LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In an effort its spokesman has described as "outreach to rednecks," the Kentucky Baptist Convention is leading "Second Amendment Celebrations," where churches around the state give away guns as door prizes to lure in the unchurched in hopes of converting them to Christ.
As many as 1,000 people are expected at the next one, on Thursday at Lone Oak Baptist Church in Paducah, where they will be given a free steak dinner and the chance to win one of 25 handguns, long guns and shotguns.
The goal is to "point people to Christ," the church says in a flier. Chuck McAlister, an ex-pastor, master storyteller and former Outdoor Channel hunting show host who presides at the events as the Kentucky Baptist Convention's team leader for evangelism, said 1,678 men made "professions of faith" at about 50 such events last year, most in Kentucky.
In Louisville, he said, more than 500 people showed up on a snowy January day for a gun giveaway at Highview Baptist Church, and 61 made decisions to seek salvation.
McAlister's boss, Paul Chitwood, the Kentucky Baptist Convention's executive director, said such results speak for themselves. "It's been very effective," he said in an interview.
But other clergy question what guns and gun rights have to do with with sharing the Gospel.
"How ironic to use guns to lure men in to hear a message about Jesus, who said, 'Put away the sword,'" said the Rev. Joe Phelps, pastor of Louisville's independent Highland Baptist Church.
"Giveaways for God" seem wrong, he said. "Can you picture Jesus giving away guns, or toasters or raffle tickets? ... He gave away bread once, but that was as a sign, not a sales pitch."
Nancy Jo Kemper, pastor of New Union Church in Versailles, Ky., and former director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said: "Churches should not be encouraging people in their communities to arm themselves against their neighbors, but to love their neighbors, as instructed by Jesus."
"Second Amendment Celebrations" in church make a "travesty" of that message, she said. "How terrible it would be if one of those guns given away at a church were to cause the death of an innocent victim."
McAlister, 60, who pastored churches in five states before taking on the role of traveling evangelist, concedes that neither guns nor gun rights are part of the Gospel. But he said he uses the love of guns and hunting in Kentucky as a "bridge to unchurched men so they will hear what we have to say."
'Outreach to rednecks'
In an article titled "God, guns and good ol' boys," Roger Alford, the Kentucky Baptist Convention's communication director, described McAlister's work as "outreach to rednecks."
McAlister, an avid hunter who owns more than 30 firearms, describes it as "affinity evangelism," in which preachers reach out to potential converts based on their common interest in a sport or hobby.