Byline: Susan D. Brandenburg, Shorelines correspondent
Beneath glittering stars on a recent clear, cool Saturday night, rodeo cowboy Scott Brown of Ringgold, Ga., galloped into the center ring at Palm Valley Ranch.
He tipped his white hat and leaned back in the saddle atop his quarterhorse, Spot.
Brown belted out the rocking country tune God Made You with Me in Mind! At the loud burst of applause, Spot reared up and Brown took a quick run around the ring before settling down in the saddle.
Then he began to preach. Cowboy Church was in session.
Brown delivered his entire sermon from horseback. He sang several of his original country hits, including Call 911 (The Church is on Fire), which recently showed up on Christian country music charts.
"This is what God intended," he told the Cowboy Church congregants as they lounged in lawn chairs and perched on hay bales. "He's not about rituals. He's about relationships, and that's what I see here tonight. We're all in relationships with each other and with his creation."
The idea for Cowboy Church, an informal, interdenominational, outdoor worship service, was born at the Green Bean Coffee House in Ponte Vedra Beach, where Ric Lehman of Palm Valley Ranch and several other men, including Rich Norton, praise and worship leader for the new church, have been meeting for weekly Bible studies for the past six years.
"God spoke to us and we listened," Lehman said. "There wasn't a church anywhere around here that could match the beauty of his natural creation, until now. Outside, beneath the sky and the Florida pines, there is a blessed connectedness with him."
"Welcome to Palm Valley Ranch, where God is King," Lehman announced over the loudspeaker at the Feb. 21 service. He invited everyone to stop by the "chuck wagon" and get some chow before church, as family after family piled out of their cars, emerging into a simpler time and place.
They came from Orange Park, Mandarin and Fruit Cove. They came from Jacksonville Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach and St. Augustine. There were even folks from Georgia, South Carolina and as far way as Germany.
"My parents, Karl and Ingeborg Stapp, arrived here two days ago from Germany," said Jim Grabulis of Ponte Vedra Beach. "I wanted to introduce them to a true symbol of Americana and this Cowboy Church is it.
"Word of this service has spread like wildfire," Lehman said. "This is our third Cowboy Church service and attendance has nearly doubled since our first one on Jan. 24. We have nearly 100 people here tonight."
Pastor Johnny Thomas of Central Baptist Church in Orange Park and his wife, Donna, heard about Cowboy Church from their friend, Alison Kinkaid, the mother of a girl on the Palm Valley drill team.
"We have horses in Georgia," Thomas said, "and we just had to come out and see this place for ourselves. I'm going to tell my congregation about this worship opportunity."
The girls of the Palm Valley drill team, ranging in age from 8 to 16, are Kaitlyn Cowart; Taylor Nolan; Phoebe Wood; Cheyanne Wingo; Lexy Girton; Caroline, Amber and Becca Hoadley; Lindsey Loyd; Hanna Parado; and Elizabeth Pavek.
Readying themselves for their part in the service, the girls sat in the tack room French braiding their hair before they mounted horses for a synchronized performance in the ring. Laughing and chattering among themselves, bits and pieces of conversation filtered through. "I'm excited," said one. "They won't believe it when they see Hanna," said another. "She's such a good rider, she doesn't use stirrups!"
Hanna Parado, 8, is the daughter of Randy and Brigid Parado of Ponte Vedra Beach. …