- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

MIDLAND, Texas — Across the street from a flea market, in the shadow of oil wells and tumbleweed, Glenn Smith trains aspiring ministers in a building that looks more like a steakhouse than a seminary. But that’s OK — these are cowboy ministers.

“Preaching Jesus, Western style,” reads the sign out front.

“These boys and girls will come out of here full-fledged ministers, but they’ll be ministers that look like I do,” said Mr. Smith, 70, sporting a Resistol hat and ostrich-skin boots.

At the School of Western Ministries, pickup-driving pupils don colorful cowboy shirts, Wrangler jeans and belt buckles with messages such as “Jesus Christ: Champion of Champions.”

From Alabama to Australia, students come to West Texas to study how to teach the Bible in places where a barn might double as a sanctuary, and where horse tanks and farm ponds make do as baptisteries. They are awarded certificates of completion at the end of their course work.

Matt Reid, a 30-year-old saddle bronc rider from Cullman, Ala., said he came to learn from down-to-earth scholars who speak his language.

“These folks, they’re not very religious,” Mr. Reid said. “It’s more like, they believe a relationship with Jesus is the best thing. You don’t get all churchified.”

From Mr. Smith’s perspective, the “Western world” population is turned off by holier-than-thou preachers with deep voices and three-piece suits, and his ministry training has to deal with that reality.

“If you want to catch a catfish, you use catfish bait,” he said. “Usually, you can’t catch a bass with catfish bait.”

The former professional bull rider and rodeo clown leads a cowboy worship service each Sunday night at the International Western World Outreach Center, the Midland-based ministry that he and his wife, Ann, oversee.

The people who attend would not fit in at a traditional church, he said. On Sunday morning, when churchfolk occupy pews, the crew that cowboy ministers are trying to attract are baling hay and tending cattle.

“So what we’re trying to train these kids to do is what I’ve done for 30 years, and that is to actually go out in the boondocks where no one cares,” he said. “And we have church services in barns, rodeo arenas, Holiday Inn ballrooms, out under shade trees in the summertime.”

Mr. Smith’s ministry even prints its own Bibles — a King James Version with drawings of cowboys on the front and back. The idea is that a macho cowboy might be more apt to throw such a Bible on his pickup dash than an official-looking one with a black cover.

The Smiths started their school last year with an inaugural class of 16. Twenty students enrolled for this year’s session, which started in January.

“It’s great for the young people,” said Tim Kelly, 44, who works with Rodeo Cowboy Ministries in Kingaroy, Australia. “When we started at home, there was nothing like this. So we just had to learn as we went.”

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