Meet the NW cowboy church

Central Washington church meets needs of cowboys
By Sheila Allen
NW Baptist Convention, Witness Newsletter

TOPPENISH, Wash. — Like any affinity group, cowboys have special needs that would benefit from a tailor-made ministry approach. Such a ministry has become a reality under the direction of Dave Shepard since he began a cowboy ministry that has recently formalized into a church.  Shepard was not born into the cowboy world but grew up in a logging family in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It was not until the age of 38 that he began taking his children to Sunday school and stayed himself.

“I did not want the church to be a babysitter for my kids,” Shepard said. “I came to know the Lord through that and eventually my wife, Judy, did also.”  The couple had a cattle business while living in Baker City, Ore., and Shepard was involved in team roping and participated in a few rodeos.

“I have always been in the cattle world,” Shepard said. “Once while traveling through LaGrande, Ore., I saw all these boats and horse trailers out on a Sunday morning, and it was a significant moment for me, because I realized that there must be a way to present the gospel to cowboys.”

Shepard started a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Cowboys, was ordained by his church and eventually was pastor of a small mission church. After retirement, the Shepards moved to Prosser, Wash., to be near family.
“I felt the urge to go back into the pastorate,” Shepard said. “I talked to Garry Benfield, our regional team leader, about it, and he worked with me to begin the process. I also hooked up with Mike Gill of Central Washington Baptist Association and he was looking for a cowboy preacher.”

A small core group formed and began meeting the past few months and formally launched a new church called The Watering Hole in Toppenish, Wash.

“We talked to the owners of a local livestock auction yard and these guys were really for us using the facility for our services,” Shepard said. “Because of our location and the culture of the rodeo and ranchers we’re reaching out to, we meet on Sunday evenings at the auction yard. Ranchers work seven days a week and so we set our services at 6 p.m. It just wouldn’t happen in the morning due to their schedule, so we do what we have to so they can be introduced to Jesus.”

The pastor credits the many support people who have helped him get to this point.

“Terry Smith, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Zillah, Wash., is my mentor and he understands my needs and frustrations because he started a church himself,” Shepard said. “I have been involved with the pastors in the Central Washington Baptist Association and they have been very supportive. The Northwest Baptist Convention has given us financial assistance and we went to the NWBC church planters training a few months ago that was very helpful.”

Country music, accompanied by guitars, CDs and a new sound system that was donated, set the mood for the weekly services in the auction stands, which hold up to 200 people and has heat and air-conditioning. The style and location is a perfect match for the target group the church hopes to minister to.

“We had over 100 people show up for our first service and it meant a lot to our people to see the  support we had from other churches,” Shepard said. “We want to focus on young people, because there are many of them in the cowboy world — and a bunch of wannabes too,” Shepard noted. “We want to begin small group Bible studies and base them on natural interests in the cowboy world, such as ropers in the arena, rough stock riders and others. In the rodeo world the gospel is actually presented more than you would think, because outdoors people generally believe there is a God. The barrier has typically been the church.

“It’s like breaking new group, this mission work. We are not after them for their money or to make them give up anything. Each person’s spiritual background is so varied — from non-believers to Bible-thumpers. We are so non-traditional, and that is a good thing.” Those interested in more information on The Watering Hole may contact Shepard at 509.778.2519.

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