Tanner Smith would rather step into a bull-riding ring than into church.
“That was the absolute last thing I wanted to do,” says the 23-year-old Colorado man.
Smith was a drug addict three years ago when his friend died of alcohol poisoning. That’s when he met Kyle Vanlandingham, a pastor with a message—that God loves him—and a bull-riding ring.
Vanlandingham asked Smith to volunteer where his resistance and love collided: church at a ranch. “He dang sure got me out there,” says a clean-and-sober Smith.
On Saturdays, about 70 parishioners in Greeley, Colorado, sit outside, some wearing chaps, hearing Vanlandingham’s sermon after praise and worship.
“Then we start our jackpot bull riding,” Vanlandingham says.
Ages 8 to 19 compete, one-handed. They pay a fee, and each age group champion wins money, just like a real rodeo—including the 8-year-old girl “mutton busting” on a sheep.
“Growing up, I always thought God was a fun-hater,” Pastor Vanlandingham says.
Around 2007, his sons attended a bull-riding Bible camp in Texas where Vanlandingham himself received Christ. Then came the vision for At the Foot of the Cross Ministries.
He bought two bulls, and told children about God after lessons. “I want to use the rodeo to draw the kids into what God’s got for them,” Vanlandingham says.
They meet in warmer weather beginning in springtime. During the summer, children sleep in a barn for a weekend camp.
“I’ve had a lot of people come to Christ in that arena,” Vanlandingham says.
Tithes, offerings and membership fees fund the ministry, and word-of-mouth and Facebook herald the news.
“It’s a good way to get them connected to God,” Vanlandingham says.
It worked for Smith.
“I love it,” says Smith, who now has a relationship with Jesus and enjoys church. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”