The Cowboy Church is a branch of Christianity that combines church services with rodeos and other elements of cowboy culture. Cowboy churches are especially popular in the southern and western United States.
Their services often take place in arenas or barns, and attendees typically wear cowboy hats and boots. The music has a country feel, and the sermons focus on applying Biblical teachings to rural life. But what Bible translation do cowboy churches actually use?
Cowboy churches aim to make people who love the cowboy lifestyle feel at home in a Christian place of worship. They want to break down barriers that might prevent rural communities from engaging with church.
So the Cowboy Church strives to cultivate a come-as-you-are atmosphere. Jeans, boots and ten-gallon hats are welcome attire at their informal services.
Some assumption exists that cowboy churches only reach out to a narrow demographic – rural working class white males. But the movement has grown beyond those stereotypes.
Cowboy churches vary in ethnic diversity, music style and approach to ministry. Their uniting attributes are finding common ground with cowboy culture and presenting the Gospel in a relatable way.
The following are key takeaways for the Bible translations used in Cowboy Churches:
- The most popular Bible version by far is the New International Version (NIV)
- The King James Version (KJV) also has a significant following due to its familiar language
- Some churches use the New Living Translation (NLT) for its easy-to-understand language
- A few churches use the English Standard Version (ESV) for its word-for-word translation approach
- Overall, accessibility and comprehension are prioritized over a formal translation
Now let’s look at the evidence behind these conclusions and the reasons for the Bible preferences in Cowboy Churches.
Popularity of the New International Version
Surveys and interviews with pastors show the New International Version (NIV) is the translation most commonly used in Cowboy Churches. The NIV accounts for close to half or more of Bibles used.
Another survey in 2020 had similar findings – 44% of attendees reporting using the NIV most often. The KJV again came in second with 24%.
Why is the NIV so popular in cowboy churches compared to other translations? There seem to be a few key factors:
The NIV is considered one of the most readable and understandable English translations available today. It uses contemporary language and aims to balance word-for-word and thought-for-thought translation approaches. This makes it easier to comprehend than formal translations like the KJV.
Given that many cowboy church attendees are new to the Bible and Christianity, the NIV’s straightforward language makes it an appealing choice. The text flows naturally while still accurately conveying the original meaning.
2. Wide availability
The New International Version has been the top selling Bible translation in Christian bookstores for many years now. It’s easy to find NIV Bibles from various publishers in multiple formats – print, digital, audio, etc.
There are NIV Bibles designed specifically for men, women, students, and young adults. Churches can easily purchase NIV Bibles in bulk for giveaways or their pews. The ubiquity of the NIV makes it a convenient default selection.
3. Trusted reputation
The NIV has been around since the 1970s and has gained widespread acceptance among pastors and scholars. While more literal translations criticize its readability, most evangelicals view the NIV as an accurate and reliable rendering of Scripture.
The NIV comes from Biblica (formerly the International Bible Society), a respected ministry dedicated to Bible translation. Their team of 100+ evangelical scholars have strong credentials. For a cowboy church, choosing the NIV signals trustworthiness.
4. Endorsement by influential pastors
Many prominent pastors, authors, and musicians in the U.S. evangelical community use and promote the NIV. Well-known leaders like Rick Warren, Max Lucado, and Michael W. Smith quote the NIV in their books and sermons.
Seeing trusted Bible teachers use the NIV gives cowboy churches confidence in also making it their standard pew Bible. If it’s good enough for Saddleback Church, it seems good enough for their rural congregation too.
Continued Use of the King James Version
While the NIV leads overall, the King James Version (KJV) still maintains a significant minority of users in cowboy churches. Surveys consistently show 20-25% prefer the KJV.
The KJV’s popularity stems largely from tradition and familiarity. This translation shaped English-speaking Christianity for centuries. Many Christians were raised on its eloquent, dignified language. Let’s look at some specific reasons cowboy churches still utilize the KJV:
1. Traditional credibility
The KJV was the dominant Bible translation for 340 years before modern versions like the NIV emerged. It gained widespread trust and acceptance during that time as the Bible of English Protestantism.
Many Christians view the KJV as battle-tested and see modern translations as unproven. The rich history and influence of the KJV provide a sense of credibility.
2. Familiar wording
Phrases like “no rest for the wicked” and “labor of love” permeate the English language thanks to the KJV. For those raised in church, the eloquent cadence and wording of the KJV feels like home. The formality resonates.
Some cowboy church attendees may have switched from traditional churches where they used the KJV. They find comfort in continuing to use the phrasing they memorized and grew up hearing.
3. Beauty of language
Even with its archaic words, the KJV remains renowned for its majestic prose and poignant turns of phrase. Many appreciate it primarily for its literary elegance rather than accuracy.
Cowboy churches drawn to the beauty and gravity of the King James may use it for Scripture readings, while a more accessible translation like the NIV is preached from and utilized most often.
4. Public domain status
The KJV has no copyright restrictions, which makes it very affordable and convenient for churches to purchase and distribute.
A decent quality KJV Bible often costs significantly less than modern translations which have publisher licensing fees. This cost savings can be appealing, especially to smaller or rural churches on a tight budget.
While readability concerns may limit its primary usage, the KJV retains a core following in cowboy churches due to familiarity and tradition. For some, no other translation sounds quite like the venerable King James Version.
Interest in the New Living Translation
Survey data indicates that after the NIV and KJV, the next most common Bible translation in cowboy churches is the New Living Translation (NLT). About 10-15% of attendees report using the NLT as their primary Bible.
