Cowboy church's simple message keeps worshipers on a happy trail

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2013 - 8:36 AM

A cowboy congregation corrals its growing flock by keeping its message – and its mission – simple.

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Joe Penrose, a pastor at the Open Range Cowboy Church in Isanti, Minn., preached to a congregation drawn by old-time songs and a simple spirituality.

Photo: RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII,

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After a couple of down-home hymns, a few announcements and an especially warm, wide-ranging greeting, Pastor Joe gave the call to prayer. That meant it was time for the parishioners to remove their hats. Their cowboy hats.

On any given Sunday, the Open Range Cowboy Church lives up to its name — well, except for the open-range part.

The congregation actually gathers in a nondescript office building just off Hwy. 65 in Isanti, Minn. Still, the worship space has been gussied up with plenty of Wild West accouterments: The pulpit is decorated with horseshoes, there’s a life-size cutout of John Wayne in the lobby and a cowbell beckons worshipers back to their seats after greeting time.

One of 214 parishes in the American Fellowship of Cowboy Churches (AFCC), Open Range bills itself as “a place where you can leave the hardships of life’s trail behind you.”

While establishing the church hasn’t been “all peaches and roses,” according to its leader, Pastor Joe Penrose, it’s now in its fourth year. On most Sundays, more than 100 people fill the metal chairs that serve as pews. There’s a kids’ Bible study group upstairs, as well as Bible and worship study groups during the week. In fact, the church is doing so well that it is looking to expand to Lakeville and other Twin Cities suburbs.

Since the early 1980s, faith-oriented people seeking alternatives to mainstream churches represent “a trend that has grown exponentially,” said the Rev. John A. Mayer, president of the nonprofit Christian ministry City Vision, which tracks ethnic, religious and cultural trends. The Twin Cities now has 935 nondenominational or independent churches.

Only one of them — so far — is an Open Range Cowboy church. And it’s definitely open.

“Everybody says, ‘Gosh, this is such a friendly church. What’s going on here? There’s got to be something special going on,’ ” said Penrose.

The growth has come through word-of-mouth, an Open Range chuckwagon that makes appearances at local parades and fairs, a mashup of fate and faith, and Pastor Joe’s message and delivery.

Mari and Roger Nelson of St. Francis first went to the church by chance. They’d seen a sign near Hwy. 65 and Roger thought he’d like the music.

It wasn’t the music that made them stay.

“We walked in and I saw that John Wayne, and I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ And so we went on and saw Pastor Joe, and I said to my husband, ‘Oh, that’s it. A country bumpkin is going to be our pastor.’ Then he started preaching and I thought, ‘OK, you’ve got my attention now.’ I recognized Jesus.”

Now Mari is a greeter and Roger, who said Pastor Joe “grabbed my heart the very first time,” is a church elder.

Constant church involvement

Penrose also took an atypical route to the church. The 62-year-old grew up in a large, devout Catholic family in Lakeville. As a kid, he told everyone that he wanted to be a priest

“So I went through all the little things, the altar boy and the things you do,” he said, “and when I got to be maybe 15, 16, I went to my grandma and said, ‘Grandma, I don’t think I want to be a priest,’ and she asked why and I said, ‘Those girls walking down the street are way too pretty.’ ”

He worked in sales and marketing, raised a family and stayed active in the Catholic church, teaching religion classes for 13 years. “But there was always something missing,” he said. “And I’d go, ‘Lord, there’s something missing and I don’t know what it is. The priests, I’m not hearing their message.’ ”

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