Featured image: The horse barn where the Door County Cowboy Church services are held Memorial Day through Labor Day (photo by Cheryl Landes)
The summer sunlight casts a soft glow on the band dressed in checkered shirts and blue jeans through the windows of a white horse barn near Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. Four guitarists, a pianist, and a contrabassist doubling as the harmonica player form a semi-circle in front of the barn door and play country-western versions of classic hymns.
The house band at the Door County Cowboy Church. Paster Lloyd Michalsen is in the foreground, on the left. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
A steady stream of visitors picks up today’s program from the table at the entrance and find seats. Soon the rows fill, and a man extracts more chairs from a stall to accommodate the overflow.
The horses in the pasture hear the music, and two enter one of the stalls next to the band. One horse pokes its head through the stall opening and looks over the nearest guitarist’s shoulder as if it’s inspecting the man’s work.
The horse checks the music at the Door County Cowboy Church service. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
Apparently satisfied, the horse scans the rest of the band, nods its head, and leaves.
The horse approves the music from the band at the Door County Cowboy Church. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
A few minutes later, the tall husky guitarist walks to the microphone, introduces himself as Pastor Lloyd Michalsen, and welcomes everyone to the Door County Cowboy Church. It’s a simple non-denominational service of music and a short message, he says. For the next hour, we come as we are to worship together.
Pastor Lloyd leads the congregation in singing the hymns in the program: “He Touched Me” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” He teaches us another song written by Dottie Rambo called “If That Isn’t Love.” Next, he introduces the guest speaker, Pastor Jeremy Schwab and his family. Pastor Jeremy has led the Monday morning Cowboy Church Bible studies in nearby Sister Bay, conducted the singing at the Children’s Camp Fire on Sunday nights in Sister Bay, and spoken several times at this Cowboy Church. Today, Pastor Jeremy and his four children sing “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God,” with Steve accompanying on acoustical guitar. His wife and their reddish-brown Labrador watch from the congregation.
Pastor Jeremy Schwab and his children sing at a Door County Cowboy Church service. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
After the music, Pastor Jeremy’s oldest son reads the scripture for the day, which is the story of the Prodigal Son, and Pastor Jeremy speaks for 10 minutes. He tells the story of two men on a train. One of the men is nervous, because he is going home after an absence of many years. The other man, a minister, tries to comfort him. The nervous man is afraid that his family will not accept him, so the minister offers to go home with him. The man wrote a letter to his family and asked them if they wanted him to get off the train, to place a yellow ribbon outside, but he hadn’t heard from them. When the men arrived, however, many ribbons and even yellow clothing were tied on the trees and other objects outside the house.
The theme of this story is that no matter how long we stray and regardless of what we’ve done, God wants us to come home, Pastor Jeremy said. When we return, He welcomes us with open arms and celebrates our homecoming.
The service closes with a prayer and Pastor Lloyd leading us in singing Dottie Rambo’s “If That Isn’t Love” again.
The Cowboy Church is a quietly growing movement in the United States. Its barrier-free, Western heritage format encourages people from all faiths to attend and participate. The services at the barn near Ellison Bay are held from Memorial Day through Labor Day, 10-11 a.m., and attract not only locals who attend regularly, but also the tourists who enjoy the friendly atmosphere, music, and simple non-denominational messages. Many tourists return year after year.
The Door County Cowboy Church is located at 12376 Timberline Road, one-half mile north of Uncle Tom’s Candy Store. To get there, drive on Wisconsin Highway 42 North through Ellison Bay to Europe Bay Road and turn right. Drive seven-tenths mile to Uncle Tom’s Candy Store, and turn left on Timberline Road. Drive one-half mile, and you’ll see the entrance to the Cowboy Church on the right. Turn right and follow the signs to parking.
The sign at the entrance to the Door County Cowboy Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin (photo by Cheryl Landes)
In addition to the summer services, the Door County Cowboy Church holds Bible studies every Monday, 7:30-8:30 a.m., and Gospel Hymn sings on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Both services are held at Lloyd’s Music Studio, 10810 North Spring Road in Sister Bay.
This summer, the church also launched a podcast. Three are available on the Door County Cowboy Church’s website, and more will be posted starting this fall.