When Chuck McAlister is presiding over one of his hugely popular free wild-game dinners, he speaks as if he's a mixture of Larry the Cable Guy and Billy Graham, sharing down-home stories about hunting and family and the glory of being outdoors, with an insistent call to Jesus at the end.
He tells captivating, funny stories in an aw-shucks tone. Like the one about how his wife — who in her deer hunting debut shot a 17-point buck— doesn't show appropriate awe about the skills he thinks are necessary to the hunter. He draws applause for proclaiming that gun rights are sacrosanct.
McAlister, 60, has been holding the dinners for more than 16 years. Recently he has appeared in Richmond, Corbin, Barbourville and Franklin. For his upcoming Paducah event, McAlister's appearance is announced as a "second amendment" celebration that links "faith and firearms." Twenty-five guns will be given away. Steak dinners and wild game samplers will be served.
McAlister ends each presentation with a call to worship the God who created the outdoors. Cards — complete with each attendee's contact information — are collected, and the names will be forwarded to the closest Baptist church near the attendee's home as prospective members.
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In 2013, 1,678 cards were filled out.
That is how affinity marketing and affinity evangelism works: Organizations find out what you love to do, such as hunt, and offer you an opportunity to be entertained with a series of hunting stories, with an opportunity to pitch you their goods, in this case church membership.
McAlister, who received his bachelor's degree from Clemson, his master of divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and his doctorate of ministry from New Orleans Theological Seminary, joined the Kentucky Baptist Convention in 2013. His office is in their headquarters in Jefferson County, where his rules include no tie-wearing and no office hours.
McAlister says that affinity evangelism treads a thin line between its goal of populating churches and simply providing entertainment and camaraderie for people.
Still, it's a tested evangelism strategy: To find new members, get out of the church and go to where they live, work and play.
"You have to speak to your audience," McAlister said. "If you don't speak their language, they won't hear."
Once the new members are in church, they will be urged not to join the ranks of those who are complacent about biblical teaching. Although churches have a social dimension, they're about worship and correct interpretation of the Bible first, McAlister said.
Churches "are not a social club," he said. "Our methods are adaptable. Our message is not. .. There is such a thing as absolute truth, and it's independent of my opinion."
Nonetheless, when he steps on the stage at the wild game dinners, "I'm a redneck," McAlister said. "I can burp. I can scratch."
At the Kentucky Baptist Convention, McAlister leads the evangelism and church-planting team. (For more information, go to Kybaptist.org)
In his office he is far different than his hunting-feller persona. He launches into an erudite discussion on the theological implications of the apostle Paul's visit to the Greeks, the differences between the Epicureans and the Stoics, and how Paul understood the concepts of affinity evangelism in his dealings with the Greeks.
Paul dealt with the theistic Greeks by starting out with the belief system the Greeks already had and launching into his gospel crusade from there, explained McAlister, who was a pastor for 35 years. He was also the founder and host of the Outdoor Channel series Adventure-Bound Outdoors.
Strategies are being developed for two affinity topics other than hunting.
Local schools present an opportunity, because for many families, the school is the new community center, the place their kids play sports, the center of their social life.
McAlister said there's an opportunity for Baptist churches to help perpetually cash-strapped schools with their extracurricular activities.
"Families are more connected to the local school than to any other organization," McAlister said.
Archery has seen its popularity soar. The Hunger Games books and movies featuring heroine Katniss Everdeen have sent droves of elementary and middle-school students into archery competitions, making it the fastest-growing sport in Kentucky, McAlister said.
The popularity of the sport "caught us completely off guard," he said. The Kentucky Baptist Convention plans to launch archery leagues and tournaments across Kentucky to connect with people interested in that activity.
Other interests, such as quilting, are smaller but still worthy of affinity marketing attention, McAlister said. Corvettes are big around the Corvette assembly plant and museum in Bowling Green, he said. International students are plentiful in Northern Kentucky.
"Sharing the gospel is not something you do with a cookie-cutter approach, ... but with the needs and wants of the people you're targeting," McAlister said.