Preaching in Cowboy Gear Attracts Attention
After rubbing elbows with corporate titans in New York, David D. Willard is back home in Arizona, preaching in the outfit he likes best: blue jeans, plaid shirt, and cowboy hat.
Willard, pastor of The Gate, a cowboy church that recently relocated to a ranching community northwest of Tucson and doubled in size to 60 from 30 the first two months.
A former financial officer who still does part-time business consulting, Willard sensed God's call to start the church during a March 2014 session organized by the Arizona Ministry Network. Leigh Metcalf, the network's church planting director, outlined plans that day to start five cowboy churches in five years.
"I absolutely felt the Holy Spirit speak, saying, 'You're supposed to do that,'" the new pastor recalls. "I walked up to Leigh after the meeting and told him. A week later, God gave me the name."
The Gate started in the Willards' living room in Tucson a few months later. Willard's wife Gretchen and four children all play key roles in the church. The fledgling congregation then moved to an AG church, but in shared quarters the congregation could meet only on Sunday evening. That limited attendance to mostly core group members.
Since relocating over the summer to Marana Middle School, The Gate has seen numerous newcomers.
Their first convert came at the second service in Marana. The school maintenance man, who hung around their first morning to make sure the utilities worked fine, returned and prayed to receive Jesus as Savior.
Prior to The Gate, the Arizona AG had a couple of cowboy churches. First Assembly of Sedona had transitioned into Canyon Trails Cowboy Church, while Galen Neshem, the pastor of Hillside Bible Church in Bagdad, holds AG credentials.
However, Metcalf says the network invited Russ Weaver of Texas to speak last year to draw more attention to this unique style of worship. The pastor of Shepherd's Valley Cowboy Church, which will soon relocate to Alvarado, also started the AG's Cowboy Church Fellowship.
"All kinds of people are starting cowboy churches," Metcalf says. "They haven't made it a denominational thing."
While fellow cowboy church leaders advised him to not emphasize The Gate's denominational ties, Willard isn't afraid to let people know about its spiritual home.
A ministerial graduate of Global University, the pastor recently recommended the Pentecostal school to a 47-year-old man who sensed God call's to ministry. The man enrolled in the Arizona School of Ministry the next day and will complete part of his credentials via Global's online classes.
"I don't have any qualms about saying we're AG," Willard says. "We put the 16 fundamental truths on our website. There's benefits to that."
The easy-going leader also draws benefits for pastoring from his business background. He says the biggest key is strategic planning, which helps determine how the church will look in months to come.
Another comes from a marketing seminar he attended during college at the University of Arizona. The speaker advised students if they wanted to be successful in life to return all their phone calls.
"I follow that principle out of respect and courtesy, not just with members, but people in the community," Willard says. "Every person who comes to our church is important, whether they've been there one day or one year. That's the way the Lord treats us; why shouldn't we treat people that way?"
Despite its relative newness, The Gate has such activities as a women's Bible study, a weekly men's gathering, and a Wednesday night youth Bible study. It also supports several AG missionaries.
Willard envisions the day when The Gate moves into permanent quarters and starts other cowboy churches.