LANDER — Scott Smail couldn’t remember the last time he felt comfortable in a church.
The horseshoer felt alienated at new-age churches, where he couldn’t relate to the sermons, didn’t know the songs and everyone dressed up.
But last Sunday, Smail, in Carharts and a camouflage hat, entered an old wooden building, actually part of the American Museum of the West, where 25 others had gathered for cowboy church. Smail felt at ease.
Cowboy churches started as a way to remove barriers that kept people away from fellowship and worship, said Allen Upshaw, pastor of Lander’s new church, which officially started March 18.
Despite its name, the cowboy church brings in people from all walks of life, from bikers to artists.
“It’s the misfits and fringe of society that feel they don’t fit into traditional church,” Upshaw said.
The church is part of the Southern Baptist organization, although it is nondenominational. The services are nothing like traditional Southern Baptist ones, which are much more rigid, Upshaw said.
It’s open to anyone, but targets the working cowboy and cowboys at heart.
Last Sunday, Upshaw greeted church-goers in his black cowboy hat, boots and large belt buckle. Set in the historic-looking museum village, the church was built in 1909 and originated in nearby Hudson. The vaulted interior is simple with only stained glass for decorations and a wooden cross in the front. The wood floor, easy to clean, creaks when people move and reverberates when people tap their feet to the music.
The church program directs people to the large John Deere bucket in the back if they wish to leave donations. There is no collection plate passed during service. Nor is there communion.
“I don’t save anybody,” Upshaw said. “My job is to create an environment where people will stick around long enough that God can work on ’em.”
Upshaw has always been a church-going man, but often felt different churches forced the “Bible” to fit their message, he said.
Friends told Upshaw and his wife about cowboy church when they lived in Texas.
The Upshaws checked it out. The sincerity and simplicity of the church resonated with Upshaw. Despite its almost 3,000 people, he was greeted with a firm handshake and direct eye contact. The couple became regulars.
Upshaw offered his background in business to help the church.
Soon, though, he felt he wanted to serve in a different capacity. The growing church needed pastors. Upshaw volunteered.
“That sure just came from a place deep inside me,” Upshaw said. “I was sure. Absolutely 100 percent certain I was sure that way was my path.”
He didn’t receive any formal pastoral training. It’s been a learning process as he’s moved forward. Last Sunday, midway through “Amazing Grace,” Upshaw remembered to rouse the congregation to its feet to sing.
As he’s learning to lead a church, Upshaw is also learning about the cowboy way of life. Since relocating to Lander he’s helped move cows and even rode a horse.
Somewhere he has a picture of him at 4 years old climbing out of a bath tub with only a gun belt and cowboy hat on. He’s always loved and admired the cowboy culture, he said. “It’s in my blood.”
Last Sunday, Upshaw instructed the congregation to “bellow this one out” when they sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” accompanied by an electric keyboard.
The music at the church is mostly old-time gospel and country-Western gospel that people might listen to on their own, he said.
Hats come off only at the end of the service for a parting prayer, before the congregation sings “Happy Trails.”
Randi Arpan recently moved back to the Lander area from South Dakota.
While she doesn’t work in agriculture, cowboy church is still a good fit for her family, she said. Kids, like her 18-month-old son, Teegan Arpan, can get into the music. And it’s a place she feels accepted.
“Here you can come in your sweats or your hair in a bun and no make-up and it doesn’t matter,” she said.
Upshaw is already planning to expand the church. He wants a church band. One day he wants a rodeo ground where people can practice, compete and pray. He’d like a shooting range, too, with regular cowboy-mounted shooting.
But for now each Sunday he waits to see how many people will show up.
Ralph Hallman, an area ranch hand, got involved in helping form the church in Lander after he was unable to find a church he liked and where he fit in.
The church doesn’t try to push a certain religion on people and is accepting, he said. Each week it seems there are more new faces, he said.
Smail and his wife, Joanne, were a few of those new faces last Sunday. The church was more relaxed than others she’d been to, Joanne Smail said. And she liked the sermon Upshaw gave on good versus evil and making positive decisions.
“It relates a little bit more to everyday life,” she said.
The couple said they planned to return today.
Joanne Smail wanted to ride her horse named Bear to church.