Saddle up for Sunday school
Welcome to Cowboy Church.
As members of the Conejo Valley Church of Christ of Thousand Oaks, Calif., gather for worship on a recent Sunday, a dusty trail leads to a Main Street lined with typical Western storefronts.
A sheriff’s office, a blacksmith/livery, a saloon, barns and a Wells Fargo office provide an unconventional backdrop as the congregation assembles amid the wide-open spaces and rolling grasslands of the sage-brushed Santa Monica mountains.
One Sunday each September, the Southern California church meets at Paramount Ranch, an old movie set.
In an outdoor pavilion, members sing praises, commune with God and grill burgers — all to kick off the congregation’s fall program.
“Following the summer season, which takes a lot of people out of their normal rhythms, we like to try to reinitialize good weekly habits like Bible classes and small groups,” minister Andy Wall said.
Conejo Valley is the home church of former longtime Pepperdine University Bible Lectures director Jerry Rushford and his wife, Lori.
The Conejo Valley Church of Christ of Thousand Oaks, Calif., gathers for its annual Cowboy Church at the old Western movie set on Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, Calif. (PHOTO BY RON HALL)
Pepperdine professors, alumni and students make up a sizable portion of the congregation.
The church takes its mission statement from John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
That love is evident in the multitude of children and families who arrive, lawn chairs in tow, dressed in cowboy gear.
Sheridan Brawner, left, and Sarah Antonio, center, enjoy grilled burgers and hot dogs alongside friends after Cowboy Church. (PHOTO BY RON HALL)
They carry favorite side dishes or desserts to go with the grilled burgers and hot dogs provided. While some people bring picnic quilts, the pavilion boasts plenty of tables and chairs.
“We always have a number of visitors,” Wall said. “People love to invite their friends to Cowboy Church, including our college-aged kids who go to Pepperdine.”
Average attendance runs about 280.
The 2,700-acre Paramount Ranch was used in classic television westerns such as “Gunsmoke,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Have Gun — Will Travel” and “The Rifleman” as well as many movies. More recent TV series shot at the ranch include “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “CHiPs” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.”
As burgers sizzle, the warm air swells with sounds of praise. Wall sums up the day.
“Cowboy Church reminds us,” the minister said, “that our faith journey is an adventure, shared in community and centered in our Lord Jesus, who has given us abundant life.”