The New Living Translation takes a meaning-based translation philosophy similar to the NIV but is even more focused on accessibility. It uses simplified vocabulary and grammar to increase comprehension. This makes it very popular for teenagers and new believers.
Here are likely reasons that some cowboy churches utilize the NLT:
1. Accessible for all ages
A major aim of cowboy churches is removing barriers to people starting a relationship with Jesus. This means meeting non-churchgoers where they are and making the Bible clear for those with limited biblical literacy.
2. Relevant tone
The New Living Translation uses natural, conversational English in its translation. It sounds like something you might read online rather than formal Bible prose.
This modern tone can engage newcomers and young people more than stilted, archaic phrasing. The NLT sounds like it speaks their language.
3. Readability at lower education levels
For rural areas and farming communities where college degrees are less common, the highly readable NLT is appealing as an entry point to the Bible.
4. Endorsement by pastoral allies
Well-known pastors like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen quote from the NLT and allow it to be branded with their ministries. Their endorsement provides credibility.
Seeing trusted church leaders recommend the NLT gives cowboy churches confidence in utilizing this easy-to-understand translation.
The NLT’s clarity makes it a good outreach and discipleship tool for the cowboy church context. At the same time, its simplified rendering may not be deep or nuanced enough for regular preaching and study in some congregations.
Limited Use of Formal Translations
More literal translations like the English Standard Version (ESV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB) have a smaller but noticeable following in cowboy churches.
Surveys show these rigorous, word-for-word translations collectively account for 10% or less of Bibles used. Let’s examine the possible reasons for their limited use:
1. Perceived as difficult to understand
The ESV and NASB adhere closely to the original word forms and sentence structure. This results in more technical, wooden English that is harder to comprehend for average readers.
These translations lack the dynamic flow and simplification of meaning found in the NIV, NLT, and other cowboy church favorites. Their rigor makes them seem intimidating and scholarly.
2. Not as widely endorsed by cowboy church leaders
Pastors like Ed Young, Jr. and Robert Morris who champion the ESV have more of an urban or suburban reach. Major promoters tend to be Reformed Baptist or Neo-Calvinist, less common in cowboy churches.
Without enthusiastic endorsement from prominent leaders in their own rural context, cowboy churches lack incentive to adopt a more formal translation like the ESV.
3. Perceived as less accessible
Surveys show that Christians view translations like the ESV and NASB as significantly less clear and natural to read than their favorites like the NIV or NLT.
Whether warranted or not, more wooden translations develop a reputation for being hyper-accurate but less accessible. This hurts their adoption as a primary church Bible.
4. Word choices seen as off-putting
Some wording in formal equivalent Bibles comes across as awkward or archaic. Examples include using “urine” instead of “pee,” “begets” versus “became the father of,” etc.
These kinds of unfamiliar or blunt word choices may seem off-putting rather than dignified to cowboy church attendees. They gravitate to translations with more common phrasing.
The priority on approachability means cowboy churches favor meaning over word-for-word consistency. Their culture values accessibility, so they are less drawn to formal translations.
Exceptions Do Exist
The evidence clearly shows the NIV as the most popular Bible translation for cowboy churches by a wide margin, followed by the KJV and NLT. But there are certainly exceptions where individual congregations use something different.
For example, a few cowboy churches have adopted the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) as their main translation. This newer version from LifeWay Publishers aims for optimal readability while using more literal consistency than the NIV.
A handful of other cowboy churches stick with the KJV for all teaching and preaching. They prize its eloquence and tradition over accessibility.
Some charismatic cowboy churches utilize paraphrase Bibles like The Message that reword passages for emphasis and impact. A very small number favor the NET Bible for its translators’ notes.
But these exceptions represent a small minority. The clear overall preferences of the cowboy church movement remain the New International Version, King James Version, and New Living Translation.
Why Bible Translation Matters
Bible translation preferences reveal deeper priorities and values for a church or denomination. Choices involve balancing factors like readability, tradition, accuracy, dignity and cultural resonance.
Cowboy churches aim to tear down barriers and make the Bible accessible to rural communities in culturally relevant ways. Their predominant use of readable, modern translations reflects this mission.
Yet they balance that aim with respect for biblical authority. While emphasizing comprehensibility in the NIV and NLT, most cowboy churches also utilize more literal versions like the KJV in a secondary role.
The Bible translations used in churches can serve as a window into their beliefs, values and target audience. For cowboy churches, priorities like approachability, tradition, and cultural relevance help explain their translation preferences.
The choices send an important message about who the church is trying to reach and what they find important in conveying biblical truth. Ultimately, cowboy churches select the translations they believe will best equip their people to know Christ and make him known to others.
In summary, the New International Version reigns as the most used Bible translation in cowboy churches by a substantial margin. The NIV’s accessible reading level, trusted reputation, and endorsement by prominent leaders make it the go-to choice for helping rural communities engage with Scripture.
The beloved King James Version maintains a following in cowboy churches due to its eloquent language, familiar phrasing, literary elegance, and historic popularity. The KJV provides continuity and gravitas.
About 1 in 10 cowboy church attendees utilize the simplified New Living Translation. The NLT assists new believers, youth, and those with limited education in comprehending Christian truth thanks to its highly readable language.
More literal translations like the ESV have a small but present following. However, cowboy churches tend to see them as unwelcoming and off-putting for their target audience. Clarity and approachability take priority over technical precision.
While some exceptions certainly exist, these overall preferences reveal the cowboy church ethos. Their Bible translation choices aim to make Scripture accessible and relatable to rural communities in an authentic way.
At the cowboy church, the good news of Jesus Christ is for everyone, no matter your background or education level. All you need to bring is an open heart and your cowboy boots.