The church of the outdoors in Missouri

By BRENT FRAZEE The Kansas City Star Published:

OAK GROVE, Mo. (MCT) -- The minute you walk into the worship area of Paradise Outfitter Ministries in Oak Grove, Mo., it becomes apparent that this is no ordinary church.

Full-bodied mounts of wild turkeys stand at each side of the alter.

Instead of pews, camp chairs are arranged in rows in a large room.

A rustic cabin front stands to the side, decorated with old fishing and hunting equipment and sparkling with Christmas lights.

The worship area is decorated with mounts of deer and one recently donated giant moose head.

A large room to the side features an indoor archery range, where church members can practice their skills before or after services.

And instead of a collar and a robe, the pastor is dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a ballcap, the look of many of his parishioners.

"Just like any other church, right?" Pastor Brandon Smith joked.

Well, not quite.

In Smith's words, "The whole idea of Paradise Outfitter Ministries is to connect with the unchurched outdoorsmen and women."

Smith, 42, is very familiar with both sides of that ministry. The son of a pastor, he has been in the ministry for 20 years. And part of that has always included fishermen and hunters.

An avid hunter and fisherman, he has been around outdoors enthusiasts long enough to know some of the reasons they hadn't found a church home.

"A lot of the hunters and fishermen I talked to were uncomfortable with having to dress a certain way or act a certain way," said Smith, who lives in Oak Grove. "They believed in God; they got to see some of God's creations at their best. But they felt they didn't fit in with a lot of church settings."

With that in mind, Smith and his wife, Joanna, set out to establish a ministry targeting the outdoors crowd. They started with an in-house Bible study in 2008. From there, they decided to hold services. They moved to a spot in a strip mall in downtown Oak Grove and opened the doors to outdoorsmen looking for a home. But the concept wasn't an immediate success.

"When we came here in March of 2010, we had only 30 people show up for services," Smith said.

"We didn't know if this idea was going to take off or not."

How things have changed. Consider the scene at the Thursday night service last week. About 100 people flowed into the worship area, first to enjoy a meal, then to take in the music and a service.

By now, that's become a routine at Paradise Outfitter Ministries, a Southern Baptist church. Smith is striving to make the setting like something out of the past, where the church was not only a place of worship but a social gathering place as well.

And he feels it is working because of a bond between Christianity and a love of the outdoors.

Paradise Outfitter Ministries has traditional Sunday services, one at 11 a.m. and another at 7 p.m. But it's the Thursday service at 7 p.m. that is often best attended, especially during the hunting season.

"During the deer season, there aren't many people at our Sunday morning services," he said with a smile. "But with our Thursday night services, it gives them the option of attending church and still getting out on the weekend."

Smith strives to tie his scripture-based ministry to the outdoors. He preaches in a down-home, outgoing manner, almost as if he were conversing with other hunters in the woods or other fishermen at the dock.

"He uses stories about the outdoors in his sermons and relates them to Christianity, and that keeps your interest," said Rick Lunceford, one of the church members. "Brandon is an amazing motivator.

"Christ tells us to be fishers of men, and I think Brandon inspires us to think that way."

Even the church activities are centered on the outdoors. Instead of vacation Bible school, Paradise offers Hooked for Life, a children's fishing camp. Church members take 100-plus kids to area fishing ponds, teach them to fish and tie in Christianity. The church also has a Center Shot children's archery program, and for older children, an annual youth pheasant hunt.

There also are programs for adults, everything from organized fishing and hunting trips to campouts and float trips.

One of the church's most popular events is the annual wild game supper, in which members sell tickets to the public for a dinner made up of nature's bounty.

"We will feed 700 to 800 people," Smith said. "We open up the sale of tickets, and we will be sold out in two weeks."

For Smith, serving as pastor at such a church is a labor of love.

"It gives me a chance to combine two of my passions: my Christianity and the outdoors," he said. "When my wife and I were starting this, we never envisioned it would grow to this point. We're just very excited about the way things have worked out."

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