Pastor Don Martin's preaching duds are as unconventional as his church.
"I wear a Western-style shirt, jeans, cowboy hat and boots, and we meet in an arena used for rodeo events," said Martin, founder of the Happy Trails Cowboy Church in Taylorsville, N.C. "The only time I take my hat off is when I'm praying."
It may seem unorthodox, but the church is among hundreds of "affinity churches" the Southern Baptist Convention has set up across the country using niche-marketing tactics to attract the "unchurched" and nontraditional churchgoers.
Church leaders say the churches maintain a strong biblical message but provide environments that aim to make more kinds of people feel more comfortable.
"They're considered affinity-based because they offer what people like, such as the cowboy lifestyle," said Richard Harris, vice president of church planting for the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. "When they find somebody that has the same passion that they do, that attracts them."
Harris said the convention, which boasts a membership of more than 16.2 million, started 1,781 affinity-based churches last year and hopes to create even more this year.
There is a theme for nearly everyone. If you want to get in an early game of golf, then there is a golf church that meets before tee time. Other churches appeal to bluegrass enthusiasts and young adults. But Harris said the most popular are the cowboy and biker churches.
At Happy Trails, Martin has 11 members and 41 attendees called "partners." The partners take part in the services at Happy Trails but do not have to give up membership in their home churches.
Martin said the church got its start serving a number of people who participated in activities such as rodeo circuits and could not make the regular Sunday services. He started a church that meets on Monday nights -- and it is far from traditional.
Instead sitting in of pews, casually dressed attendees sit on bleachers on a dirt floor. There is no heating or air conditioning, and riders atop horses carry in flags during the service's call to worship.
Never mind the surroundings, Martin said the spiritual message is the same as any other traditional church and is well-liked by the nearly 80 worshipers he averages each Monday night.
Gary Davis, pastor and founder of Denver's Church in the Wind, a biker church, said the pleasant attitudes are the same every Friday night at his congregation.
Davis said he was prompted to start the church in 1996 after he was told by a traditional church that he could not wear his biker outfit to services.
"We don't care if you're wearing a suit or a T-shirt and jeans," said Davis, who rides a Harley-Davidson to church and whose congregation is nearly half bikers. "What we care about is the condition of the heart."
Other denominations are creating niche churches, but Harris said they do not start them as quickly as the Southern Baptists.
Craig Miller, director of new congregational development for the United Methodist Church, agrees the Baptists are moving faster largely because in that faith individuals can start churches. The Methodists have conferences to start congregations and added 200 last year.
"I think it's a challenge to do a new church start on your own," Miller said. "The advantage of a conference or denomination helping you is that you have the support and training that comes with that."
Even though the Southern Baptists are considered the nation's largest Protestant group, its leaders say their churches appear to be stagnating. The number of new-member baptisms has declined over the past four years, prompting the denomination into a mission of baptizing 1 million people a year in the United States.
Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth in Louisville, said most denominations have seen a steady decline over the years mainly because of a national change in beliefs.
Although the affinity-based churches are helping the Southern Baptists reach their goal, he said baptizing that many people will be tough.
"About 50 years ago, Christianity was assumed by the vast majority of the population, but I don't call the U.S. a Christian nation anymore," Rainer said. "If anything, we're post-Christian. And that makes it tougher to evangelize."