It was Saturday afternoon of the rodeo. Stan Norman climbed into the bull pen, baptizing two bull riders in a stock tank surrounded by the largest bulls and broncs.
“All I asked the bull riders was they cover my backside, so no bull would come after me,” he said.
Norman is the founding and senior pastor of New Trail Fellowship in Abilene, Kan. It’s a cowboy church — part of a movement of churches reaching people from ranching backgrounds.
For many years, Norman pastored traditional Brethren in Christ churches in Kansas and Oklahoma, where he began to see church culture conflicted with the rugged individualist ethos.
His mission at New Trail Fellowship? To shatter the cowboy culture’s barriers to following Jesus Christ.
In the 1800s, about 300 Brethren settled in Kansas, later pioneering church-planting and evangelism efforts throughout the West and sowing seeds for global missions.
Abilene itself once marked the end of the Chisholm Trail, the cattle-drive path from Texas to Kansas. It attracted outlawry, gunfights and prostitution.
Though no longer a capital of vice, the town is rooted in cowboy culture, a way of life traditionally at odds with Christianity.
Accustomed to the wide-open expanses of the West, cowboys developed a cultural resistance to rules like those in organized religion.
New Trail Fellowship shuns church formalities to introduce ranchers to Jesus Christ.
Each Sunday, Norman preaches in blue jeans and cowboy boots. The relaxed, come-as-you-are service features straightforward sermons and western music, with instruments like banjos, mandolins and guitars.
“We’re distinctively country,” Norman said.
New Trail’s outreach centers around ranching. For example, leaders volunteer at area rodeo events, such as barrel racing, roping or youth rodeo.
Born in a barn
The church was even born in a calving barn.
“We cleaned out the stall, laid down fresh dirt, pulled out fresh bales of hay — and made a church,” Norman said.
Outgrowing the barn and then renting various buildings for worship, the congregation desired to create a permanent, larger site reflecting its western heritage. The barn-like worship center — which will eventually include an indoor rodeo arena — sits on 20 acres of property, offering ample space for rodeo ministries.
The new facility, which opened in October, even includes a stock tank on wheels. As he did a year ago for the bull riders, Norman plans to baptize members in the stock tank.
This time around, though, he plans to steer clear of bulls.