches have sprung up on farms and ranches in 38 other states and in Mexico and Canada. The typical cowboy church attracts people from neighboring towns who are unchurched or have wandered away from ordinary worship services. Members like the come-as-you-are atmosphere and a sense of acceptance that they sometimes have not felt in conventional churches.

These worshipers are not necessarily cowboys, but they enjoy western ...

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September 2003

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