What the booming growth of the “Cowboy Church” can teach startups

The undying mythology of the American West forms the premise of HBO’s popular show Westworld—that the wealthy of the future would pay to vacation in a massive virtual Old West theme park. And indeed, cowboys embody a certain pure spirit and romanticized version of American history that people around the world identify with, even if only by wearing a pair of boots or a Western shirt.

This may explain why in parts of the US and Canada, the so-called “cowboy church” movement is spreading—”like a wildfire,” according to one follower interviewed by Texas Monthly in 2014.

A couple of decades ago, only a handful of these churches existed. Now, says Greg Horn, a self-described cowboy who works for the Texas-based American Federation of Cowboy Churches (AFCC), his group alone includes more than 200 “partner” churches. There are other smaller associations, and hundreds of independent cowboy churches affiliated with various denominations, says Horn. His guess at the total number of cowboy churches: “You’d be low at 500.”

A cowboy church is exactly what it sounds like: a church made for cowboys. The services include country music and visual props of cowboy culture, such as tents and rustic fences. Baptisms might be held in a stock tank, the metal tubs that normally hold drinking water for ranch animals. Cookouts and trail rides replace coffee and donuts.

Cowboys, the federation warns its member churches, might be turned off by public displays of emotion (especially the hands-in-the-air exuberance of evangelical churches), and they dislike long sermons, so pastors are advised to restrict themselves to 20 minutes and avoid churchy words.

Men and women eat around a large table
More elaborate than coffee and donuts. (Courtesy the American Federation of Cowboy Churches)

These aesthetic choices may not be for everyone, but the rapid growth of the cowboy church movement is based upon a set of principles that make a lot of sense—and they offer lessons for other organizations and grassroots movements.

The key to the strategy is recognizing that not everyone who attends a cowboy church has to be a real cowboy (just as not everyone who wears a Canada Goose jacket is an Antarctic explorer). There aren’t many authentic cowboys left, and certainly not enough to fill the pews at the hundreds of organizations that call themselves cowboy churches in the Western US states and Alberta, Canada. That’s why the AFCC’s “Bull’s Eye approach” comes into play.

To begin, the AFCC says, a cowboy church should know who it must win over: Real cowboys, as in professional ranch hands or wranglers, who work on horseback. These cowboys are often “lost and unchurched,” according to the AFCC’s training documents. To make them comfortable, the federation suggests avoiding “fancy brick buildings, stained glass, steeples, red carpet, plush pews” and “fancy clothes.” Such accoutrements, it observes, “say to the lost in the cowboy culture, ‘You must clean up and get right first before you come to church.'”

Cowboy churches should avoid that alienating message, the Bull’s Eye approach dictates, because the cowboys—”lost” as they may be—represent the red dot, the target, who build the brand’s credibility and thereby passively draw in the wider, more populous circles around them. “The more cowboy you make it, the more people will flock to it,” says the AFCC.

The next circle is “arena cowboys and cowgirls” (professionals on the rodeo circuit, for instance); followed by “horse people,” “cattle people,” “cowboys at heart,” and finally the “cowboy mentality people,” in the broadest category that makes up the outer circle.

The “cowboy mentality people” might not even wear the boots or have a horse, Horn tells Quartz, but “you’re going to have a thousand of them or more for every working cowboy, demographically.”

It may seem counterintuitive to focus on the few instead of the many, but the idea is consistent with general marketing theory: Not every Whole Foods customer needs to be a health nut, and not everyone who shops at Patagonia must climb mountains, but both are brands whose broader identity is tied to a targeted customer type. Each “let their customer base (and their businesses) grow organically from a core base of early adapters to more mainstream consumers,” writes Inc. magazine columnist Debra Kaye. They are now, of course, among the biggest brands in the country.

For Horn, the Bull’s Eye approach is not a marketing tool, but rather a spiritual calling, he says: “The wisdom of man would tell you to focus on the 1,000, and the most prestigious group—but the Bible says the wisdom of man is foolish.”

Here is the full text of the AFCC’s advice to burgeoning cowboy churches:

Bull’s Eye Approach for Identifying and Reaching the Cowboy Culture

WORKING COWBOYS are the red dot in the bull’s eye target and the smallest segment of the western culture. These guys make all or a part of their living horseback. They are ranch hands or day workers. You’ll see these guys around town pulling a catch trailer with a horse in it that has ropes and tie strings hanging all over it with maybe a trip hopper feeder on the truck and some cur dogs. These guys will be a very small percentage of the overall population in an area. Their numbers will vary depending on the part of the country you are in but if there are cattle in the area there will be some working cowboys around even if you don’t see them.

ARENA COWBOYS AND COWGIRLS are the first red ring around the bull’s eye. These guys and gals don’t make their living horseback but they either love to use performance horses or they are crazy to get on something that bucks and typically these events are done in an arena. They could be ropers, barrel racers, rodeo hands, cutters, sorters, playdayers, or people who enjoy any number of other activities that are done in an arena on horseback or rough stock. Again, this is not a huge segment of the overall population but there are more arena cowboys than working cowboys.

HORSE PEOPLE are the second red ring. These folks don’t cowboy or use performance horses, they just love to ride and be around horses. They usually don’t care anything about cattle but they own a few horses and maybe trail ride or raise horses for pleasure or do other “non-western” horse activities. Horse people are a bigger percent of the general population and in some areas horse people will outnumber cattle people.

CATTLE PEOPLE are the third red ring. These folks are connected to the culture through the cow. It may be one FFA show steer or a 300 head cow calf or stocker operation or maybe a few cows and they all have names. They may or may not use horses.

COWBOYS AT HEART are the fourth red ring. These people don’t own cattle or horses and may live in town. They wear boots, jeans and cowboy hat, they drive a pickup truck. They love western movies and their radio channels are tuned to country music stations. This is a huge segment of the western culture population as well as the general population especially in southern and western states.

COWBOY MENTALITY PEOPLE are the fifth and final red ring. These folks don’t own cattle and don’t care anything about horses or arena events but they are connected to the culture through their mentality and approach to life. They live by a code, an honest day’s work for and honest day’s pay, your word in your bond. This is the largest segment of the population that will come to cowboy church. These folks are on the outlying edge of the western culture but can be reached through cowboy church. They could be country folks, farmers, outdoorsman, hunters, fishermen, law enforcement, fire fighters, electricians, carpenters, plumbers, welders, machinists, rednecks, roughnecks, in-laws and outlaws, people who grew up in the culture on a farm or in the country but now live in town.

Aim at the BULL’S EYE and you’ll hit the whole target, aim at the OUTSIDE RING and miss the whole thing.

If a cowboy church is going to reach every part of the western culture it has to focus on the smallest, hardest core segment it the area. A church that targets working cowboys will reach them all, a church that targets cowboy mentality people will miss the hard core segments. The more cowboy you make it the more people will flock to it. But remember, all of this is for nothing unless Jesus Christ is at the center of all we do.

In many ways it goes against traditional wisdom and marketing concepts but doesn’t God’s word say “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” and “for the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” So it doesn’t matter if our approach to reaching the western culture doesn’t seem like it would reach the largest number of people, this is God’s business, if we follow him we will be successful in what He has called us to do.

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