Denominations: Community or “Non-Denominational,” Cowboy and Biker Churches

Community Church or “Non-denominational” Church refers to independent local congregations which have no affiliation with the major denominations.  Determining exact numbers is difficult.  A study released in 2010 by the Hartford Institute For Religion Research reported that there were more than 12 million adherents in the U.S.A. to nondenominational churches (Nondenominational & Independent Congregations, hirr.hartsem.edu). 

Cowboy Church is popular in Texas, Oklahoma and beyond.  I have been unable to find stats on total membership.  In 2012, Fort Worth Magazine stated, “Today, between 36,000 and 40,000 people are regularly attending Cowboy Church in Texas” (Boots on Hallowed Ground by Gail Bennison, March 5, 2012, fwtx.com).  There are more than 200 churches in the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches or AFCC (americanfcc.org). 

Biker Church numbers seem to be unknown.  Chris Marely, pastor of Biker Church USA in Bangor, Maine, said “Our mission – vision… was to have 10,000 bikers in the Bible every week… but we have far exceeded any of those numbers.  I can’t even tell you what they are today.  We’re in New Zealand now.  We’re in Africa.  We’re in Canada.  We are all over” (Bikers Get A Bad Rep, So They Started A Church Where They Feel Welcome by Robbie Feinberg, February 29, 2020, npr.org). 

History

1.  Community Church

Some trace the Community Church to nineteenth century America.  “The earliest origins of the community church movement are likely from the nineteenth century and the practical concerns of many small American communities: there was not enough members of individual denominations to each have a congregation, and many times such Protestants would come together to establish a community church of sort” (Community Church Movement, astudyofdenominations.com).

However, a real movement began in the twentieth century.  “The community church movement began in the early twentieth century alongside ecumenism and represented an attempt to aspire to the ideal of that movement: Christians, mostly Protestant and Evangelical, coming out of denominations and being unified in a community church concept” (ibid).  The International Council of Community Churches (ICCC) was formed in 1950 (About, icccnow.org).  Not all community churches are a part of this council

2.  Cowboy Church

The Cowboy Church Movement is relatively new.  Its beginnings are in America.  It developed in the twentieth century.  (1) In the 1940’s, Carl Stuart Hamblen, a country singer, began to host a radio show called “Cowboy Church of the Air” (Where Have All the Cowboy Churches Come From? By Maurice Cammah, July 23, 2014, texasmonthly.com).  (2) In 1972, Glen Smith, a professional rodeo clown, began to minister to the rodeo community (Boots, Blue Jeans and Bibles: the Truth About Cowboy Churches by Hannah Jones, May 17, 2019, smudailycampus.com).  “Glenn and his wife, Ann, were the pioneers and the first full-time ministers on the rodeo trail… The couple founded Rodeo Cowboy Ministries in the 1970’s, also known as International Western World Outreach Center with headquarters in Midland, Texas… He preached at the first cowboy service at the NFR (national finals rodeo) with the PRCA (professional rodeo cowboy association) Director’s approval in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (Glen Smith, obituary, legacy.com; Published by Midland, Reporter-Telegram on February 12, 2010).  (3) In 1986, Jeff Copenhaver, a world-champion calf roper, started a regular meeting Cowboy church with a permanent location at Billy Bob’s Texas bar in Ft. Worth, Texas (History of the Cowboy Church, Cocolalla Cowboy church (Idaho), ccowboychurch.org).  (3) In 1990, Harry Yates and his wife Joanne Cash Yates (Johnny Cash’s youngest sister) started the Nashville Cowboy Church.  These seem to be the first permanent meeting sites in the U.S.A.  One source says, Ft. Worth (Texas) was the first, Calgary (Alberta, Canada) was the second, and Nashville (Tennessee) the third (ccowboychurch.org).  However, there appears to be some dispute of the order of these first three. 

 3.  Biker Church

This is a recent movement.  The history available seems to be scant.  In 2006, Frank Lengel, a Baptist, started going to Biker rallies.  He drew caricatures of bikers.  He said, “As a part of our biker ministry, 83 people made a profession of faith or rededication.”  However, as time passed he wondered “Where are those 83 people now?” (10,000 Bikers “in the Bible” is the goal of Biker Church USA, November 6, 2009, baptistcourier.com).  Lenger launched Biker Church USA in 2009, in South Carolina.

Beliefs and Practices

1.  Community Churches

It is impossible to summarize the beliefs and practices among Community Churches.  Some have ties to major denominations but have replaced denominations names, rebranding themselves.  Others have no ties to the major denominations.  Some are charismatic.  Others are not.  Some have traditional denominational worship.  Others are very non-traditional. 

