One Alabama church has a not-so-secret weapon to attract parishioners – guns.
The Rocky Mount United Methodist Church in Jemison, Ala., turned an unused, overgrown hole behind the church property into a gun range. Originally, the idea was to teach parishioners how to use guns, but the gun range has since grown into a unique ministry, says Pastor Phillip Guin.
"In 2014, we were exploring ways to reach out into the community and engage individuals who might never consider the ministry of the church," Mr. Guin told the Christian Science Monitor. "We had a rather large area behind the church that was undeveloped, full of kudzu, a general eyesore, and we began to pray about how we might utilize the space."
After several parishioners said they had purchased guns but didn't know how to use them, the church decided to create a gun range.
"We are in the south, people own guns, they love guns, but many do not have a place where they can safely practice their use," Guin explained.
Now cleared of kudzu and snakes, the fenced-in property behind the church has the trappings of a proper gun range, including an area for cardboard or paper targets, an area for metal targets, yardage signs, and a shooting table.
Guin says guns are a great way to bring people to God.
"We pray that this ministry will touch the lives of those who use it with the grace of God," he says. "It is certainly unconventional, but I view the range as a means of grace...that is, we reach out in the name of Christ to a population that might never darken the doors of any formal church building."
He added, "This is about bringing people together in a safe, loving, Christian environment."
The gun range has now grown into the Rocky Mountain Hunt and Gun Club, a membership-only non-profit. Many parishioners are members, and officers in the Jemison Police Department use the gun range to provide firearm training.
Rocky Mount isn't the only church to promote firearms. Harvest Time Church in western Arkansas hosted a "Right on Target" group for five years, practicing gun safety, attending in-house gun shows, and shooting at gun ranges. Advocates like ChristianGunOwner.com says such clubs are great for helping church members connect, learn important life skills, and reach out to those who don't attend church.
"The reality about Christianity is that it is not lived out in church," says ChristianGunOwner.com. "It is lived out where we live, work, and play. These small church groups [like Right on Target] give us opportunities in the best of both worlds."
It advises those who want to start their own church-associated ranges, "Be always willing and encouraging to reach out to those who have not yet embraced Christ, but are excited about joining in on the activity."
There's another reason some churches have begun inviting guns: the shooting at AME Emmanuel Church in Charleston, S.C., where a gunman opened fire and killed nine parishioners June 19th.
Concealed weapons are often banned at places of worship, but in response, some churches have begun arming and training pastors and parishioners as protection against more attacks. Associate pastor Brian Ulch at Trinity Lighthouse Church in Denison, Texas, is always armed with a Glock, and more churches are beginning to follow suit.
Bryan Crosswhite, president of 2AO, an organization that advocates for Second Amendment rights, says that roughly 25 states allow concealed carry weapons in churches, according to Time, and after the Charleston shooting, it is pushing for more states to open their churches to firearms.
Several organizations specifically work with churches to arm and train congregants, like the National Organization for Church Security and Safety, which has worked with thousands of churches since the group’s founding in 2005.
Even GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has weighed in, arguing that more churchgoers and pastors should be armed in the wake of the church shooting.
But opponents say deadly weapons don't belong in church. They question whether promoting guns at church is in accordance with Biblical teachings of mercy, nonviolence, and loving one's enemy.
“The presence of a cross in our sanctuary reminds us that God’s response to violence is never greater violence,” Pastor Baron Mullis of Atlanta’s Morningside Presbyterian Church told WGCL-TV. “This is a place of peace … This is not a place for guns.”
"We are in no way a militant congregation," responds Guin, who worked as a chaplain in the United States Air Force for 22 years. "Far from it, the folks at my church are loving, kind, and genuinely love Jesus. None of us would in any way endorse gun violence of any kind. And frankly, I do not believe that the possession of a gun is inconsistent with the principles of mercy or love of enemy."