This fall, we celebrate two Brethren in Christ U.S. churches in Abilene, Kansas, opening new worship sites just miles apart yet serving very different populations.
New Trail Reaches Ranching Culture
It was Saturday afternoon of the rodeo.
Stan Norman climbed into the bull pen, baptizing two bull riders in the stock tank surrounded by the largest bulls and broncs.
“All I asked the bull riders was they cover my backside, so no bull would come after me,” said Stan.
Stan is the founding and senior pastor of New Trail Fellowship, a cowboy church — part of a movement of churches reaching individuals from ranching backgrounds. For many years, Stan pastored traditional Brethren in Christ churches in Kansas and Oklahoma where he began to see church culture conflicted with the rugged individualist ethos of ranchers.
His mission at New Trail Fellowship? To shatter the cowboy culture’s barriers to entry in following Jesus Christ.
Abilene once marked the end of the historic Chisholm Trail, the overland cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. A western outpost, Abilene attracted outlawry: gun fights, prostitution.
“It was called Sin City USA,” said Stan.
Abilene is no longer the capital of vice. Yet, the town is deeply rooted in cowboy culture — a culture traditionally at odds with Christianity. Accustomed to the wide-open expanses of the West, cowboys developed a cultural resistance to rules — like those in organized religion.
New Trail Fellowship shirks church formalities to introduce ranchers to Jesus Christ.
Each Sunday, Stan preaches in blue jeans and cowboy boots. The relaxed, come-as-you-are service features straightforward sermons and western music, instruments like banjos, mandolins, and guitars.
“We’re distinctively country,” said Stan.
New Trail’s outreach centers around ranching: For example, leaders volunteer at area rodeo events, such as barrel racing or roping or youth rodeo.
Finally, the church was birthed in a calving barn.
“We cleaned out the stall, laid down fresh dirt, pulled out fresh bales of hay — and made a church,” quipped Stan.
Outgrowing the barn (and having since rented various buildings for worship), the congregation desired to create a permanent, larger site reflecting their western heritage. The barn-like worship center — which will eventually include an indoor rodeo arena — sits on 20 acres of property, offering ample space for rodeo ministries.
Opening this October, the new facility even includes a stock tank on wheels. As he did a year ago for the bull riders, Stan plans to baptize members in the stock tank.
This time around though, he plans to steer clear of bulls.
LifeHouse Church Becomes Multisite
Thanks to a unique partnership with the local school district, LifeHouse Church became a multisite church this April with a grand opening scheduled October 27.
Planted in 2008, LifeHouse continues to hold a missional mindset.
Pastor Kerry Coup launched LifeHouse from an evening service at Zion BIC, Abilene, Kansas, to reach the “unchurched, de-churched, and those without a church home” in the Abilene region.
Several miles from LifeHouse is Solomon, a largely unchurched township of 1,100. For several years, the leadership team felt called to expand there; however, they couldn’t locate a venue.
They then experienced an unexpected break: The school district superintendent offered the high school building to LifeHouse for next to nothing.
“If we hadn’t had their blessing, we would be on a different journey today,” said Kerry, who notes partnerships between church and local townships are unusual in the region.
Sermons are now broadcasted from the Abilene campus to Solomon.
Kerry is thankful for the support of the Midwest Regional Conference of the Brethren in Christ U.S. in this venture.
“We couldn’t do this without the generosity of the Midwest Conference,” said Kerry. “They have always affirmed our taking risks for the Kingdom.”
He attributes the conference’s church planting culture to its historical roots: In the 1800s, about 300 Brethren settled in Kansas, later pioneering church planting and evangelism efforts throughout the West and sowing seeds for global missions.
“Today, there’s still a pioneering spirit,” said Kerry. “The Midwest Conference is looking at experimenting with what’s the next frontier for the Kingdom.”