MONROE, Ohio -- If Jesus was born in a barn, is it surprising that someone would preach about him inside one?
It happens the first Friday evening of every month at Cowboy Church, a celebration of that old-time religion inside a barn in Monroe that ends with an honest-to-God rodeo.
The barn, next to Solid Rock Church, is owned by Lawrence Bishop II, a former professional rodeo competitor, who pastors the church with his mother, Darlene. Many locals know the church from the huge Styrofoam and fiberglass statue of Jesus with his arms raised, nicknamed “Touchdown Jesus” by its critics, which lightning destroyed in 2010.
Bishop started Cowboy Church about six years ago, soon after he quit training horses professionally and began full-time ministry.
The night begins with a worship service Bishop leads wearing a black cowboy hat trimmed in gold and boots with real spurs. His pulpit is a large wagon in the middle of the barn, inside a large ellipse enclosed by steel gates used to pen livestock. On the wagon are stacks of amplifiers, microphones, a drum kit and members of The Livestock Band, which Bishop formed about 10 years ago.
On the wall opposite the entrance, the word “Rodeo” is emblazoned in red letters and trimmed with yellow lights. There’s also an American flag next to a life-sized, cardboard John Wayne.
“Y’all ready for Cowboy Church?” Bishop asks the crowd of about 150 people seated at one end of the arena for the Feb. 9 service.
Hearing no objections, the band tears into a set of loud, hard, Southern rock tunes written by Bishop, who plays bass guitar and sings.
Worshippers wearing cowboy gear clap and sing along. Between songs, 5-gallon buckets are passed for an offering.
“There’s no charge to get in, but we have to charge you a lot to get out,” Bishop jokes. (Parking is at a premium in the gravel apron around the barn.)
During a prayer before the offering, Bishop says he started Cowboy Church for kids who can’t afford to go to Kings Island. The offering will keep Cowboy Church going next month, he says.
He introduces another song: “This song is not ‘Jesus drives a Big Wheel,’ it’s ‘Jesus is a big deal.’ ”
When that line falls flat, he says, “This is the toughest crowd I have seen in my life. You are all frozen.”
It’s cold in the barn, with the only heat from portable heaters that burn your biscuits if you get too close.
“Love him or hate him,” Bishop sings, and the crowd finishes the line, shouting, “Jesus is real!” Another line of the song: “Don’t let evolution make a monkey out of you.”
After the music, Bishop reads from the King James Bible and preaches from the book of James. He says when he quit horse-training, instead of starting Cowboy Church, he could have made money boarding horses in the barn’s 17 stalls, but he wanted to do better.
“I wanted to make a place where people who might never set foot in a church could hear the word of God,” he says.
According to Bishop, when we die, we go to heaven or hell.
“I know that’s not popular preaching, but it’s true,” he says.
He asks those who want to go to heaven to raise their hands. He asks the 20 or so who responded to come forward, and as they do, he says, “Look at this turnout. Hallelujah!”
He takes his hat off and leads them in a prayer: “Dear Jesus, I’ll say it loud and I’ll say it proud, that I’m a Christian. My family will know it. My friends will know it. The devil will know it. I’m a soldier in the army of the Lord.”
When the prayer ends, he says that after a 15-minute break, “We will have a ro-de-o!” The wagon is towed out of the ring and the gate closed.
Before the main event, children practice their riding skills on the back of a large sheep, steadied by an adult.
“If you want to be a cowboy, come to Cowboy Church,” Bishop comments. “We’ll put you on something that bucks.”
Then older children take turns riding a bucking bronco. After tossing one rider off his back, the bronco races around the ring several times, kicking dirt onto the spectators.
There are 27 bull riders here, three times the normal amount. They include Charlie Weatherspoon, who lives an hour away in Bath, Indiana. Weatherspoon, who said he has made the finals of the Southern Extreme Bull Riding Association three times, considers Cowboy Church just practice. The prize for the winning bull rider is typically $300, he said.
Between riders, Bishop gives shout-outs to Cowboy Church sponsors, including one that “will give you the deal of a lifetime for furniture.” He praises the Steel Disciples Motorcycle Ministry, and says he’s “waiting for global warming so we can ride (motorcycles) all year long.”
“You’ve got to be a little crazy to be around all this,” says Lauryn Moore, 17, of Middletown, who watches the bull rides up close. She attends Solid Rock, and has volunteered at Cowboy Church for about two years, sweeping bleachers and doing odd jobs. “I like to stand by the fence, because it’s so exciting and so nerve-wracking at the same time.”
Bishop will do anything to get people to church, she said, and on her phone, she shows a video of when he set up a ring inside his church, brought a bull in and rode it. She also shows photos of Bishop’s swollen face after the bull bucked him off.
Asked after the service what he would do to get people to church, Bishop replied, “Anything short of sin.”