While many of those churches are self-described as being “non-denominational,” the reality may at times be better described as “all-denominational.”  There tends to be de-emphasis on doctrine.  Unity has priority over doctrine.  One source says, “In many cases, these community churches were a true amalgamation of beliefs.  In a quest for unity, each group would compromise on some doctrinal or practical point that caused contention with the other group.  As a result, many community churches had very loosely defined beliefs and allowed wide variations of beliefs among their members” (What is Community Church?, gotquestions.org).  Another says, “As denominational particularities are ignored or hidden, what’s often left is a ‘lowest common denominator’ spiritually that is often little more than ‘worship’ and ‘discipleship’ devoid of cognitive content” (What Does the Growth of Non-denominationalism Mean? By Aaron Earls, August 8, 2017, lifewayresearch.com).

There is sometimes a trend to develop the church around what people want.  Before Rick Warren launched Saddleback Church, he conducted a community survey.  He writes, “I wrote down in my notebook five questions I would use to start Saddleback: (1) What do you think is the greatest need in this area? (2) Are you actively attending any church? (3) Why do you think most people didn’t attend church?  (4) If you were to look for a church to attend, what kind of things would you look for? (5) What could I do for you?” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, chapter 11).  While there is nothing wrong with asking questions, let us remember the church belongs to Christ.  The first consideration should be on what He wants, not what man wants.  Sometimes people want things that are not what they need.  Sometimes people want things that are unbiblical.

Rick Warren comes from a Baptist background.  Saddleback’s beliefs are very Baptist.  He does not believe that baptism is necessary for salvation and he believes in eternal security or once saved, always saved doctrine (What We Believe, saddleback.com).

2.  Cowboy Churches

Some Cowboy Churches are not affiliated with a major denomination; while others are.  “It would be a mistake to assume all Cowboy Churches hold exactly the same beliefs.  Originally the churches were independent and non-denominational, but that changed around 2000 when the Southern Baptist denomination entered the movement in Texas.  Other Cowboy Churches are affiliated with Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, and United Methodists (Cowboy Church Beliefs and Practices by Jack Zavada, updated July 3, 2019, learnereligions.com).  The largest Cowboy Church in the world is in Ellis County (Texas).  It is affiliated with Texas Baptist (This Texan Cowboy Church is the Biggest in the World, Hannah Phillips, June 22, 2017, culturetrip.com).

As stated, beliefs vary.  The statement of faith put out by the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches.  (AFCC) sounds very Baptist (Who We Are, americanfcc.org).  The Maxdale Cowboy Church (Bell County, Texas) sounds Wesleyan Holiness (“Entire Sanctification”) and Pentecostal (“Divine healing,” and “The evidence of the baptism in the Holy Ghost …witnessed by the physical sign of speaking with other tongues” Further, they declare “This ministry…declares itself strongly for the supernatural ministry and the operation of the ministry gifts in the assembly…).  It is also pre-millennial (see: About Us, Our Beliefs, dev.milmediagroup.com; previously, About Us, maxdalecowboychurch.com). 

3.  Biker Churches

Biker Churches, like Cowboy Churches, have differing origins and beliefs.  Some are independent, associated with no major denomination.  Some were planted and are associated with a major denomination – such as Baptists, the Methodist, the Assembly of God, and the Nazarene Church.  The Open Road Biker Church in Georgetown, Texas was founded with the help of the Baptists General Convention of Texas (Georgetown Biker Church Welcomes All, John Rutledge, July 16, 2015, baptiststandard.com). 

While there is nothing wrong with reaching out to a certain demographic, the church should not be about culture but the gospel.  The early church was composed of both Jew and Gentile. I have heard some ask concerning a church, even the local church where I preach (I am serious, these type things have been said): “Is this an old people’s church or a young people’s church?”  “Is this a city church or a country church?” (even, “You are changing us from a country church into a city church”) “Is this a black church, a hispanic church, or a white church?” (even, “They would be happier with their own”).  Such thinking is foreign to the scriptures and God’s plan.  It comes from man and not God. What we should seek is to be His church, the church of Christ. It should not be our club, but His church. There should not be needless divisions among us over race, age, or culture.  In Accra, Ghana there is a Ghana Police Church.  What is next, Farmers Church, Sheepherders Church, Bankers Church, Accountants Church, Teachers Church, Retailers Church, Oil workers Church, Railroad Workers Church, Steel Workers Church, Taylors Church, Cooks Church, Artisans Church, Rich people Church, Poor people Church? How many ways can we needlessly divide? Jesus brought together fishermen, tax collectors and even a zealot. The Gospel should draw us together in one body. There is room for all in the church of Christ.

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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1 Response to Denominations: Community or “Non-Denominational,” Cowboy and Biker Churches

  1. Wayne Hodge says:

    Good reading. Very informative. I appreciate all your hard work putting these studies together. Love, Dad

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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