Ohio Pastor Rides Bulls Inside His Church to Attract New Believers

Lawrence Bishop II was a professional bull rider before becoming a pastor.

May 19, 2015, 5:36 PM

— -- In front of a packed church, Pastor Lawrence Bishop II, climbed up on the back of a snorting, anxious bull named Bonecrusher. The animal was let loose, and Bishop hung on tight as he was bucked around the ring he built inside his Ohio church. He lasted about three seconds before being thrown off and trampled.

Battered and bruised, the 48-year-old preacher then picked himself up, climbed to safety and began his sermon. When he asked new believers to come forward to be baptized, the response was huge and about 300 people stepped up.

This was just a Wednesday night service at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio.

Bishop's church is easy to spot. It's the one with the 52-foot statue of Jesus facing I-75, nicknamed "Hug Me Jesus," because of his open arms.

Embracing new believers is why the ministry decided to bring bull riding inside the church's walls.

"You know, the Bible said to compel them to come in, and so that's what we're doing," Bishop told "Nightline." "It didn't say how to compel them. It just said compel them to come in, so ... this is a tool."

The battle to save souls is fiercely competitive. A recent Pew survey on religion found that roughly 23 percent of the U.S. population is unaffiliated with any organized religion, and people who identity as Christian within the religious population fell from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent from 2007 to 2014.

So, some preachers across the country are trying to find new ways to attract more to their flock. Some use mixed martial arts, hip-hop and Christian rock bands.

But Solid Rock Church has been breaking the mold for 40 years.

"The Bible says to be, 'Wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove,'" Bishop said. "It also said, 'He that winneth souls is wise.' So these bulls are going to attract people that otherwise would never set foot in a church house."

Bishop's late father, Lawrence Bishop, Sr., founded the church with his wife, Darlene, decades ago. The couple were horse people before that, their LB Ranch is one of the country's foremost breeders of American quarter horses. The church came later.

"Solid Rock is fun," Darlene Bishop said. "It's not like going some place and you dread doing it, and you think, 'Well, it's over for the week now. I have to wait 'till next Sunday.' People love to come to church. It's an exciting place."

Darlene Bishop was also one of the stars of the Christian TV show, "Sisters," a sort of Born Again version of "The View." She lives in the lavish ranch house she built with her late husband overlooking the horse farm.

"I don't know if many churches have a cowboy for a preacher, but it sure makes it exciting because there was never a dull moment with my husband or my son that has taken his place," she said. "We call our church an extreme church because we don't do anything just normal. My husband used to say the seven last words of a dying church is 'never seen it done this way before,' and so that's what we're known for is doing things to extreme."

Before he took over the church for his father, Lawrence the second was a professional bull rider, and it was his idea to pull the bull-riding ring inside the church. But even his own mother said she "thought he was crazy" when he first suggested it.

"I don't have very many talents other than riding stuff that bucks or play[ing] music," Lawrence Bishop said. "So I've used both to spread the gospel to ... try to bring people to Jesus."

But crazy seems to be a daily occurrence at Solid Rock. While "Nightline" was filming, a horse walked across the Bishops' pool cover and fell through the cover. He was rescued, the preacher walking across the pool cover with the calm confidence of Jesus stepping out on the Sea of Galilee. Bishop later joked that his horse has now been baptized.

"I already sold [the horse] to another preacher, so I told him, 'you don't have to baptize this horse, he's already been baptized," he said.

Bishop's wife, Saleena Bishop, is an artist who launched her own business designing ultra-modern pulpits, complete with light displays and metal crosses that she welds herself.

"Contemporary art is kind of my thing, mild steel and grinded metal, stuff like that," she said.

Solid Rock hasn't been without controversy. For instance, there's a bizarre local urban legend that claims Lawrence Sr. first made his fortune smuggling cocaine inside the quarter horses, and that the giant Jesus statue is packed with white powder.

But Lawrence II laughed off the tall tale, saying none of it was true.

"My dad is such a hillbilly and a workaholic," he said. "He did two things in his life, work and church, and that was it."

He joked that if the statue was full of cocaine, the local cops must be seriously incompetent.

The congregation at Solid Rock is about 3,000 strong and racially mixed, with half of the congregation being African American. The Bishops say everyone is welcome, but the church is very outspoken against same-sex marriage.

"We love homosexuals," Bishop said. "I had an uncle that was homosexual that died of AIDS. Deeply loved him. We love the homosexuals. But we do not agree with homosexuality because the Bible is against it."

Bull riding is just one of their unconventional outreach efforts. There's also Hope Over Heroin, which targets young people struggling with addiction, and the Firm Believers Club, which is a high-end fitness center through the church.

But the crowd's response to the pastor's bravery mounting the bull has been huge. When it came time for the altar call after the preacher's bull ride, Solid Rock had at least 300 new members ready to be baptized.