Kentucky’s Baptist congregations are taking fire nationally for their evangelism. Their method? Invite people to eat wild game and win free guns.
The events draw hundreds, far more than host congregations’ normal services. Last week in Paducah, about 1,300 people came to eat hunting spoils and have a chance to win one of 25 donated guns. Chuck McAlister, the evangelism team leader at the Kentucky Baptist Convention and the events’ speaker, used to host Adventure-Bound Outdoors on the Outdoor Channel. He’s the perfect preacher to appeal to Kentucky’s gun-loving hunters.
The Kentucky Courier-Journal recently picked up the story, sent a reporter to one of the dinners, and painted a vivid picture of McAlister’s preaching. “Jesus is the only cure. Jesus is the only hope,” the paper quoted McAlister saying. “That may not be politically correct, but I don’t give a rip about political correctness. Because it’s true.” After the Courier-Journal published its in-depth account March 1, the “what would Jesus shoot” story quickly went national, from USA Today, to MSNBC, to late-night comedian Stephen Colbert.
The national issue of gun control hijacked the local events. But KBC communications director Roger Alford said the organization really doesn’t mind. “How many people who really matter in the Christian community are going to give that much credence to a negative report on, for example, MSNBC?” he asked. The events are designed to share the gospel in a way that resonates with the people who come, he told me.
The wild-game dinners are ultimately tame. It’s a “grand ol’ time,” Alford said, as people eat and laugh at McAlister’s tales of outdoor adventure. But after those stories, McAlister transitions from hunting to the gospel. “It gets quiet and it gets really intense,” Alford said. “He has the power of the Holy Spirit behind him.”
And don’t forget the guns, which is what generated all the attention in the first place. All of the weapons are for hunting. The churches aren’t giving away handguns or AK-47s. And winners can’t take their guns home unless they re-claim their prizes at a local gun shop and pass the required federal background check.
The events resonate in conservative Kentucky, but that’s not to say there wasn’t opposition, too. Nancy Jo Kemper, leader of New Union Church in Versailles, told the Courier-Journal that “churches should not be encouraging people in their communities to arm themselves against their neighbors.” The gun idea, she says, “borders on bribery.” Rather, “the followers of Jesus are meant to build the kingdom of God on Earth,” where “everyone can live in peace with their neighbors.”
Kemper used to lead the Kentucky Council of Churches, a group of activist congregations with more liberal theology, including the United Church of Christ and PCUSA. In past legislative battles, Kemper has actively opposed concealed carry permits.
Alford said that to have faith leaders objecting to reaching an often-passed-over demographic is a bit alarming, but the controversy has actually served to help the churches hosting the events. The roughly 1,300 meals served during the March 6 dinner exceeded expectations. “That was because there was controversy associated with it,” Alford said. According to KBC records, as many as 80 people professed Christ that night.