KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It's called a cowboy church, but you don't have to ride horses — or even like church — to attend.
People who come consider themselves outsiders to the stained-glass window churches, and many live by the old Western tune "Don't Fence Me In."
About 120 meet Saturday nights in a barn in rural Lone Jack, in Jackson County, Mo. Many wear jeans, cowboy hats, boots, overalls, flannel shirts, leather and biker jackets. The walls of the barn are decorated with wagon wheels, reins, stirrups, saddles and boots.
Mostly trucks and a few motorcycles are parked outside as a couple of dogs roam the grounds.
Open Range Fellowship, led by co-pastors Dave Putthoff, 49, and Frank Slaughter, 55, has been going weekly for two years at Ransomed Heart Ranch.
Following Bible study and a potluck dinner Saturday, a praise band with a country beat starts up, summoning people to the service. A large flag is mounted on the wall behind them, and a wooden cross is on the podium in front.
Worshippers are on their feet, moving to the music, clapping, swaying their arms in the air and singing the words that appear on two large screens that also depict horses and country settings.
Slaughter preaches, using analogies most in the audience can relate to: God wants his followers to be so in tune to him that he can direct them with loose reins, Slaughter says. Fearful people hold on with tight reins.
At one point a video shows a cowboy riding his horse without any reins. They circle an arena, gallop, come to a sudden stop, make circles and continue on their way.
"That's really how God wants us to be," Slaughter says.
For years, the two men, who are members of Lee's Summit Community Church, had a heart for reaching out to the outsiders.
Doug Brown, the Lee's Summit church's lead pastor, also wanted to draw from areas his suburban church was not attracting.
"Frank and I decided we would reach out on a monthly basis to attract cowboys, rural people, cattlemen, farmers, people who live in the country, hunters, fishermen," Putthoff said. "We saw that many were not comfortable — especially the cowboy types — coming to a regular church."
When they started meeting at Ransomed Heart Ranch, people came. Saturday's attendance reached 145.
"There's a certain group of cowboys who live the cowboy way," Putthoff said. "They believe in God and are patriotic. Then there are some that have a renegade reputation, and their lifestyle is much more rowdy.
"The bikers have the same two different types of groups. We attract both types. They have the similar identification of both being outsiders. They love horses or they love motorcycles — iron horses."
Putthoff and Slaughter said they try to pattern the church after the first century church. And they said they try to follow the example of Jesus, who reached out to outsiders.
"We eat together, we worship together, we read Scripture together and we plan how to reach out to people," Slaughter said.
Sue Nikel said Open Range saved her.
She was undergoing a divorce and had recently moved to be near family in Lee's Summit. She had lived at the Lake of the Ozarks and hadn't been to church regularly for a couple of years. She first went to a few Open Range events, then attended a service. She likes the outdoors but is not a rider.
"They immediately befriended me when I really needed a friend," Nikel said. "I don't know much about horses, and they don't care. They appreciate the outsider and love Jesus. They prayed for me, and they would call and check on me. The people really seem genuine. It's a happy and exuberant group. Everything is positive."
Ken and Terri DeLouche of Warrensburg, Mo., like riding and own 10 horses. Terri said the people who come share God's love, and she feels God's presence.
"It feels like I imagine the first church would have been," she said. "It's a perfect fit for me."
Joe White and his wife, Tammy, drive 40 miles from Liberty to attend. She's from Oklahoma and always had horses. When they moved to this area, they went to a regular church and after five weeks, Joe said, he had met only three people. The first time at Open Range almost everyone welcomed them, and many wanted to pray with them.
"We knew we were home," he said. "Before, I felt like an outsider looking in; I felt lost. Here it's like a big family."
Terry Swope, a member of the Christian Motorcycle Association who has a degree in engineering, said his daughter told him she had found a biker church. He said she tricked him into attending, and he "found his way back to the Lord." That was in 2003.
He then started going to Lee's Summit Community Church and began riding his motorcycle to some of the Open Range monthly events. He now leads Bible study at the weekly meetings.
Many of the people had been square pegs in round holes at other churches, Swope said.
"This is a cross section of middle-class American people," he said. "They tell friends, relatives and strangers they meet in the street about the church. They have the same purpose, to lift up God."
When Beth and Jim Doney of Lone Jack got involved with Open Range, they wanted to help take the church to the country.
Beth began working with Horse Power, Open Range's outreach ministry to at-risk children. The kids come once a week for seven weeks and are taught values as well as riding.
Jim said he and his wife come from traditional churches.
"The people who are attracted to Open Range are tired of rigid religious settings," he said. "Open Range is not regimented with traditions, like so many churches. We share the Bible just as it's written. And people can come out of the field with mud on their shoes and still come to church."
In addition to Horse Power, other outreach ministries include Open Road, a ministry to bikers, a food pantry for an American Indian center in Kansas City and a camp for American Indian children.
Putthoff said that after two years, the church is thinking of starting a Sunday morning service and is training leaders to help people who want to start similar groups in other cities.
"That's a great position to be in," he said.
TO LEARN MORE: Visit www.openrangefellowship.com or call 816-377-0017 or 816-697-2002.