A 2011 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported 1.3 million people hunted, fished or participated in wildlife watching in 2011 -– spending nearly $2 billion on wildlife recreation in Arkansas.
The 1.3 million individuals mentioned in the survey included both residents of Arkansas and non-residents, with the vast majority being residents of the state.
All of these statistics point out that in Arkansas –- a mostly rural state with a population of just under 3 million -– easily more than half of the state's population either hunts, fishes or spends time participating in wildlife-related activities.
For Scottie Johnson, Arkansas Baptist State Convention church planter and pastor of Outdoor Church of Arkansas in Conway, the need for a church to reach one of the state's largest demographics is obvious.
Johnson, who served 23 years in student ministry prior to planting Outdoor Church, wears a bushy beard, long hair held back by a bandana, jeans and a T-shirt most days. He said he has been an outdoorsman as long as he can remember.
"I have a lot of friends and family that have never felt comfortable in a traditional church environment," he said. "So I thought if cowboy churches work in Arkansas, there is (a ratio of) 10-to-1 outdoorsmen to cowboys in Arkansas."
Johnson said one of the foundations of Outdoor Church is to build a church around reaching men. "You have over a 90 percent chance that you will reach the family if you get the dad," Johnson said.
Outdoor Church also seeks to be a place where wives of outdoorsmen, who currently don't attend church, can bring their husbands.
"I'll be the first to tell you that my wife is not an outdoorsman at all," Johnson said. "She is as far from an outdoors-type person as there is. But she absolutely loves worshipping with us. I would say that there are a lot of outdoorsmen that don't have outdoorswomen for wives. But I can promise you this, there's a lot of wives that are in churches all over our state this coming Sunday that will be praying for their husband to come to church with them," Johnson said.
"What would it be like if that same husband were to then invite their wife to church? I guarantee you, that wife is coming."
Johnson added, "I thought, 'If we could somehow bridge the gap between the church, as we knew it, and their (outdoorsmen) world as they knew it, and somehow marry them together, we might have something. We might be able to reach people that no one else has even attempted or tried to reach before."
In December 2012 Johnson left a secure position as a youth pastor at First Baptist Church, Farmington, and moved his family to Conway to plant Outdoor Church.
"It was an overwhelming sense of urgency ... I came to the realization that I was the only Scottie Johnson that God was ever going to create. When I came to that conclusion, I realized that God had created me for a specific purpose, with specific giftedness and ability and not just anyone could do what He created me to do," he said.
Outdoor Church meets Tuesday evenings. Johnson said meeting at an untraditional time has allowed the church to use the youth facility of their partner church, oneChurch, without interrupting oneChurch's own activities.
Outdoor Church held an official launch service April 15. Since then, the church has strived to build a strong family atmosphere among its members and visitors.
"Johnson and have only been meeting for a few months, but they have already seen God at work in their ministry," Tim Wicker, Arkansas Baptist State Convention church planting team member, said. "There are thousands of outdoorsmen and outdoorswomen in Arkansas, many of whom without church homes. Churches like OCA and others have observed the need for specific ministries to reach this demographic and are doing a great job doing so across Arkansas."
Johnson said he is inspired by the words of the Apostle Paul who said, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some." To him, followers of Christ should do whatever is necessary to reach lost people for Christ, including shaping their ministries in a way that relates to certain groups of people.
He said above all, Outdoor Church's goal is to reach lost people for Christ and bring believers into a local familial body that follows the Bible's model of how a church is supposed to function.
"We purposefully create 30 minutes of fellowship (before church each week), whether it's a potluck week or not. We create a time where, as a family unit, we are together. … We try to do as much together (as a church) as possible," Johnson said.
All children 6 years old or older are part of the general teaching time at Outdoor Church. The idea is that children, teens and adults learn together.
When the Johnson's moved to Conway to plant Outdoor Church, a woman they were friends with in Farmington told Johnson she believed the family's obedience to the call of God would be used to reach her husband for Christ, even though the family was moving across the state.
Following the Johnson's relocation, the woman's husband, whom she had prayed would become a Christian for 16 years, called Johnson and said he wanted to accept Christ. Johnson led the man to the Lord and baptized him last December.
"Christian culture has created this atmosphere that has driven a wedge between lostness and the Gospel. … That is every churches greatest challenge … but we have hope in Christ," Johnson said.
"I can't wait until the day when we get to baptize our first person at Outdoor Church. I am praying and excited about that because I know it is going to happen."
Caleb Yarbrough is a staff writer for the Arkansas Baptist News, newsjournal of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, where this story first appeared. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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