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Cowboy church rounds up believers

A rope-thin cowboy cautiously lowers himself onto the bull, which rears up in the chute — a warning that does not deter the cowboy. Seconds later the gate swings wide, and the bull explodes from the chute to the roar of the crowd. The rider’s upper body whips back and forth before he is thrown to the dirt — well short of the 8 seconds needed to score. He picks up his hat and climbs over the rail where the other contestants are waiting for their chance at the night’s prize money. No one consoles him or acknowledges his effort.

The legendary cowboy spirit of pride and independence lives on through those trying to make a living on the pro rodeo circuit. For some, the rodeo life is marred with alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual immorality and broken hearts. But others have found hope and eternal life through Jesus Christ at the rodeos due to the efforts of Paul and Linda Scholtz, Assemblies of God home missionaries to cowboys.

Paul and Linda Scholtz minister at rodeos like this one in Minot, N.D.

"These cowboys need Jesus just like anyone else," says Paul at the fairgrounds in Minot, N.D., where he, Linda and their son, Paul Robert, have come to work and minister.

Each year the Scholtzes travel thousands of miles to pro rodeos around the country to share Christ. They also conduct camps where horsemanship, trick riding and building a strong relationship with Christ are taught to aspiring cowboys.

"The trick-riding schools have opened so many doors for us," says Linda, who is a professional trick rider. "And the best part is that I get to nail them with the gospel."

Paul says, "We’ve found that these cowboys respond to a direct approach. But, nothing we say is going to have value unless it is based on the Word of God."

Jeb Brown, a 25-year-old cowboy from Texas, agrees.

"The more Christians out here helps the others stay focused and makes them stronger," he says. "You really have to stay in the Word. If you don’t, this world will drain you."

It is Sunday morning. The smell of dung and fresh dirt hangs in the air as more than 70 worshipers fill sections 16 and 18 of the Minot arena. Paul and Linda lead those gathered in worship. Most everyone wears a broad-brimmed hat, boots and jeans.

Twenty years ago, Bob Bruhaug, a local rancher who once struggled with alcoholism, heard there was going to be cowboy church at the rodeo. His interest was piqued, and he attended.

"Paul accepted me as I was," he says. "I keep their missionary picture card on my bathroom mirror and pray for them every morning."

Cowboys don’t embrace formalities, says Paul, so he tries to keep things simple. His sermons are laced with illustrations about cowboys and horses. When he needs to counsel someone, he usually does it while working the rodeo. Breaking through the rough and tough veneer of the cowboy takes time and persistence, but the Scholtzes have seen hundreds come to know Christ over their 22 years of ministry at rodeos.

"They really don’t seek out spiritual help when they get hurt or are in need," says Paul. "But, when they find Christ, they begin to see there is strength and humility in weakness."

— Kirk Noonan


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