Baptists target gun enthusiasts for outreach

An unconventional strategy of giving away guns to unchurched men is part of a larger “affinity” evangelism approach adopted by the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

By Bob Allen

A new Kentucky Baptist Convention initiative to lure unchurched men to worship gained national attention after the Louisville Courier-Journal featured an upcoming gun giveaway at a Paducah church located 10 miles from the site of a 1997 school shooting.

This year Lone Oak First Baptist Church adapted its regular wild-game dinner to a “Second Amendment Celebration and Dinner” scheduled Thursday, March 6. The church led by Pastor Dan Summerlin, who recently completed service as Kentucky Baptist Convention president, is one of a number of congregations employing the state convention’s new emphasis on “affinity” evangelism.

“When we talk about affinity evangelism, basically we’re talking about the identification of needs, interests or affinities in a community that you can utilize as a platform for winning people to Christ,” Chuck McAlister, who began Sept. 1, 2012, as leader of the newly formed evangelism and church planting team, said in a training video linked to the KBC website.

“It can include things like hobbies or if there is a predominant employer in a community,” said McAlister, former host of “Adventure Bound Outdoors,” a hunting program that airs on cable TV.

chuck McAlisterHe said Kentucky Baptists are using the strategy in rural communities rallying around struggling schools and to capitalize on the state’s fastest-growing sport, archery, fueled by interest among elementary and middle-school students in The Hunger Games book and movie.

The centerpiece of the affinity evangelism program, however, are the Second Amendment rallies featuring door prizes of shotguns, rifles and handguns donated by local businesses.

“One of the things we’ve been doing recently is morphing these wild-game dinners into Second Amendment rallies,” McAlister said. “You know, we get in there and we burp and scratch and we talk about, you know, the right to bear arms and all that stuff.”

“One of the things that we’ve learned in doing these is that when you do an affinity event, you have to have a hook that draws the unchurched,” he explained. “In the event of a Second Amendment rally the number of unchurched men that show up will be in direct proportion to the number of guns you give away.”

Twenty-five guns will be given away at Thursday’s event in Paducah, along with an invitation to come to church the following Sunday dressed in hunting “camo” or other casual attire to hear McAlister preach at all three morning services.

“Our nation’s founders provided for our freedom to worship as we choose and our freedom to protect and provide for ourselves and our families,” says a flier promoting the event. “The Second Amendment Celebration (formerly Beast Feast) recognizes the rights and responsibilities of those freedoms while celebrating both through appreciation of the outdoors and God’s provisions with the purpose to point people to Christ.”

“There is a huge interest among unchurched men in the state of Kentucky regarding the Second Amendment and gun rights,” McAlister said in a video interview with the Courier-Journal.

McAlister is quoted in Jerry Sutton’s 560-page The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, published in 2000, in which he describes encountering liberalism as a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the early 1980s. He said his introduction to affinity evangelism came after he received his M.Div. in 1980 and took a church in East Tennessee in a community heavily involved in softball.

As pastor of the Church at Crossgate Center in Hot Springs, Ark., McAlister picked up on the regional popularity of hunting and fishing by launching “Adventure Bound Outdoors,” in 1996. The award-winning program pioneered the magazine-style format for outdoor programs, before then driven by the personality of a particular sporting celebrity.

In 1999, Baptist Press reported on an “Awakening” revival at McAlister’s Arkansas church resulting in 600 professions of faith in Christ and 406 baptisms. Ten years later McAlister retired as a pastor, following negative publicity when he was named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit against the real-estate development corporation he served as vice president.

Starting in 2000, he devoted full time to Promise of Hope Ministries, an evangelistic ministry to “help people have an encounter with Jesus” through affinity ministries, marriage enrichment and missions.

McAlister became acquainted with Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood as a trustee of the SBC International Mission Board appointed to lead the overseas committee when Chitwood, then a pastor, was chairman.

In 2011, McAlister worked as director for constituency relations with Baptist Global Response, an independent relief and development organization based in Nashville, Tenn., that works closely with the International Mission Board.

After Chitwood’s election as KBC executive director in 2011, a third of the staff  — 27 individuals — accepted incentive packages to resign or retire in anticipation of a “strategic realignment” of staff. It came on the heels of previous layoffs and the 2010 approval of a “Great Commission” task force report calling for increasing the percentage of Cooperative Program funds forwarded from Kentucky to national ministries from 38 percent to 50 percent within 10 years.

Chitwood turned to McAlister to head one of three areas of focus in a new organizational structure, along with missions mobilization and church consulting and revitalization.

McAlister tested the affinity concept internationally in a mission trip targeting hunting and fishing opportunities in Argentina. “I guess rednecks are my people group, and it doesn’t matter if they live in South Georgia or South America,” McAlister quipped in Baptist Press. “Whatever affinity group of interest you can find that unites a group of people, I think it’s our responsibility to exploit it and use it for advancing God’s Kingdom and impacting lostness.”

McAlister appeared surprised when the Courier-Journal’s Andrew Wolfson asked about his response to criticism that it’s insensitive to give away guns a few miles away from Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky. That’s where three teens were killed and five wounded when a high school freshman opened fire on classmates in an informal prayer circle in the school’s lobby on Monday, Dec. 1, 1997.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard of that,” McAlister said. “I’ve heard of that event, but I hadn’t put the event together with that, but that’s certainly the call of the church. If the church decides that they’d rather not do it in that context, then that’s fine.”