MINERAL POINT — In 2005, four families in Iowa County were searching for a home church, one centered around a loving community preaching the word of God. The families had met at different locations around town before deciding to build their own Evangelical church — the place of worship continuing to capture the attention of those driving by on busy U.S. Highway 151 just outside of Mineral Point.
Atop a hill sits the Cowboy Country Church — its outward appearance that of a barn with horses and a Longhorn steer grazing in the pasture surrounding it; however, this building has never housed animals. Instead, it houses a congregation of about 100 members, meeting inside, and outside, to share and celebrate their faith.
Pastor Stephen Troester admitted the church’s original founders never thought it would be a cowboy church, a national phenomenon that has allowed for a more relaxed church atmosphere. But after acquiring the agricultural-zoned property from a local family, the founders decided to build a barn instead of a church building.
“And it’s just grown and developed from there,” Troester said.
The congregation was blessed with the leadership of the well-known Dr. Dale Linebaugh for the first five years. A cowboy at heart, Linebaugh brought with him the “cowboy church” experience after establishing Miracle Mountain Ranch, a Christian camp and retreat center in Pennsylvania.
It was at Miracle Mountain Ranch where Troester heard his calling, first serving as an assistant pastor before following in his mentor’s footsteps to led the congregation in Mineral Point upon the retirement of Linebaugh in 2011. Troester, who grew up in New England, recalled one of the first Saturdays he served at the church.
“Dr. Linebaugh told me to bring my cowboy boots and hat,” he said. “We were giving riding lessons that day.”
Community outreach is a large part of the culture at Cowboy Country Church, especially during the summer. Free horse riding lessons, geared toward beginning youth, are offered for four days for 10 weeks in five-week increments each summer, with adult riding classes also offered. Participants receive a Bible lesson before interacting with the horses and learn how to be safe around the animals as well.
Youth also have an opportunity to participate in a “Foundations for Survival Weekend,” where they set up tents and camp in the hills behind the church, exploring the land and learning to work as a team.
Many volunteers make the summer programming successful, said Roger Johnson, an elder at the church. Ten area teenagers help care for the horses and make sure everyone follows appropriate safety around the animals; they are known as the Wranglers, receiving more intensive horse lessons and monitoring the health of the horses during the summer.
The church owns two horses, but members of the congregation also lend their horses to the church each summer, allowing for them to graze in the pasture and be used by the community.
“Animals have a way of bringing people out of their shells, horses in particular and especially with children,” Johnson said.
“It’s a really neat thing,” Troester added. “An opportunity that God gave us to enjoy and connect.”
Troester has found his own project in El Paso, a 6-year-old Longhorn steer he is breaking to ride. There were several broken steers at Miracle Mountain Ranch, where he had previously worked, and Troester saw another opportunity to use an animal as a lesson, illustration and message.
After finding El Paso online, a few members traveled to Oklahoma to pick him up. He was only 10 months old at that time, with Johnson commenting that he “wasn’t a pet when we got him. He was as wild as a deer.”
Standing out in the pasture, the steer greets people who pass by. He’s the first thing people see when they drive up the road to the church, and he is easily visible from the highway with his huge horns and red coloring.
“He serves as a mascot for the church and as a Biblical platform,” Troester said. “There are so many lessons to be drawn from the animals, especially the steer.”
“Interacting with animals is part of the country culture,” he added. “There’s a demand for it and people are naturally drawn here because of it.”
The horse programming offered in the summer serves as a pilot into the community, with the church’s leaders always brainstorming ways to further connect with those around them. The church supports Operation Go Haiti, a local nonprofit that sponsors orphanages in that country, and also hosts community events that include a trail ride, gospel sing, barn dance and a cowboy beans and biscuit dinner.
“We attribute all the credit to Him,” Troester said. “God has really shown himself to us as a church.”
As for the unique four-legged members of the congregation, “We see the animals as a medium for greater purpose, teaching people that we all have a purpose,” he said.