What happens when you put an archery range inside an abandoned grocery store and call it a church?
Brandon Smith started a church in Oak Grove, MO – 30 minutes east of downtown Kansas City. In the past five years, his church – Paradise Outfitter Ministries – has grown from 15 to more than 500 weekly attendees. They’ve had to expand to four weekly services in order to accommodate the crush of new members. Amazingly, close to 70% of the congregation consists of folks who had no connection to church at all prior to visiting Paradise Outfitter. Brandon is not stealing sheep. He’s making disciples.
I visited Brandon at his church, I learned what makes his church unique and some of the exciting things God is doing in Oak Grove. The first thing that jumped out at me coincides with something that I have joked about for years, but Brandon has actually put in place – walls full of dead animals. It’s definitely a hunters and sportsman’s church!
Here’s what Brandon had to say about Paradise Outfitter Ministries:
It started about six years ago at my house with just a half dozen or so of us. Attendance just went up and down like an airplane that couldn’t take off. We were nomadic. We ended up in a resort at one point, but it just didn’t take off. By the time we came here at what was an abandoned grocery store, we were at about ten people. So, we remodeled the building, planning on a wild game supper for 350 people. So, we held the wild game supper in February, we began worshipping here in March, and opened the archery range in April.
The archery range was really part of the dream from the beginning. Because we knew that if we could create a space where people could hang out, it would make a huge difference. Men would begin to make friendships without forcing them into what felt like a “church culture”. So, we started opening the archery range before and after worship without requiring anything from anybody – they didn’t have to come to church or attend any of our events – they could just show up before or after services and shoot in the range. Soon thereafter, we started some leagues, and now we run about 90 people in our archery leagues.
The leagues are technically separate from the church, organizationally, but they offer opportunities for the men and women of our congregation to connect with and make relationships with the people of our community. Eventually, just through these friendships, deeper connections are made and people move from only coming by our building as part of the archery leagues to coming to church and getting to know who God is. It simply is a very natural connection point and allows people to just hang out. Often times, people are hanging around more than an hour after our worship services talking and fellowshipping with one another.
So, our building is basically divided in half: one half is the archery range with about 20 targets; and the other half is an open area with 12’ high ceilings and close to two dozen mounted animal heads. We wanted to dress up the walls so that when people came through the doors, they didn’t look in and say, “Ah, typical church”. If they don’t instantly figure out that we are what we say we are – typically judging and making their first impressions off of what they see – then we’re sunk. Some of our mounts are done locally, but others were donated and flown from as far away as Alaska, including our moose and caribou. We even have African game animals (a kudu and a wildebeest) that were donated by the guys at Hodgdon Powders when they heard what we were doing here.
During our worship services, the congregation sits on fold-up camp chairs and enjoy a very casual, relaxed worship atmosphere. Even our cross is unique to what we have going here. One of the ladies from our church who is very creative with rustic décor grabbed all of our sheds that we had laying around and made an “antler cross”.
The bottom line is that when people from our community come by, they feel relaxed and at home. Most of the people who attend are church were previously not connected to a church in any way, shape or form. They may have attended church as a child, but they currently didn’t have anywhere where they called their “church home”. Or, some of those who did, had a rough exit from wherever it was they previously attended.
So, often times, when people walk into our building, they come in with a predetermined idea of what to expect. Therefore, just upon seeing the unique and relaxed environment that we have here, offers an opportunity for them to lower their guard some and for us to connect with them, whether its through a common love of hunting, fishing, or just an appreciation for the outdoors.
We offer five weekly worship services on Wednesday nights, Thursday nights (which was our original meeting time, since most unchurched outdoorsmen are going to be out hunting or fishing on Sunday mornings), Sunday evening, and two Sunday mornings, each with about 70-120 people attending regularly. The crazy thing is that we never even dreamed of having a Sunday morning service, much less all this.
Our church is not only unique based on the décor and buildings. We almost always offer free meals to open the service with, then we’ll break into a song to get peoples’ attention. It may be something by Third Day, or even something secular like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” or Travis Tritt’s “Great Day to Be Alive”. We just want some thing that will get their attention and says, “Hey, for the next 50 minutes, if you give us your attention, we’ll try to be as quality as possible.” After the song, we do announcements and let people know, in a light-hearted lay-back fashion, what we’re doing around here. Announcements are followed by a worship set of about three songs. We know that most unchurched men are uncomfortable singing, but they do typically enjoy quality music, so there’s a fine line between overdoing the music and engaging them through worship songs. That being said, our song choices range from stuff that’s on the radio this week to age-old hymns that some of them were brought up on as kids. And, we often do songs that focus on the majesty and power of Jesus Christ. In other words, we try to stay away from a set full of love songs.
After the music, we typically have our message time, which often begins with an outdoor story which transitions into a Bible story and always leads to a real-world, contemporary application of God’s Word. We then wrap things up with a closing song and an opportunity for people to respond and seek out someone in the congregation, whether it be me, one of our other pastors or someone they met over dinner or at the range, to talk about how they can begin their personal connection with Jesus Christ.
One of our governing philosophies is that we prefer to keep our children alongside their parents. So, we offer an archery program for kids that also teaches Bible lessons, and parents are very involved. Also, instead of Vacation Bible School, we have “Hooked for Life”, which is a fishing event where about 100 kids came out to the pond to learn to fish and learn about Jesus. The most amazing part of it is that we had about a 1:1 ratio of adults to kids. I credit a lot of this parental involvement to the fact that kids are part of our weekly worship services. And, while it may be a bit noisy – even chaotic at times – we find that the men, in particular, really appreciate being there with their kids beside them.
You see, outdoorsmen typically really enjoy their family time. They want to be the ones to take their kids on a turkey hunt or deer hunting. So, if they were to walk into a church and the adults go in one direction and the kids go off in another, this goes against the grain of who they are.
I owe a lot of this identity that we’ve developed to the first book that I read when we started the church, John Eldredge’s “Wild at Heart”. John’s book then put me on a search for more inspiration on how to bring the church back to men, which led me to “Why Men Hate Going to Church”, and that is what finally put words to what I was thinking about how a church could look like if it were angled toward men.
For more information about Brandon’s ministry, check out www.paradiseoutfitterministries.com. And, to purchase my book or be part of the ongoing conversation about today’s church, go to www.churchformen.com.