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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Part IV: A final conversation with the cowboys...

Part IV

Soon the time was over, and many of the gathering got moving, as there were obligations and commitments. As most of us “cowboy types” slipped out of the restaurant, which had served as our meeting place, a few men stayed behind, not yet finished with this special time. There was a desire to say a few last things, pose for pictures and ask a few follow up questions… The focus soon became the most famous man in the room, as well-wishers and some actual fans circled around him.

He was accompanied on this day by his tour manager, Charles Lynn, musician, theologian, free spirited man Friday. Michael Martin Murphy is still someone whose songs you hear regularly on country radio stations. Songs like “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” “Wildfire,” “Wild Swans Against the Sun,” “Cherokee Fiddle” and “Carolina in the Pines” made him a Southwestern favorite. He sang “I Just Wanna Be a Cosmic Cowboy,” back in the 1970’s when the Texas-based progressive country revolution was just beginning. “Murph,” as his friends call him, has always been at the vanguard of things.

He has in recent years been the leader in reviving the old cowboy music of the Sons of the Pioneers variety. As if driven by a seeking heart, Murph has spent his career studying, experiencing, reading and processing Southwestern lore and landscape and history. Besides his family, and music of course, his love for two things have emerged. Cowboys, and God. He has immersed himself in the cowboy way, and almost lost himself in it. And more importantly, he has chosen to make himself a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. And it is the love of these two things that brought him to this cowboy gathering today. Not to lead it. Not to even speak, but to be there in support of it and to learn and listen. A small group pulled up chairs and began to share.

Greg Hunt expounded on his theme about the powerful impact cowboy churches are having. “Cowboy Churches are going to be the center of spiritual revival in this country.” The emphasis was that this was an untapped demographic that took special treatment. Cowboy people are nothing if not independent. “America has always been the cauldron of self-reliance...” agreed Murph. That American style of independence, with all its random, untamed nature, could still drive a Christian revival where even the organized church has failed.

It was that same self-reliance that brought many of our ancestors across the oceans, and established a country based on mutual respect and freedom of religion. It was self-reliance that propelled the great evangelical movement of this Continent. Self-reliance and pioneer spirit had established a basically Protestant, democratic empire, the first of its kind in the world. Some remnant of it is still visible in these emerging cowboy churches.

Murphy spoke to singer-songwriter Brian Kalinec, who had not had an opportunity to speak as the larger gathering had run out of time. Kalinec was all smiles. He like the rest of us, found the meeting very inspiring. They discussed the gift of music, and what a special purpose it plays in worship. Brian froze pensively for a moment, trying to express what music was for him… “It’s God’s little magic,” he offered. We had only scratched the surface concerning the possibilities of this group of gifted men.

“Sometimes we don’t think big enough…” offered Murph. He went on to express his concern about the effect of the secular Media on our youth. “Today a child can watch something on television for a day that will ruin him for life…” he lamented. He was incredulous that we have not, as a people, offered a Christian counterpart. He offered with all those TV channels, surely we could create something kids would watch that might balance the scales.

And that is where my notes ended. That is what I think I heard. Certainly I have editorialized, it is after all my blog! Murph spoke to me, after everybody had said something. I told him that I had come to listen, that I had some concerns about cowboy churches and did not understand them very much. This meeting had been as much for me as anyone, a borderline skeptic who came to be convinced. As I explained to him, I had been attending an afternoon fellowship in Whitehall, Texas that was full of real cowboy types… horse trainers, horse owners, country singers, trail riders, people who came to church in hats and boots. It had been a Christian gathering of people just like we had discussed, but we never once called ourselves a “cowboy church.”

Why not? Because if anything, Christianity must be all inclusive, and we would never do anything to appear otherwise… like put a label on our fellowship that would sound exclusionary. I don’t think we should call them “cowboy” churches or “Indian” churches or “biker” or “lawyer” churches… that would tend to undermine the magic of the amazing sufficiency and diversity of the Body of Christ.

Tony King, administrator of Bar None Cowboy Church was glad to handle my questions. His answer was more or less that the cowboy churches are like a mission, aimed at people that will never enter a regular church. It’s just a focus on a particular group of people, largely unchurched, with a strategy to get into their world, any way possible.

Like Young Life, it is targeting the farthest person from Christ, and sometimes that takes extraordinary measures. I worked a great deal with Young Life as a young man. My ministry there was blessed, but I have to admit, I was always concerned with the low numbers that stuck with the program. When you make something too easy, too accessible, it can become easy come, easy go. But his answer was reasonable, so I shot him another question.

Of more concern to me was his and Jason’s story about an entertainer who had been invited to perform at one of their events. It had been learned after the fact that he sang a lot of “beerology” songs and church members expressed their concerns about him appearing there. But they went ahead, convinced that the somewhat worldly performer might be the project that day, as much as anyone.

“What do you say to someone like me who might ask, what about the impressionable young person who hears this person and their beerology at his church and their music, whether played or not, is legitimized because they heard it first in church?”

This was no problem at Bar None, the entertainer with questionable songs was not welcome to sing his “questionable” songs. I guess Jason and Tony were true to their all inclusive name… “Bar None.” That's an example of "cowboy logic." But this does not realistically address the question. Young kids will see the star, go buy the CD’s, and listen to that music the rest of their lives. Parents will go buy it for them, because he was at their church. I know firsthand how impressionable I was at around 17 to 21 years old, when I listened to Jerry Jeff Walker and Co., who were the high priests of beerology in my youth. I can’t imagine how much more I would have worshipped at that twisted altar, had I seen them first in church! In effect, this kind of twist is exactly the kind of wrong message that Murph started the conversation about. We as Christians should be offering something to counter the world and the Devil, not something to accommodate it.

But something tells me that Bar None will be more discerning in the future. The teachings of Christ leave no question that for those who lead these little children astray, it would be better for them to have a millstone tied to their neck and to be thrown into the sea. A special judgment awaits those who misuse this trust.

The cowboy church is new and rough around the edges. We all need to pitch in and make sure it does what Greg Hunt thinks it will. But this movement is vulnerable to swift, unmanagable growth and an abundance of "git‘er done" types like Simon Peter and a shortage of doctrinally sound individuals like Paul. Even though Chuck Montgomery was right about Pharisees, Paul had the training and wisdom of one, and without him, we would not have most of the great writings of the New Testament. The idea of “Bishops” in the early church was developed for just this reason. Without wisdom, this whole thing could end up as just another embarrassing whim.

But it will be meetings such as this one, with open minds and hearts like these, where wisdom will be found. The only spiritual measure of success in this world is changed lives. That is happening if these men in the room were any example of the leadership in ths movement. Men are being brought into every day ministy that mainstream churches might have never considered twice. It says in the Bible that God often uses the foolish to confound the wise. You gotta love a God like that!

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