There’s a certain type of evangelism that makes Christians uncomfortable. When churches attract teens with Halo 3 game nights, draw in New Agers with tarot card ministries, build tattoo parlors in churches, or hold worship in bars, we bristle. The motivation behind such ministries—to cater to an unsaved audience’s culture, hobbies, worldview, or interests—forces us to ask an important question: to what lengths should Christians go to appear culturally relevant?
Among the latest “affinity evangelism” efforts under fire is the “Wild Game” or “2nd Amendment Celebration” Dinners of Pastor Chuck McAlister in Kentucky. These events, which McAlister has described as part political rally, part prayer meeting, involve a shared steak dinner, the shared Gospel message, and the controversial part: a gun raffle. The target audience? Unsaved hunters, outdoorsmen, and gun rights advocates. At McAlister’s recent Celebration at Lone Oak First Baptist Church in Paducah, Kentucky, for example, 25 shotguns, hand guns, and rifles—donated by local businesses—were given away.
His general claim in defense of the gun giveaway ministry is this: we are called to do everything short of sin to win people to Christ.The negative reaction from Christian church leaders has been loud and largely consistent in its bent. There have primarily been two lines of reasoning: those wondering if this is a tactic Jesus would use, and those fearful that gun giveaways promote gun violence. In an article from USA Today, Reverend Joe Phelps of Louisville, KY’s independent Highland Baptist Church asks, “Can you picture Jesus giving away guns, or toasters or raffle tickets?” And Pastor Nancy Jo Kemper of Versailles, KY’s New Union Church is even more assertive, stating that “Churches should not be encouraging people in their communities to arm themselves against their neighbors, but to love their neighbors, as instructed by Jesus,” going on to speculate, “How terrible it would be if one of those guns given away at a church were to cause the death of an innocent victim.” Despite Pastor McAlister’s repeated assertions that these events “don’t advocate violence,” that they advocate “guns for hunting and protection only,” and despite the fact that the guns at the event are not loaded and cannot be claimed until the winners have passed a background check, Christians continue to be concerned.
The reports on McAlister’s ministry caught my attention because, having lived in the small town of Olive Hill in Eastern Kentucky for four years, having married a man—a hunter, an outdoorsman, and a 2nd Amendment rights proponent—who was raised there, and having taught at colleges and universities in Morehead, Ashland, Sandy Hook, and Lexington, I’m familiar with the population McAlister is trying to reach, and I know the need to reach them. I also know that the rural and Appalachian communities of this area are frequently caricatured and misunderstood. In an effort to explore McAlister’s ministry deeper, I requested an interview with him. He responded within minutes, and our subsequent conversation was enlightening. In particular, McAlister shed light on three points Christians might consider before writing off his ministry:
It is biblically-grounded: Or, at least, McAlister makes a very good case for its biblical grounds. You see, McAlister, to riff on Jeff Foxworthy, “might not be a redneck.” Oh yes, he has the Southern drawl, loves to hunt, and when you see him parading onstage at his events in camo with his granddaddy’s gun and a backdrop covered in deer mounts, you might assume so, but if the term “redneck” in any way conveys ignorance, he is far from it. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Clemson, his M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his D.Min. from New Orleans Theological Seminary, and he has scripture and theological arguments on the tip of his tongue. His general claim in defense of the gun giveaway ministry is this: we are called to do everything short of sin to win people to Christ. As far as distributing guns or utilizing a political persuasion as evangelism, he sees these as neutral tools:
When I speak at a wild game dinner, I want the men to discern the whisper of God that they have already heard in Creation and the voice of God that they have sensed in the voice of their conscience, but most importantly I want them to sense the presence of God as His Spirit speaks the gospel to their hearts. I believe the giving away of guns draws the men to hear this message. If giving away toasters would accomplish the same purpose, I would be glad to give them away. It would be much less controversial.
As an example of this type of cultural adaptation and the use of controversial evangelism techniques in the early church, he references Paul’s ministry to the Athenians on Mars Hill, noting that Paul appropriates a quote from a pagan poet about Zeus and applies it to the Christian God (Acts 17:28), a strategy which, according to McAlister, should be considered even more controversial than giving away guns. Here is his logic:
God makes it very clear that an idol is not an amoral object. It is evil. Yet, He allows, and I would argue that He even leads Paul to use an idol to present the gospel to these men. Why? So Paul could enter their world, speak their language and be heard when he presented the gospel. If God would lead Paul to use an evil object, like an idol, to win people to Christ, could He not lead us to use an amoral objet like a gun to share the Gospel?
Critiques of the ministry largely represent a gross misunderstanding of its target audience: Despite the fact that gun giveaways as evangelism are not new, McAlister attributes the recent media scrutiny to the rise in violence—school violence in particular—in America. As a result, guns have been demonized, leading to the view that, according to McAlister, “Anyone who dares associate with a gun is therefore doing something terribly wrong.” McAlister’s audience, however, has a different perspective:
They see guns as a part of their everyday life. In many instances, these guns are passed from one generation to the next as treasured heirlooms, representing the shared enjoyment of countless hours of hunting and of simply spending time together. The stories that accompany these guns and their passing from one generation to the next become the threads of the fabric of that family’s story. The acquiring of the guns by the next generation becomes the rite of passage into adulthood with all the responsibilities that accompany the proper handling of a gun. It is much like the acquisition of a driver’s license by a young adult. We are careful to insure that the one obtaining the driver’s license knows how to responsibly handle the car they are driving. Both are amoral objects. It is the morality of the person behind the object, be it a gun or a car, that determines whether it is used for good or evil.
Lives are being changed: The numbers tell one side of the story: since January 2014, 610 people have received Christ at the thirteen Wild Game Dinners McAlister has held (76 at the Paducah, KY event), and McAlister’s website estimates that, on average, at each event, approximately 10% of attendees come to accept Christ. However, the necessity of follow-up and discipleship with these converts is vitally important to McAlister, and he has seen firsthand that many of these conversions are more than emotional or impulsive responses. He describes how rewarding it is to see the new Christians get rooted into churches. Recalling just one recent example, he explains: “This past weekend, I spoke at a wild game dinner in a church where I had spoken last year….One of the men who accepted Christ at last year’s event came forward in the service that I was preaching in on Sunday morning to surrender to preach the gospel.”
Gun giveaways as evangelism will undoubtedly continue to make some Christians uncomfortable. The notion that a political point of view and distributing firearms are of the same sort of affinity evangelism as sharing a love for knitting or marathon running will undoubtedly be an argument not all Christians can buy. In response though, McAlister would likely quote Paul: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). Regardless of how we ultimately feel about the ministry, we should keep in mind that at the center of this conversation are the men, women, and families who show up at McAlister’s events. McAlister feels that his calling is deeply rooted in the needs of a particular population, and we must not, in our eagerness to condemn one pastor’s tactics, overlook the necessity of concern for them as well. The risk we take in judging ministries from a distance is the gain that might be had in getting to know the Christians and target audience directly involved.
If after exploring McAlister’s purpose more carefully and understanding his audience more deeply, we are still unconvinced, we must push ourselves to offer more than criticism: what might we do for this population instead? How can we serve them better or more effectively or more biblically? Your answer may differ from McAlister’s, but if we are to “make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19),” we must be willing to step outside of our comfort zone for those whose need for the gospel exceeds our own preferences.