Recordings by Lauren Pond, Caroline Toy, and Isaac Weiner
Audio editing, photographs, and text by Lauren Pond
Truck stops, rodeos, and raceways are not exactly the kinds of places one expects to attend church. Yet, evangelical Christians have begun using these locations to offer exactly this, transforming them into centers of religious outreach for niche and often “unchurched” populations. The sounds of these highly specialized ministries illustrate how they often succeed: by enmeshing themselves in the culture the communities they are trying to reach, and by catering to their specific needs.
For America’s truckers, who are tasked with transporting about 80 percent of the country’s freight annually, the challenges are many: Long periods of time away from family. Increasing expenses and regulations. Deteriorating infrastructure. Health concerns. The ineptitude of other drivers.
An itinerant lifestyle makes it difficult for some truckers to attend church regularly and receive support through these issues. Transport for Christ (TFC), an international trucker ministry, is attempting to fill this void. Founded in 1951, TFC has set up about 50 chapels at truck stops and travel centers across the United States, as well as some abroad.
But TFC chapels are not just churches at truck stops; they are Christian venues tailored to the unique needs and lifestyle of America’s truckers, places where drivers can come for worship and feel at home. The chapels are semi-tractor trailers with Jesus mud flaps, and they sit in parking lots. They are also placed strategically around the country, offering drivers the chance to plan chapel visits along their routes. “It’s kind of like McDonalds,” said TFC chaplain Jason Nussbaum. “You go where the people are going to be.”
Inside the TFC chapel at the Lodi, Ohio TFC Travel Center, where Jason works, Christian trucker hats are for sale, and travel size Bibles sport an image of a truck on the cover. A rotating cadre of volunteer chaplains, dressed casually in jeans, offer regular worship services and Bible study sessions, as well as 24/7 counseling for truck drivers, who travel at all hours. Before each service, chaplains roam the parking lot, inviting truckers to attend.
The sounds of trucker ministry at Lodi offer further insight into how these chapels cater specifically to trucker culture. In the travel center, employees use the PA system to announce upcoming worship services and Bible studies. Inside the chapel itself, worship services often address drivers’ needs; drivers also chat with each other in here for hours on end, venting about their frustrations, debating political developments, and getting a reprieve from the isolation of the open road. And just outside the chapel walls is the hum of life at the 24-hour travel center, including the incessant din of idling truck engines.
Evangelical outreach at Shadybowl Speedway does not come in the form of a specialized chapel, but as a chaplain, Kermit Wilson, who circulates the racetrack, much like the drivers he serves. Along this strip of asphalt in the cornfields of De Graff, Ohio, ministry efforts embrace mobility and efficiency, as does the local raceway culture.
This is particularly evident through sound. As drivers ready their cars in the pit area, Kermit, who volunteers for an organization known as Raceway Ministries, stops to offer rapid prayers for those who are receptive. Cars roar around the track nearby, warming up for the evening’s races. Engines rev and rumble, nearly drowning out the chaplain’s voice on this warm September afternoon.
“Pray for Chris as he races here today, and the crew that helps here, Lord,” he nearly has to shout. “Just pray that you guide them in making the car set upright. And just bless Chris with the talent that you have blessed him with, Lord, to be able to get out there and drive good.”
Kermit later explains: “With the racing business in particular, if someone says they want prayer, they don’t want you to get the book out, write down their name, and say, ‘I’ll pray for you at church.’ They don’t want that. They want it right now.”
Kermit is also there to serve the fans. As the races begin, the chaplain relocates to the center of the raceway, where he offers a brief invocation over a squeaking PA system. Then he is off to wander the grandstands and speak with audience members. Sometimes, Raceway Ministries will set up a tent and offer cookies and water to people who are drunk.
This is his goal, after all: meeting people where they are – whether it’s in the pit or on the bleachers – and incorporating the Word of God into the support he provides.
“I feel like God wants everybody to have the opportunity to live an eternity with him, and somebody has to go out and plant the seeds,” he said. “You got to go out where they are. You have to talk to them. You have to make friends with them. You have to care for them.”
On the first Friday evening of every month, Pastor Lawrence Bishop II leaves the pulpit of his megachurch – the Solid Rock Church in Lebanon, Ohio – and heads up on the road to his horse barn and arena. He dons a cowboy hat, picks up a guitar fashioned out of a cow skull, and prepares to lead “cowboy church” – a brief worship service followed by about an hour of raucous rodeo bull and bronc riding.
Unlike niche ministries that cater to specific populations, Bishop’s “cowboy church” does not aim specifically to reach cowboys. Turning the paradigm on its head, Bishop uses niche interests to cast a much wider net. He hopes to use the lively atmosphere of a rodeo to draw in the “unchurched” from all walks of life.
“There are a lot of people that will come to a cowboy church that will never set foot inside a traditional church, especially if people say, ‘Hey, let’s go hear a live band . . . and watch some bull riding, you know, watch some bulls and horses, see a free rodeo,’ ” he said. “You’d be shocked at the people that came here . . . and now go to our church as church members because it took this to get them in.”
Bishop’s broad outreach is particularly evident through the sounds of the cowboy church. For one, sermons are kept extraordinarily brief – usually under ten minutes – and are condensed into easily digestible sound bites. During his recent August service, after reading aloud a passage from the Gospel of Matthew – “wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction” – Bishop summarizes the main point for his audience: “The crowd can be wrong!” Then he encourages everyone to repeat this.
There is also Bishop’s music, which sounds strikingly similar to rock-and-roll music, and which he plays for nearly 30 minutes. Upon a closer listen, however, the Christian lyrics become decipherable. Subtly combining Christian messages with a popular music genre draws in many unsuspecting listeners, Bishop explains.
“[It’s] kind of a sneak attack on them,” he says with a laugh.
And of course, there is the rodeo itself. The enthusiasm for competitors is audible, and similar to the kind of fervor Bishop attempts to whip up for Jesus.