By Laura Johnston
Dressed in denim jeans, Western shirts and dusty cowboy boots, crowds of people gather inside the auction barn at Fruitland each Thursday evening. Their trucks and trailers line the gravel parking lot, but there isn't any livestock for sale at this gathering.
Instead, the crowds have come to sing old hymn favorites like "I'll Fly Away," and "Amazing Grace" and worship with the Cape County Cowboy Church.
The Southern Baptist congregation is only a few months old but is already averaging 300 or more for worship each week. People come from the Bootheel and Southern Illinois for the weekly worship.
"It's amazing that every week, we have 30 or 40 who say it's their first time," said pastor Jim Matthews, who also serves as pastor of Red Star Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau.
There have been so many people in the arena during some weeks that a second service is being considered, he said. The numbers haven't stayed that steady yet to warrant another service, but it's still an option.
Several small groups have begun meeting since the church's founding in January. One for youth meets at Flickerwood Arena down the road; another meets in the activities room at a local Western store.
And a "Spring Round-up," or revival-type meeting, is planned in April in Cape Girardeau with music and preaching.
"There are so many people who want to be part of this ministry somehow," Matthews said. He hopes many of them will attend the April meeting.
When the church began holding organizational meetings last fall, 30 or 40 people came and committed to starting the new church. Some were former cowboys, others had a love of horses, and still others just came because of their love for Jesus.
It was Matthews' faith and his love of horses that were the impetus for the Cape County Cowboy Church. A regular at arenas and horse shows in the area, Matthews has always wanted to be part of a cowboy congregation. He began reading more about cowboy churches out West and started thinking about creating such a church in Cape County.
He sought help from Fruitland Community Church since that was the region of the county where most horse-lovers lived. Red Star and Fruitland churches are founding partners of the new church. Several congregations in the Cape Baptist Association have helped with the new church start by sending members and offerings and by helping spread the word. Perkins Baptist Church has commissioned several of its members to be part of the new work.
Matthews said the cowboy church is just another way to reach people who need to hear about God. "If this is the vehicle that it takes, then let it be."
Because so many people who show horses are away each weekend, the church meets during the week. It offers people a chance to worship and still enjoy their hobby or livelihood. "We knew there were people who needed this," Matthews said.
But not everyone who comes has a horse or lives on a ranch or farm. Some visitors just like the "come as you are" appeal. "You don't have to be polished," Matthews said. "This is about a God who love you." (4-15-04)