Rather than sitting in pews, the congregation of Cowboy Church of Oregon stands from their arena seats to clap, some lifting their hands into the air.
They too have arrived as is. Instead of their Sunday best, they’re dressed in work clothes and Carhartt pants and jackets. Instead of hiding their struggles, they’ve come to a community where they can express them and be accepted.
The lead guitarist, sixty-one-year-old Tom Crabbe, is also the church’s founding pastor. Sporting a cowboy hat, a flannel shirt, and cowboy boots, he looks exactly how people might expect a cowboy pastor to look, if they’d heard of such a thing.
It’s a far cry from where he was thirty-one years before, sitting in a bar and regretting the toll twelve years of alcoholism had taken on his life. Between drug abuse, two divorces, and two jail stays, Crabbe had spent over a decade running from the “fire and brimstone” Christian religion of his youth and drowning his pain in liquor.
It was one night in the bar that Crabbe recalled a conversation he’d had with a pastor friend a few months before. Crabbe had told his friend that he didn’t want to go to church; he liked “drinkin’ beer and raisin’ hell” too much.
His friend’s reply has stuck with him since: “Don’t let that keep you out of Heaven,” he said.
Crabbe left the bar that night and went to his brother’s home where he rededicated his life to Christ. He says that he was instantly sober, and has neither touched, nor desired, alcohol since.
Crabbe can explain this immediate transformation only as the work of God in his life; his brother and his nephew both witnessed the transformation that night and over the years to follow. Instead of drinking away his free time, Crabbe spent hours reading the Bible every day. He calls the shift his “one-step program” because he believes it took “one step to [his] knees” to become a recovered – not recovering – alcoholic.
He began attending Christ Center, a nondenominational church in Junction City, Oregon. Having reconciled with God and with himself, Crabbe thought he would be content to continue going to church on Sundays, reading the Bible, and praying and working at the Georgia Pacific mill where he’d worked since age nineteen. When his pastor prophesied that someday Crabbe would give up his job and go into full-time ministry, Crabbe says he couldn’t quite believe it.
“I had no clue that God had a purpose for me to be a pastor, and a cowboy pastor, because at that time, I didn’t know there was any type of cowboy ministry,” says Crabbe, “but He had a plan and I thank God for it.”
In 1991, a decade after his “rebirth,” Crabbe heard about a cowboy ministry going on in Sisters, Oregon. The rock-and-roll worship music and the welcoming atmosphere caught his attention on the first visit, but he quickly found that there were no churches like it in the Willamette Valley. He decided to change that.
Just as his pastor had predicted, Crabbe gave up his steady management position – with six weeks paid vacation – to start his own Cowboy Church and become a full-time pastor.
He called Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys originated in 1974. The organization sent him a booklet on how to get started, and by 1992, Cowboy Church was up and running, settling in the livestock auction barn in 1994.
“Everybody’s welcome,” Crabbe says of his church. “There are way more people coming who aren’t cowboys than those who are.” Crabbe says that the modern cowboy is not so much about a look as it is about a lifestyle—a hard-working, born-to-ride mentality. And he believes it’s in everyone.
The cowboy boots and hat Crabbe wears are certainly part of his personality, but they’re also part of the nonthreatening environment he’s creating, where people from all walks of life can roll into church in their street clothes and feel accepted.
The members of Crabbe’s congregation—many of whom have pasts as sordid as his own—see his messages as a welcome shift from those they might receive at other churches. The concept of new life—a spiritual rebirth—is an integral part of every message Crabbe preaches.
“We give them the same message; it’s just wrapped in a different package,” says Crabbe.
As many members of his congregation are new Christians, he keeps his messages firmly rooted in the Bible and encourages his church members to read it on their own as well.
Church members such as William Eppler, who has been attending Cowboy Church since 2000, are drawn to Crabbe’s biblical emphasis. Eppler also appreciates the family he’s found at Cowboy Church.
“The first time I walked in the door, I was accepted here,” says Eppler. With a long beard in front and a long braid in back, Eppler says this didn’t come easy at other churches. Though he doesn’t see himself as a cowboy by any means, the former biker says he feels at home at Cowboy Church because it welcomes in people like him—people other churches might reject.
These are exactly the people Crabbe wants.
“We’ve been praying that God would send us those who no one else would take,” Crabbe says.
Over the past two decades, the church has drawn many people who are struggling with addictions or are simply down on their luck. Crabbe can relate.
He says he would love to rewrite his own story if he could, but he also believes that his experiences have made him a better pastor.
“I can look at most everybody and say, ‘I’ve been there,’” he says. “I can also look at them and say, ‘Don’t lie to me.’ I can show them that there’s a way out—that there’s hope.”
Had it not been for Cowboy Church, Crabbe says there are many people who couldn’t have called a church home and he believes would not have made it to Heaven. And he’s on a mission to round ‘em up.