Sitting astride her quarter horse and listening to her pastor, David Hope, preach at an outdoor church service at the Hernando County Fairgrounds suited Brianna Stringer quite well.
"I was excited when I found out I could attend the service on my horse," Brianna, 13, said about the special service hosted recently by Stable Faith Cowboy Church.
The teenager, who participates in barrel races with her horse in 4-H events and who has shown steers and pigs for the past eight years, fits right in at a church intended for cowboys — and cowgirls.
"I guess I just learn more about the Lord when I'm around something that I love," Brianna said, noting the side benefit of not having to wear "dress-up" clothes.
The church has been meeting at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday since last March inside the main auditorium at the fairgrounds. Hope said he held the outdoor service at the request of several equestrians who wanted to attend a service on horseback. Brianna, with her paint Lilly, was the only one who participated in the service from the field behind the preacher.
Others in attendance, about 40 people, gathered on the bleachers next to the field, many wearing jeans with large buckles on their belts and cowboy boots. Cathy Cannon sported a T-shirt showing a cowboy and horse kneeling before a cross with the words "As for me and my horse, we serve the Lord."
Several folks took advantage of the outdoor setting to bring their leashed dogs; some availed themselves of the coffee provided on a table near the rustic wood podium, which had the initials of the church formed with barbed wire on the front. Most carried Bibles.
"There's no manual on how to do a cowboy church," Hope said as he opened the service with his own dog, Peanut, nearby. "We just want to get together to honor the Lord."
Jerry Baswell, an information technology technician at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office who leads the singing for the services, sang God Must Be a Cowboy at Heart, accompanying himself on guitar. Before the sermon, the congregation joined in singing In the Garden.
While Hope used cowboy lingo throughout the hourlong service — "Don't look at me like a calf staring at a new gate," he said regarding verses he read from the book of Joshua — and used a cow's digestive process to illustrate meditating on Scripture, the preacher's references to Bible typology and quotes from notable Christians were evidence that preparation for his sermons is scholarly and far from casual.
Hope, 55, who also preaches Sunday evenings at Gulf Ridge Park Baptist Church in Brooksville and works full time as the manager of Merritt Funeral Homes, began the cowboy church with his wife, Sandee, last year after working the previous 12 years as a ranch hand at the 4G Ranch in Pasco County. An ordained Baptist minister, his last pastorate was at First Baptist Church of Hernando Beach.
"During that time (at 4G Ranch), I was speaking part time in churches and filled in for churches that needed a pastor," Hope said. "Those were good years for me. I was learning about the ranch life."
He also was watching RFD-TV, including its cowboy church program.
"I saw what they were trying to do, and it just warmed my heart," Hope said. "I felt this desire ... to create a cowboy church. I believe God gave birth to it in my heart."
The church has no particular denominational affiliation. And while Hope prefers not to use labels, he defines the church as Bible-believing and evangelistic and says it is all about Jesus, with an emphasis on mercy and salvation by grace.
"We are loving God in the presence of others and loving others in the presence of God," he said, paraphrasing a command given by Christ in the Bible.
"We see ourselves, in part, as a support group for recovering sinners," says a doctrinal statement issued by the church.
Despite the emphasis on cowboy culture, not everyone who attends the church considers himself or herself a cowboy. Hope estimates that about 60 percent of the 57 regular congregants have had some experience with cattle or horses, though many are now retired. Some grew up on farms. All are hard-working people, he said.
"Everybody's welcome," Hope emphasized. "We're not only there for agriculture people."
Rita and Reinhard Schmidt have a small farm. They've been attending the cowboy church for about six months.
"I like the simple life, and the cowboy church is close to nature," said Mrs. Schmidt, who works as a certified nursing assistant at Heartland of Brooksville. "I like the people; they are pretty down to earth. I like the music. I feel like I fit in."
She also likes the preaching.
"He makes your week," Mrs. Schmidt said. "David has the ability to give you something to take with you on the way to lift you up."
Jimmy Stewart, of Stewart's Tree Service, also appreciates the laid-back nature of the church. He and his wife, Michelle, began attending about three months ago after Stewart heard Hope preach at a funeral and decided he wants a similar service for himself when the time comes.
"David talks down to earth and is the same kind of person I am in life," Stewart said. "He's so everyday. I love him."
Brianna Stringer said there is a special bond among members of the church.
"When we go, we talk about what's going on, and it's like a big family there," said the middle school student. "If someone has been to a rodeo, they come back the next Sunday and tell us how they did. If they're gone because they're sick, we pray for them every day and hope they come back the next Sunday better. I think that the cowboy church is the best church I've ever been to."