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'Nothing better than cowboy church'

Dustin Luper, of Provo, delivers an informal sermon about God's love during cowboy church Sunday on the east side of Horseman's Sports Arena. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)

It's not your typical church setting.

The smell of sawdust, dirt and livestock hangs in the air. A soft breeze makes a neat row of American flags lining the rodeo arena flutter in the background. A horse snorts in between bites of hay. And a man in a white cowboy hat delivers a straightforward, informal message about God's love.

This is cowboy church.

About 100 people gathered Sunday under a tent on the east side of the Horseman's Sports Arena in Mitchell for this year's service. For roughly the past 10 years, Jerry Luckett, secretary of the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo Committee, said she's been organizing this outdoor service.

"The cowboy church service to me is very important," she said. "Being a Christian, it's always nice to share that."

But more than that, prayer and church are a big part of rodeo life, Luckett said. Before Tim Tebow made headlines taking a knee on the fields of the NFL, Luckett said rodeo riders have long been seen pointing a finger to the heavens following an event or taking a knee before entering a bucking chute.

"This is another side to the rodeo field," Luckett said. "I think it's important people understand that's a part of our rodeo life."

Her daughter, Teri Luckett, agreed, saying she doesn't remember when she's missed a Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo, and cowboy church is always part of that.

"Dustin's an amazing preacher, so hearing the Word from him is an amazing experience," she said. "There's nothing better than cowboy church."

Luckett and Dustin Luper, who delivered the sermon, lauded this year's relatively cool temperatures, which were still in the 70s in the morning. The last time Luper spoke at the Corn Palace Stampede cowboy church, it was 100-degrees-plus and humid, he said.

"I don't know how ya'll live up here," he said with a grin.

Luckett said she always tried to pick someone from the rodeo circuit, who has lived that rodeo life. This year, Luper, a bronc rider from Provo, used 1 Corinthians 13, the oft-named "love chapter," to launch his message about God's love.

"He is a true Christian," Luckett said. "He does the rodeo life. He lives it. He understands it."

Not a preacher by trade, the 32-year-old teaches classes and coaches rodeo at Chadron State College in Chadron, Neb. He is originally from Idaho, but went to college in Rapid City. That's when he became a Christian, and not too long after that, he started telling others. Now, he helps lead church services at college rodeos.

"I just have a heart for people," he said.

Often weaving in personal stories, interaction with attendees and humor, Luper drew from his own rodeo and ranch life experiences -- befitting of setting. He described God as a "gentleman," and challenged all the men there to follow that example.

"It's fun to be a gentleman," he said.

Originally scheduled to participate in the Corn Palace Stampede, Luper said he decided to take a couple of months off after an injury earlier this summer when he and a colt "got into a wreck." Once, Luper said rodeo was the most important thing in his life. Slowly, he said God has been leading his heart in a different direction.

"I could be 90 points out here," he said, motioning to the rodeo arena. "Two days later, that's nothing. All these buckles aren't even a hubcap on God's chariots."

Ultimately, Luper said the point is to get to know Jesus, who came to Earth to restore fellowship between God and humanity.

"We serve a mighty, mighty gentleman," Luper said. "If you don't know Jesus, you need to."

Luckett also offered a brief testimony, saying it was God's love that had allowed her to forgive an abusive ex-husband with an alcohol problem, and to later mend fences with him and his family.

"We all get along very well at this point," she said. "So if you're holding on to a grudge, let it go."