Churches offering free items, services or even doughnuts to their neighbors isn't news.
When they offer 25 long guns and shotguns as door prizes, however, people (and the press) take notice.
The Kentucky Baptist Convention and the Lone Oak Baptist Church in Paducah are making headlines this week for doing just that: inviting 1,000 or so unchurched, mostly young men to a free steak dinner and gun giveaway Thursday night labeled as a "Second Amendment Celebration" in hopes of "luring them to Christ."
The Louisville Courier-Journal reported on the Southern Baptist-affiliated event in its weekend edition a few days ago, and since then several news outlets have picked up the story.
Who does the best job of shining a light on (nearly) every angle of the story? The Courier-Journal, whose story was picked up by Gannett flagship USA Today. While every story I read does the subject justice, the outlet goes deeper and wider to include more perspectives and history than the competition:
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.
We hear from an independent Baptist church minister and former director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, both of whom line up on the opposing side of the gun giveaway. And we're told of two more individuals who didn't want to participate, including a spokesman for the National Rifle Association and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's chief spokesman James Smith.
The most sobering argument, though, comes in the form of a school shooting victim just 12 miles away:
At Paducah's Lone Oak Baptist Church, which will host Thursday's event, the Rev. Dan Summerlin said there has been some "push back" from people who are opposed to firearms.
"Any time you try something different there will be bashers," he said.
Summerlin said he has received some calls and notes from people who lost loved ones at Heath High School, 12 miles to the west, when Michael Carneal opened fire on a group of praying students in 1997, killing three and injuring five others.
"My heart aches for those people," Summerlin said.
One of Carneal's victims, Missy Jenkins Smith, who at age 15 was left paralyzed from the chest down, said she was "shocked" when she found out about the event from a reporter.
Smith, who has two children and works as a motivational speaker and counselor for at-risk students, said that while people have a right to bear arms, "I would have really thought they would have come up with other ways besides this."
That doesn't derail McAlister, though, who offers the colorful quotes one might expect:
"The day of hanging a banner in front of your church and saying you're having a revival and expecting the community to show up is over," said McAlister, who hosted the religious-themed "Adventure Bound Outdoors" on the Outdoor Channel for 16 years.
"You have to know the hook that will attract people, and hunting is huge in Kentucky," he said. "So we get in there and burp and scratch and talk about the right to bear arms and that stuff."
He said he can understand that some people have a problem with giving away guns, "given the misuse of guns and our moral decline." But, he said, "we certainly don't advocate violence. We are advocating guns for hunting and protection only."
Asked what Jesus would think of the gun giveaways, McAlister said, "I don't know, but he was pretty handy with the whip when he ran the money-changers out of the temple."
And for those curious about what might go on at such an event, we're given a glimpse, courtesy of YouTube and a previous gathering in February 2013 in Chattanooga, Tenn. For 30 minutes, McAlister spoke about his family heritage of hunting and gun ownership and did not mention Jesus or God, according to the article, until after he made the group laugh:
"There is only one path to know the God who made the great outdoors, and that is through his son, Jesus Christ," he bellowed. "My friends, you listen to me and you listen carefully," he said, lowering his voice.
"I am here to tell you there is nothing more, nothing else and nothing better. Jesus is the only cure. Jesus is the only hope. That may not be politically correct, but I don't give a rip about political correctness," he said. "Because it's true."
The story is fair, it's balanced, and it provides an interesting glimpse into the world of "redneck evangelism" in a state where gun violence has scarred some of its most vulnerable citizens. Give it a read and let us know what you think.