DECATUR - It is come-as-you-are at the cowboy church.

West Decatur Church of God, home of the "cowboy church," will have you square dancing to the Word during its Sunday evening worship service.

The majority of the congregation might be wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, but they are simple everyday folks who like foot stomping to some good old Southern gospel singing.

For example, the words rang freely through the air as Larry Purdeu, Jessica Davis, Lonnie Connor, Shari Schable and Joe Davies had church members standing on their feet and clapping along to their version of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA."

Two weeks ago, the group debuted at the cowboy church, off Wyckles Road and West Main Street, with several gospel songs.

The music and the groups who perform it have been a big draw for the church since switching over to the country-western service on Sunday evenings.

"A few years ago, the music director and I were thinking of ways to reach people who weren't being reached," said the Rev. James Baldwin Sr. "Country music was not being tapped into, and this type of music has helped to bring in new members."

He added, "Many churches just don't have an evening worship service."

Baldwin has managed to rope in 20 people who joined the church within the past year, and membership continues to grow.

"We have that laid-back, come-as-you-are type service. Everyone is welcomed regardless of your past, color or background," he said.

Only a few cowboy churches exist in Illinois, but Decatur is a ripe niche market because of how popular country-western radio stations are in the area, Baldwin said.

He added that the church still has its regular service at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday for those who prefer the more traditional style of worship.

The original Cowboy Church was started in Nashville, Tenn., by the late Johnny Cash's sister, Joanne Cash Yates.

A minister, Bud McMasters, from Farmer City brought the cowboy church concept to the Land of Lincoln. He caught wind of the idea and had a band play country, gospel and bluegrass at his church. It helped keep the doors open after a decline in membership.

Most groups who perform at the cowboy church in Decatur are from Central Illinois and sing Southern gospel, bluegrass and old hymns.

Phyllis Proctor has belted out songs every month at the cowboy church, with hymns such as "Over in Glory Land" and "Steppin' into the Light."

"The people at the cowboy church are wonderful and seem to enjoy the music," Proctor said. "The church has some faithful members and has people from outside the church who just come to enjoy the music."

For Souls Quartet, made up of Curt Carter, lead singer; Paul Schisler, bass; Mike Roach, baritone; and Mary Pat Ferenbacher, tenor, also has performed several times at the cowboy church.

Roach said the group usually sings country gospel songs, as well as a cappella. His favorite old hymn to perform is "Vessel of Mercy."

Another group commonly seen at cowboy church is the Gospel Messengers.

"I think every church is different. Some people are more enthusiastic than others, some are quiet," said the group's manager, Malvern Poor of Boody. "The West Decatur Church is one that likes hearing Southern gospel music."

Other members of the Gospel Messengers are Norm Mathias of Decatur and Bill Beals and David Butler of Mount Zion.

Poor said they like singing a lot of old Imperials songs and Southern gospel besides sharing their testimonies with the church.

Longtime church member Lyle Meador believes cowboy church has definitely attracted a lot more people to West Decatur Church of God. He has been going to the church for the past 67 years.

"People like the music, and that is what the Sunday service is mostly made up of. It's my home church, and I will keep going as long as the gospel is still preached," said Meador, 77.

After all the music and sermon has been preached, Baldwin in his blue jeans will end the service by telling everyone, "Thanks for coming. Ya'll come back here!"

Sheila Smith can be reached at sheilasherald-review.com or 421-7963.

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