NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Wearing a cowboy hat, boots and string tie, Harry Yates doesn't look like a typical preacher.
And the Texas Troubadour Theatre he's standing in front of with its neon Texas-shaped sign flanked by guitars is not your normal church building.
But that is part of the attraction of the Nashville Cowboy Church, which draws several hundred worshippers each Sunday and has thousands more listening on the radio or via the Internet. Similar cowboy churches are popping up around the country.
In Nashville, cowboy hats are passed around as offering plates, and a 10-piece band up on the stage plays about 45 minutes of live country gospel music before Yates gives a simple sermon about how people need a ''personal relationship with Jesus'' to get into heaven.
''I found it refreshing,'' said Charles Hanson, who recently moved from Sacramento, Calif., and wore his own cowboy hat to his first service in Nashville. ''There's not a lot of pomp and circumstance. You're getting the word of God straight from the heart.''
Also popular is the come-as-you-are attitude be it jeans, overalls or shorts.
''It wasn't like when I went to church as a little girl and had to dress up and be as pretty as the Joneses. This wasn't a society church. Nobody cared if I came in T-shirt and shorts or my best Western outfit,'' said Phebe Clark Mertes of College Station, Texas, who coordinates the Cowboy Church Network's Internet listing. ''Everybody just loves a cowboy.''
A recent search of her site found 288 cowboy churches in the United States, and a school for cowboy ministers is scheduled to open next month in Midland, Texas.
In 1990, Yates and wife, Joanne (the youngest sister of the late singer Johnny Cash), had a traveling ministry, but decided to settle down and held their first cowboy church service in a Nashville bar.
''Historically, in the old West, when they'd build a town, the first building was the saloon. So every meeting was there town elections and committee meetings and churches they'd just cover up the whiskey bottles,'' Yates said.
The Nashville Cowboy Church services remained at the Sweetwater Lounge until 1995, when they moved into the theater adjoining an Ernest Tubb Record Shop in a strip mall in a touristy section of town.
While some cowboy services are housed in traditional church buildings, many more are held in community theaters or centers, as well as livestock barns, fairground arenas and riding clubs. The Thousand Hills Cowboy Church in Kerrville, Texas, has its own arena and barn on its 40-acre spread for roping and bullriding clinics.
Some cowboy church services are even held at rodeos, just like the ones that Glenn Smith began leading in the 1970s.
Smith, a former professional rodeo bullrider and clown who will soon open the School of Western Ministries in Midland, says that in 1972, ''the Lord gloriously touched me and told me I'd be the only cowboy in hell if I didn't wake up.
''Six months later, he told me to sell every earthly possession and sent me back on the pro rodeo circuit because no church was ministering to those boys. They were a hard bunch,'' Smith recalled.
Tony Shoulders of Skiatook, Okla., was one of those bullriders and bareback riders who says he thought Jesus was ''a sissy,'' and he didn't think he could be both a cowboy and a Christian.
In 1980, Shoulders attended his first cowboy church service at a rodeo in Branson, Mo., and shortly thereafter started his own ministry behind the bucking chutes at local rodeos. He claims the Smiths as his ''spiritual parents.''
Smith and his wife, Ann, stayed on the pro rodeo circuit three or four years before turning over that aspect of the ministry to others, and began concentrating on farmers, ranchers and others who wouldn't go to regular churches.
''On Sunday morning, if there was hay to be put up, horses having baby colts or cattle to be moved, these people didn't have time to stop, bathe, put on a suit and go to church,'' Smith said.
''So we'd go to them, and we'd bring simple messages of Jesus Christ. He ministered in parables, talked about planting and reaping, rain and dirt. If I'd go to a farming area, I'd put the Gospel to them in exactly the same terms.''
Yates said those simple messages from cowboy preachers are key to the churches' success. ''It's right out of the Bible. I don't like the word generic but it's easy for everybody.''
Heather Taylor, who occasionally sings backup in ''The Corral'' for the Nashville Cowboy Church Band, said she asked to be allowed to participate in pre-Christmas services because ''this is the most comfortable church I've ever been to. It's the most real church I've ever been to.''
On the Net:
Nashville Cowboy Church: www.nashvillecowboychurch.org
School of Western Ministries: www.rodeocowboyministries.org/school/shtml
Cowboy Church Network: www.cowboychurch.net
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