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.’ ”

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.”

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