Pastor David and Sue Kite. Courtesy David Kite.

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A congregation of 15 people gather at the Cross Bar Cowboy Church inside the annex building at the rodeo grounds in Rigby, Idaho.

It’s 2:00 on a Sunday afternoon. Those in attendance are mostly middle-aged, dressed in boots and cowboy hats. Others are dressed in casual attire.

The aroma of coffee and cigarette smoke is wafting in the air as Pastor David Kite begins the meeting in his folksy, southern manner.

All are there for one purpose—to worship the Lord through words and music in their own way and on their own terms.

Kite was a southern Baptist preacher in South Carolina for 10 years. It was during a mission trip to Montana several years ago he felt the call for a new ministry.

“I came back from Montana one time and said to my wife ‘I really think God could use us in a cowboy ministry out there,’” Kite said.

“She put her finger in my chest and said, ‘You may want to be Roy Rogers, but I am not Dale Evans and I’m not going.’”

Congregation Gathers at Cross Bar Cowboy Church in Rigby. Courtesy Rett Nelson

With that opposition from his wife, Kite let it go. Five years later, Kite attended a Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, Texas. He met Jim Ballard, President of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). NAMB is the umbrella organization for SBC. Kite spoke with Ballard about starting a cowboy church. In December of 2011, Ballard sent Kite an email.

“Why don’t you put your boots down in Idaho and see what God does with that,” said Ballard according to Kite.

“I told my wife and she said, ‘Well, I guess there’s nothing for us to do but go.’ We moved here and that’s when she knew this is where God wanted us to be,” Kite said.

Kite now oversees four different cowboy church congregations in the Snake River Valley—Pocatello Cowboy Church, Christ’s Cowboy Country Church in Blackfoot, Cross Bar Cowboy Church in Rigby, and the Teton Valley Cowboy Church in Driggs. He began his ministry in July of 2012.

Kite told us the purpose behind the Cowboy Church.

“The idea of cowboy church is—We don’t have any service at a typical time on Sunday, like 10 or 11 a.m.,” explained Kite. “That’s the time cowboys are feeding, doctoring or pushing cows. We hold our services at a time that’s convenient for them, like 3 p.m. or 7 p.m.”

Kite travels east Idaho on the weekends attending cowboy church services at all 4 locations. Even though the church is catered to cowboys, Kite said its doors are open to anyone who wants to attend. According to Kite, what sets his church apart from other Christian churches is that it’s simple church.

“The basic, overall church is not any different from what we believe the simple church in the beginning was supposed to be,” said Kite, “Most traditional churches have their own baptismal facility. We don’t. We baptize in a water trough or the Snake River or the Teton River.

Kite baptizes man in water trough. Courtesy David Kite.

In November of 2012, Kite said a member of his congregation wanted to be baptized. When Kite told him he would fill up the watering trough, the member said he wanted to be baptized in the Snake River.

“Boy, that’s going to be cold,” Kite explained to him. “We’ll have to wait until Spring. The member said, ‘I want to be baptized now.’”

“So, the next Saturday, we went to the Snake River and baptized him.”

A History of Simple Living

Cowboy churches hearken back to simpler times.

“An older, simpler and more worthwhile way of life.”

Simple living is a common trait attached to cowboys, both historically and in pop culture. In The Shootist, a 1976 western starring John Wayne, J.B. Books rides his horse into Carson City, Nevada. It’s 1901—the end of an era. This fact is made evident when a trolley passes him by.

“People latched on to the cowboy in their imaginations as a symbol of this older, simpler and more worthwhile way of life. They were nostalgic for that older, vanishing world,” American west historian and author Michael Allen told us about Hollywood’s portrayal of cowboys.

“The cowboys worked at a time when America was in the last stages of transition from rural to industrial,” Allen said.

Living Wild and Free

In the book We Pointed them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, real life cowboy Teddy Blue Abbott recounts his experiences on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the late 1800s, as told to Helena Huntington Smith. As Abbott      recalled in this excerpt,

“I have seen them (cowboys) ride into camp after two days and knights on herd, lay down on their saddle blankets in the rain, and sleep like dead men, then get up laughing and joking about some good time they had in Ogalalla or Dodge City. Living that kind of a life, they were bound to be wild and brave.”

Adobe stock photo.

Richard Grant commented on Abbott’s account in Cowboys & Indians magazine in 2013. Regarding the good time Abbott mentioned, Grant wrote,

“After two months on the trail, we can well imagine how ready the cowboys were to cut the wolf loose.”

Grant also described “ribald accounts of whiskey drinking and whoring” in Abbott’s story. Allen explained that the company cowboys kept was another aspect of their wild side.

“Cowboys were uncomfortable around women because they were womanless. So, in the mythic portrayal of cowboys, when they go into town, they seek out the women who are uncivilized, who are prostitutes,” Allen commented.

Adobe stock photo.

Cowboy Lifestyle in Context

Allen went on to say that this, along with acts of violence, is an exaggerated part of the cowboy’s behavior depicted in western films and novels. In addition, the general attitude among cowboys of Abbott’s generation apparently had no place for God or religion.

“After you come in contact with nature, you get all that stuff knocked out of you—praying to God for aid, divine Providence, and so on—because it don’t work,” Abbott stated in the book.

“You could pray all you damn pleased, but it wouldn’t get you water where there wasn’t water. Talk about trusting in Providence, hell, if I’d trusted in Providence, I’d have starved to death.”

Cowboys, however, did have a moral code they lived by, as illustrated in this excerpt.

“In person the cowboys were…very good-natured. In character their like never was or will be again. They were intensely loyal to the outfit they were working for and would fight to the death for it.”

In his book, Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination, Allen discusses a code of behavior that existed among cowboys. He mentioned some of them to us. They include hard work, loyalty, and courage. Gene Autry, an actor known for his roles in westerns, developed his own cowboy code of ethics in the 1940s. These items were Autry’s beliefs and philosophies that evolved into ten written principles for cowboys to live by. Pastor Kite said Autry’s code plays a role in the cowboy church.

“We follow the Bible, first and foremost. I took those (Autry’s) ten things and made an application to the Bible.”

Adobe stock photo.

The third item in Autry’s code states, “He (cowboys) must always tell the truth.” Kite said this principle ties in with the commandment in the Bible to not bear false witness. According to Kite, the ninth item about respecting women and parents goes along with other biblical teachings to not commit adultery and to honor your father and mother.

Kite feels his role as pastor is to show his congregation how the Bible applies to the cowboy way of life.

“I preach in jeans, cowboy shirt and cowboy hat, boots. I go on Saturday night to a team roping, a sorting or I work with kids in the rodeo. It’s what we do, the way we do church and the way we live,” Kite said.

Note: Christ’s Cowboy Country Church Services are held at the Mill Iron Ranch Arena Saturdays at 7 pm. They are located at 129 East 200 North Weeding Lane in Blackfoot. Cross Bar Cowboy Church Services in Rigby begin at 2pm Sunday in the Annex Building at the fair grounds, Pocatello’s services are at 6 pm Sundays at the indoor arena on Laughran Rd just off Tyhee, and services in Driggs are held at 443 N. Hwy 33 Monday night at 7 pm. “We Pointed them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher” was transcribed by Helena Huntington Smith. This book inspired the miniseries “Lonesome Dove.”