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Building Faith, Cowboy Style

Rural Texas church takes nontraditional approach to ministry.

Cody K. Cochran’s family roots run deep in Texas soil.

The cowboy lifestyle flavors every kernel of his ministry as lead pastor of Bethel Assembly in Anson, Texas, for 21 years.

“Before surrendering to Christ, I was a fiery and wild cowpuncher,” says Cochran, 49.

He sweated sunrise to sundown, roping and branding calves and steers, cleaning stalls, repairing fences, and herding livestock. Bunkhouse camaraderie, partying, drinking, and fighting captivated him.

Cochran recollects encountering the Lord at age 12, but drifted away. Cowboying prevailed until he met his wife, Jennifer, at an amateur Texas rodeo, where he competed in calf roping. They fell in love and he attended her home church, Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Abilene. After marrying and moving to a larger ranch, they joined an independent full-gospel church.

During that time, Cochran submitted his life to Christ. He never imagined or wanted to be a pastor until the Holy Spirit corralled his resistance. His conversion and testimony surprised many. Within a few months, he started accepting speaking invitations to camp meetings, ranches, and small churches. “In the early days, I preached the simplicity of Jesus,” he says.

When Bethel Church’s former pastor retired because of illness, Cochran accepted an offer to fill in preaching. He stayed. The church had dwindled to 13 senior citizens, steeped in tradition and unhappy about Cochran’s inexperience. At 27, he had no formal ministerial training, just raw grit. Initially, the Assemblies of God North Texas District granted him a provisional license before he took Global University courses to prepare for ordination.

“My preaching was edgy and rough when I was young and dumb,” Cochran admits. “During the first year, I left Sunday services very discouraged, but still set in my ways. The Lord needed to throw me into the fire.”

Cochran prayed through his struggles for more than a year, which changed his detractors’ attitudes. They started loving him like doting grandparents.

Bethel Assembly is a powerhouse today, expanding its range from Anson, a small ranching and farming community of 2,300 residents, to satellite churches in Albany and Sweetwater, with assistance from the AG’s Church Multiplication Network. Growth has been slow, but steady, to the current 800 congregants, notwithstanding the impact of COVID-19.

Cochran leads three Sunday services in Anson. He preaches righteous living and is unafraid to expose sins defined by the Bible.

Building relationships organically is vital, Cochran says, for raising up men and women doing grassroots connections, connecting with individuals God has placed in his life.

“It’s about making disciples, not just converts,” says Cochran, who spoke briefly last year at General Council in Orlando, Florida.

Nathan Dickson, a faithful Bethel attendee for more than a decade, works on an Angus cattle ranch owned by his family. He grew up in a Christian home, but strayed from the faith until he attended a men’s retreat sponsored by Bethel’s Albany church. He made a life-changing decision to follow Christ.

“I’m sober now and controlled by the Holy Spirit,” Dickson says. “I told Jesus do whatever You want to do with me.”

Dickson, 47, lives the cowboy code: handshakes are a contract; put 100% effort into every job; and leave a gate the way you found it, open or closed.

Bethel does not offer dedicated men’s and women’s ministries or small group meetings. Most families live 30 to 40 miles away. There are no Sunday School programs either. Children 7 and older sit with parents during services. Parents are urged to lead their children to Christ at home.

During September 2021, Bethel baptized 47 people, 30 under the age of 14.

Cochran and congregants gain respect from local ranchers by helping during the breeding, calving, branding, and weaning seasons.

In January, four men from the church met at Cochran’s home at 6 a.m. to load his horse on their trailer with three others. They drove 1 hour to a 2,500-acre ranch to rope and brand 125 calves. Their authenticity rings true and opens doors for sharing the gospel.

Cochran also serves on the CMN’s rural ministry team.

“As a rural church, we don’t have it all figured out,” he says. “But people in West Texas need a Savior, and that’s our mission.”

Peter K. Johnson

Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York. More than 500 of his articles and short stories have appeared in Christian and mainstream magazines and newspapers, including the Pentecostal Evangel,Charisma, the Saturday Evening Post, Guideposts, and Decision. He also serves as a consultant and contributing editor to a scientific journal.