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

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

Beginning in his mid-40s, Penrose started going to different churches, looking for a place where he felt at home — without success. “And so I said, ‘Well, Lord, is it really that tough out there? And I feel like I can do better than this.’ ”

So he earned AFCC credentials and started the church, relishing the challenge of working with a tough-to-reach audience.

“Of course, the cowboys are noted as unchurched people and so it’s hard to bring them in and preach to them at that level,” he said. “And if you preach too hard and too strong, they’ll just walk out and never come back. So you’ve got to be simple, simplistic, and if you do that they’ll realize, ‘Ya know, this isn’t so hard after all.’ ”

All about salvation

“Are you fired up? Are you ready for the sermon?” Pastor Joe bellowed from the pulpit.

“It’d better be good,” came a retort from the pastor’s wife, Linda, who engaged in similar snappy repartee throughout the sermon.

In front of an altar holding a weathered saddle and a simple wooden cross draped with red fabric, Pastor Joe launched into an exhortation on “getting where you want to be.”

In his black cowboy hat, this mountain of a man towered over the congregation, but managed to come across as talking with his flock rather than at them.

Pastor Joe was talking about success, but not prosperity. “There is only one thing that’s free in life,” he concluded, “and that’s God’s forgiveness of your sins, God’s salvation.”

There was no offertory passing of the plate, just a milk barrel in back with a sign reading “Give from the heart to grow God’s kingdom.” For the processional — Roy Rogers’ western classic “Happy Trails” — Pastor Joe and Linda walked through the congregation, hands clasped.

For an hour afterward, fully half of the attendees mingled, drinking cowboy-strong coffee.

“We just keep it simple,” said guitarist/bandleader James Rinke of Oak Grove. “That’s the great thing about the whole service. It’s not an overlong type of thing where it just burdens on people. And then there’s the social part.”

All of that has helped Troy Forschen of St. Francis to become a regular.

He moved to Minnesota just over a year ago from Louisiana, where he was involved in a motorcycle ministry. “I was looking for a church with that kind of atmosphere,” he said, “where the way they do it is down to earth. … And nobody’s a stranger here. I get greeted by everybody every week. It really is just one big happy family.”

Bill Ward • @billward4







  • related content

  • 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.

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  • At the Open Range Cowboy Church in Isanti, fiddles are part of the band.

  • Parishioners mingled after the service.

  • A churchgoer cast a shadow on ironwork for sale.

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