PHOENIX, N.Y. (RNS) Entering the chapel of Lamson Road Community Church here, visitors pass paintings of wildlife scenes, antique fishing gear and a trophy buck’s head hanging on the walls.
On a recent Sunday, the spot where pastor Mike Houck would normally stand to deliver his sermon was cluttered with guns and other hunting paraphernalia. A camouflaged, portable hunting tent nearly blocked the church’s piano from sight.
Houck has worked hard to bring the outdoors into this Southern Baptist church, which sponsors a range of outdoor activities, including antique tractor pulling contests and hunter safety courses.
Houck is a certified hunting safety instructor, and volunteers from the congregation help him teach hunting safety and ethics to new outdoorsmen and women about four times each year. While some might not think hunting and religion are compatible, Houck said they go together perfectly.
“Many people say that they feel closest to God in the woods,” he said. “I don’t think that should be a substitute for going to church, but I think it’s a very great experience.”
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you say more about why you think hunting, fishing and religion can all go together?
A: The Bible says God created the heavens and the earth. That includes the outdoors. It’s difficult to be out hunting and watch the sun rise, and see all of that beauty and not imagine or not believe that there is a God. And so, for me, the outdoors is a place where I feel closest to God.
I use hunting as a ministry tool. I will hunt with people within the church and outside the church. I like hunting alone, too, but I just enjoy teaching people, sharing what I know, what I’ve learned, just hanging out with guys in the woods.
Q: Have you faced criticism from people who oppose hunting and think it’s inappropriate for a pastor to be involved with it?
A: Yes. They were pleasant conversations, it wasn’t hostile. I haven’t been able to change everybody’s mind like that, but you know, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. It’s a big world, and I think there’s room for all of us. I actually had one person tell me they didn’t feel it was appropriate for a deer head to hang in a church. I said, “Let’s be honest. That’s not the only dead, stuffed thing in churches.”
Q: Many churches have trouble getting adult men to attend — does yours?
A: No. Back in 2007, I looked around and realized that in our church, just like in all other churches in America, women outnumbered men, and I decided to make a difference. The exciting thing is that we see whole families worshipping together — husband, wife, and kids — and that’s what we need. In too many churches, the women and children come to church, and the husbands stay home. They’re happy their family is going but aren’t finding church a place where they can be comfortable.
Q: What’s the biggest or most memorable deer you ever took?
A: Interesting story: I listened to a preacher talk about how, if you really loved God, you needed to give up the things you loved most in order to serve him. And it was right during hunting season when he delivered this message, and I struggled with it.
The next day was my day off, so I went to the woods. As I’m sitting in my tree stand, I’m being tormented by this thought: “Do I love God enough to give up hunting?” So, I got out of my tree stand, and on my way back to my truck I intercepted a nine-point buck and shot him.
I came to realize that God wants to be the most important thing in our lives, but he created us with unique interests and desires. I don’t think that we have to give up who we are in order to serve God. So, that’s my miracle buck.
Q: If they here today, would Jesus and his apostles be deer hunters?
A: Well, they were fishermen, so sure, why not? I can say this with certainty, whether Jesus would hunt or not, I don’t know. But I do know that without a doubt he would hang out with hunters and fishermen.
(David Figura and Garrick Otero write for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y.)