By Rich Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Steve Stafford may not be able to tell you exactly what Risen Ranch Cowboy Church is, but he has no problem telling you what it is not.
“I tell people, ‘This ain’t your mama’s church,’” said Stafford, who leads a congregation of around 150 people who meet each week at the Joplin Regional Stockyards. “People ask me what our church is and I tell them I can’t tell you what it is. You just have to come and experience it for yourself. The music has a little twang to it and the preaching ain’t too shiny. It’s very relaxed, and we just get together and love on people.”
As unorthodox as the singing and preaching may seem to some mainline denominations, Risen Ranch strays even further from the norm when it comes to its location.
“This is a stockyard but people have never complained,” said Stafford, who served as a lay minister at Forest Park Baptist before taking over the helm at Risen Ranch. “People who come here don’t care. They are just happy to be here.”
Frank Howell, a member of the praise and worship team, said the stockyard is a good fit for the church.
“The stockyard has just been awesome in letting us be here,” said Howell, who has attended Risen Ranch for two years. “Since our church has been here, it has really grown and is still growing.”
Howell, who said he is part of the cowboy culture himself, likes the informality of the services.
“Our church is really laid back,” the Joplin man said. “Sometimes we will even have guys coming in from working in the fields or out hunting.”
Risen Ranch, which is a church plant by First Baptist Church of Diamond, was formed five years ago following a friends’ outing near Joplin.
“Four of us were out riding horses when we decided to have a Bible study,” said Stafford. “One of the guys asked if I would teach them, and I said OK. So every Tuesday morning we got together under a shade tree for Bible study.”
It wasn’t long before the idea caught on and the group grew to as many as 18 people. A friend at the Civil War Ranch near Carthage recommended moving out there.
“There we were in the country,” Stafford said. And although we really liked it, we were kind of out of sight and out of mind, so we decided to move to the stockyard.”
The stockyard, just off Interstate 44 on County Road 100, was a much more visible location and it did not take long for the congregation to increase. Many came to the church fresh from a stockyard sale, and the church attracts attendees from all over the area, from Pittsburg to Mount Vernon.
In fact, Risen Ranch has become so successful that the church established another campus six miles west of Neosho and six miles east of Seneca on Highway 60. Services for about 35 are held in an old buggy shop; the pastor is Billy Graff, of Sarcoxie.
Even though both cowboy churches have Southern Baptist ties, the denomination is not stressed. Stafford said he doesn’t tell people they are a Southern Baptist church, but if someone asks, he said he’s not ashamed to say it. He said that cowboy churches have a wide variety of parishioners from different backgrounds.
“Many of the people who come are good people, All-American people, mom and dad, two kids and a dog,” he said. “But they were not in church or going to church anywhere. It is not because they did not want to, because they desperately wanted to go to church, but they didn’t feel comfortable going into town or for whatever reason. So, we said, yes, we will provide services.”
Stafford comes from a past rich in cowboy history. Not only was he raised in cowboy culture, but he also was involved in a ministry called Cowboys for Christ for many years. The group traveled all over the Midwest, doing cowboy church at rodeos, stock shows and county fairs 26 weeks a year, he said.
Stafford said the underlying theme at Risen Ranch has never been about religion.
“It is about a relationship between you and Jesus Christ, and you and each other,” he said. “You will not be judged. You will not be asked about your past. I have often said that I do not want to be known as a church but as a hospital, dealing with broken people. We need to love each other and build each other up. We do not care if you are cowboys or not. You are people and you need to be loved.”
In addition to the 10:30 a.m. Sunday worship services and the 7 p.m. Bible study on Tuesdays, Risen Ranch also has a children’s church at 11 a.m. each Sunday.
“In the middle of our music service, one of the kids will come and do a devotional,” Stafford said. “What that does is not only get the church excited about the kids but, also, gets the kids to stand up in front of people and talk about Jesus in their own little way.”
A youth event that has proven to be a big plus for church is Rodeo Bible Camp.
“This is our version of vacation Bible school,” he said. “The first thing we do at these camps is share the gospel and then teach the kids something about horses and the rodeo. We sit down with them and build relationships with them and through that, we become friends with mom and dad.”
Address correspondence to Rich Brown, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.