Idaho cowboy churches fill ministry void
He doesn't like to miss church, though, so perhaps that's why he may choose to wear the same jeans, boots, shirt, vest and hat he wore while helping a mama cow or her calf, with vestiges of his work smeared, splattered and stained in various places on his attire.
"He couldn't do that in a traditional church, but nobody in a cowboy church thinks anything of it," said David Kite, who pastors two churches in eastern Idaho and has planted two others there.
"The cowboy church movement is getting strong," Kite said. "It's meeting a need for people not comfortable in a traditional church."
There are similarities as well as differences between these cowboy churches and other traditional Southern Baptist congregations. Among similarities, both support giving to missions through the Cooperative Program, the mechanism Southern Baptist churches use to undergird state, national and international ministries and missions.
"We believe in the Cooperative Program," Kite said. "The Cooperative Program is everywhere; it's in rural areas and big cities. I don't know of any other vehicle doing a better job in getting the Gospel out than what we do as Southern Baptists with the Cooperative Program."
The Cooperative Program helps support Kite who, with his wife Sue, travels up to 1,200 miles a week in their pickup to minister at the four Idaho churches: Christ Cowboy Country Church (4C's) in Blackfoot, Pocatello Cowboy Church in Pocatello, Cross Bar Cowboy Church in Rigby, and Teton Valley Cowboy Church in Driggs.
"Each church has its own personality," Kite said. "I preach exegetically -- we just finished Colossians -- and I preach the same Scripture, but the Holy Spirit makes each message unique to the needs of that congregation."
The 4C's and the Pocatello churches were started two years and one year, respectively, before the Kites moved in 2012 from his South Carolina pastorate to plant cowboy churches in Idaho. The Kites had already made several mission trips "out West" over the previous five years, but planted the Cross Bar church in 2013 and the Teton Valley church the following year.
About 100 people attend services at the 4C's church, held at 7 p.m. Saturdays in a ranch indoor arena. The church has baptized 87 people under Kite's pastorate, and several others have made professions of faith, calling Jesus their "trail boss." The church, the oldest and largest of the four Kite pastors, gives half or more of its offerings to missions and ministries.
The Pocatello church, which meets at 6 p.m. Sundays also in a ranch indoor arena, has grown over the last three years to an average attendance of more than 40 each week. The church has baptized 50 people in four years, and began this year supporting the Cooperative Program.
Cross Bar church averages 45 in 2 p.m. Sunday worship in a fairgrounds building. Under Kite's leadership, the church since its inception has given 10 percent to missions through the Cooperative Program.
Attendance at the Teton Valley church is sometimes as high as 35 during the congregation's 7 p.m. Monday worship service; but had been as low as four, three or even one when the church was first planted. The meeting place is a log-sided building on the main highway leading into Driggs. At about 100 miles from the Kites' home in Blackfoot, Driggs is the furthest distance the couple travels each week.
Unlike most traditional churches, cowboy churches -- at least the ones he leads -- are "simple churches," Kite said. A leadership team serves as the core group, assisting the pastor in making decisions regarding ministries and missions.
"We're just not big on owning property," Kite said. "Not owning a building is real freeing. We don't have to worry about upkeep -- maintenance, painting, putting on a new roof. We spend our offerings on missions and ministries."
Outreach efforts have included financial assistance and prayers for an Idaho pastor and family experiencing unexpected medical issues, and financial help for a family whose home flooded. There are also the myriad tasks common to ranchers.
"We go where they go and do what they do," Kite said. "In the same way a pastor in a traditional church might play golf with his parishioners or go to their kid's soccer game to build relationships, my wife and I get involved in their everyday lives as ranchers and farmers, [including] riding horses, cattle drives, brandings, rodeos and more."
The Pocatello church has two young couples, ranch managers with small children, who drive 80 miles one way to attend services, including the five miles of gravel road from their home to a paved, two-lane highway.
"They need a church closer to them, but the problem is that we have a shortage of pastors willing to serve in the remote areas of the West," Kite said. "Barring a miracle from God, most of the churches out here [rural Idaho] won't ever grow to more than 100 people."
About 2,500 people live on one 40-mile stretch of road he regularly travels, Kite said. "There's no evangelical church along that stretch. These people need the Gospel just as much as anyone else; that's why we do what we do."
The Kites do more than just plant and lead churches. Both are involved in community activities to build relationships and share the Gospel. He delivers sermons at Saturday rodeos and at Christian Timed Event Clinics that have led to confessions of faith. The Kites are also involved in hosting two weeklong Rodeo Bible Camps each summer in Downey, Idaho, and Wells, Nev., and have been asked to start a third in Wyoming. Many members of their churches assist as cooks, counselors and clinicians, and provide scholarships to cover the $100 tuition for youth who can't afford to pay.
"In everything we do, we look to see God's footprint and then step in it," Kite said. "And He takes another step, and we step in it...."
Their goal since arriving in Idaho has been "To get the Gospel just a little further down the trail," Kite said. Sometimes the trails are long and even lonely, but "that's why we came."