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Many religious groups targeting outdoorsmen

The Tennessean

Published: Friday, March 25 2011 7:24 p.m. MDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When he wants to talk to God, Ted Bratcher goes to church.

Or he goes hunting.

"Some of my best times with the Lord is sitting out in his woods, in his creation," Bratcher said.

Bratcher helped organize a Father and Son Sportsman Day, at Franklin Road Baptist Church's campus in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The event featured bow hunting and turkey calling contests, a wild game dinner, a climbing wall and a preaching elk hunter.

The idea, Bratcher said, is to tell men who don't like church about Jesus and to show them that churchgoers can be fun people.

"We want to let the community know that we aren't just about preaching against sin and all," he said. "The Christian life is a great time."

Many churches are using similar man-friendly events to address the gender gap in the pews. While most church leaders and preachers are men, women outnumber them in congregations. Among evangelicals, 53 percent are women, 47 percent men, according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion.

Mainline Protestants and Catholics are split at 54 percent women and 46 percent men. Among historically black churches, the ratio is 60 percent women, 40 percent men.

David Murrow, author of "Why Men Hate Going to Church," said the gender gap is no accident. Churches let men do practical work — such as setting the budget and taking care of the building — but don't address their spiritual needs, he said.

"Most church ministry is like the Titanic," he said. "It's women and children first."

Because of that, Murrow said, men are less likely to show up at church. To change that means starting church on time, removing flowers and pretty banners and, more challenging, setting up programs that appeal to men.

This man-friendly approach has led to some hunters and fishers to set up their own Christian ministries.

Steve Wakefield, volunteer director for Fishers of Men in Middle Tennessee, said the groups want to take the church to people instead of expecting people to come to church. "The purpose is take ministry to people that normally are out on the lake on Sunday," he said.

Hunters with a spiritual bent also can connect online through sites such as www.outreachoutdoors.com. The site's organizers post and sell videos that mix hunting scenes with spiritual lessons. There are also online forums where hunters can exchange tips and talk about God and the Bible.

Chad Thede, one of the organizers, said they want to capitalize on the interest in deer hunting.

"We understand that there is an antler craze out there right now," he said. "God created the antlers — he can use them for ministry."

Once more men show up in church, the challenge is to keep them there.

The idea is to get men in the church to move from casual involvement to being committed to their faith.

"We are not so volume-oriented as we are into helping those we have — the people who are here — in fulfilling all that God wants for them," said Duane Murray, Thompson Station Baptist Church's executive pastor and head of men's ministries.

For Thompson Station Baptist Church, that means getting men involved in Bible studies and mission trips and getting them to live out their faith every day. Murray said that kind of approach appeals to men's need for adventure.

"The biggest adventure any man could have is to have a relationship with the living God, whose goal is to change the world," he said.

Getting men involved also is a way to fill a church with long-term, committed members.

"If you reach the man, there's a 95 percent chance you'll reach his whole family," Murray said. "So that's who we want to go after."

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