Williston (FBC)—As he searches for the spiritually lost and gathers the strays in God’s Kingdom, Billy Keith casts a long shadow in the cowboy world.
He planted the Cross Brand Church in Williston five years ago to bring the Gospel to the western culture in Levy County, southwest of Gainesville. Residents along these country roads work the land in the farm and agricultural industry.
Real cowboys are an unreached people group, said Keith. “They don’t go to church. Anybody is welcome to come here, but we are trying to reach the day-to-day working cowboys who work on ranches and farms,” he added.
“A lot of ‘boys’ have never been exposed to the gospel. But we have been able to break down walls and teach about having a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Many of the cowboys distrust the church—as well as many other traditional organizations—or have had bad experiences they are unable to get past, Keith said.
The bivocational pastor, who received church planting assistance from the Florida Baptist Convention, is assisted in his efforts by his wife, Jenny, and four lay pastors. “We don’t call them deacons because too many people have had a problem with deacons in the past,” said Keith.
The congregation, which is one of seven cowboy churches in the Florida Baptist Convention, meets under the outdoor pavilion at Williston Horseman’s Park on Thursday nights and Sundays. The week-day events are best attended because cowboys compete on the rodeo circuits throughout the weekend.
The church recently purchased 25 acres of land on Highway 27, about five miles from their present setting. First on the agenda for construction is an arena where the clinics and rodeos can be held at any time.
“This is how we are going to reach the cowboy and gain his trust,” Keith said. “I’d rather have an arena and an oak tree than a building. We would do our rodeo and worship under the tree.”
Cowboys can’t be fenced in and disdain walls of any kind, Keith contends. They are most at home under open skies. So worship is held outdoors, rain or shine, heat or cold.
Eighty people came to worship on Christmas Sunday in 26 degree weather and snow flurries. “Some brought their own heater,” he admitted. “But we are not here for comfort. We are here because God is doing awesome things and they are turning their lives over to Christ.”
One of those to accept Christ was one of the “roughest cowboys” in the region, said Keith. “We reached him and he turned his life over to the Lord.”
The church has baptized 64 new believers in a horse trough since its beginning.
For each person baptized, Keith ties a knot in a long, leather horse bridle that rests on a cross at the front of the congregation.
Nissa Jaquess proudly claims one of those knots, as does her son. ”There are good, hard-working people here,” she said. Although she grew up in church, she didn’t think she would fit in as an adult. “Here I don’t have to clean up and can come as I am,” she said.
“This church has changed my life. I am welcomed and accepted here. We are one family,” the mother said.
The cowboy mystique all too often glorifies hard-living, alcohol and drugs. Because many teenagers in this culture idolize their favorite Bronco-buster, church members have sponsored Kids Ranch Rodeo Series, rodeos and skill clinics designed to reach the youth and relate to the community.
As many as 100 teenagers at a time have attended the clinics to gain skills in barrel racing, chute dogging, calf roping, flipping and branding. A brief devotional relates the gospel to their lifestyle.
The rodeos are the evangelistic key to growth as the community comes out to watch the events and church members gain their trust, explained the pastor.
Both newcomers and teens, dressed in their finest cowboy clothes, are drawn to worship, yet hang back by the fence with a watchful eye and listening ear. Tucking a Bible in their jeans’ back waist band, the pastors work the crowd, shooting the breeze in a non-threatening way.
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