The cowbell rings on a Sunday night. It’s a sure sign that church is about to begin.
That’s the scenario at Northwoods Harvest Barn in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, better known as Cowboy Church Perham. The welcoming and nonthreatening atmosphere allows folks of all ages — from the wizened farmer to the littlest buckaroo — to check out Jesus in a fun and unusual way.
After the cowbell starts the service, a mandolin, a washtub basin, and spoons — along with the traditional church organ — help cowboy congregants to worship. The pastor starts his message with a good-natured joke and an entertaining story before diving into God’s Word. The service concludes with the singing of “Happy Trails.”
The uncommon gathering draws more than 75 people each Sunday evening to the “church outside the box but inside the Bible,” as Pastor Brian Erickson likes to remind people.
Erickson planted the church in 2007 with 14 people at the first service. He had been assistant pastor at Northwoods Assembly in nearby Perham. He had a vision for doing something out of the ordinary to draw people to church who might not otherwise darken its doors.
So as not to compete with Northwoods Assembly or other area congregations, he decided to offer Sunday evening country gospel concerts. He searched the area for a place to meet and soon discovered a defunct church for sale. Although in terrible disrepair, Erickson felt God leading him to the place. When he checked into the details, to his delight he found that the AG Minnesota District Council owned the building.
The Minnesota District handed over the keys, and Erickson, along with his wife, Sandy, and a few others, got to work transforming the church into a cowboy and farm-themed “barn,” complete with a tractor and a hitching post out front.
People began to visit and then return.
“Most folks around here aren’t cowboys or farmers, but they’re drawn to our place because it’s filled with joy,” Erickson says. “The Bible says to be fishers of men, but there are different lures. We offer a folksy, relaxed environment to learn about God and grow in our faith.”
Sandy Marlett agrees. Four years ago, she and her husband, Seth, felt something missing from their lives. They had been intrigued driving past the church. So they gave it a try. Hooked immediately, they became regular attendees, bringing their four grandchildren (ages eight to 11) as well, so the youngsters could attend the Kids Korral Sunday School.
“It changed our lives,” says Marlett. “The Holy Spirit is really alive and moving in that place.” One weekend when the Marletts couldn’t make the 30-mile drive from their house to the church, their grandchildren expressed deep disappointment.
“They love going to church,” Marlett says. “I’m so grateful that it has planted those seeds in their lives.”
That kind of response thrills Erickson.
“People feel loved and accepted here,” Erickson says.