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June 23, 2014

Church lures visitors with AR-15 giveaway

‘We’re just dudes,’ pastor says

JOPLIN, Mo. — Some churches raffle quilts to get people through the doors. For Ignite Church, a nondenominational congregation, the lure is a couple of AR-15 rifles.

A week ago Sunday, the church gave fathers area an opportunity to put their names in a free drawing to win one of two AR-15 rifles. Fathers could get tickets for each child they brought to church, and for bringing his own dad to the Joplin, Missouri church.

Ignite’s lead pastor, Heath Mooneyham, said the Father’s Day giveaway targeted a specific demographic — males age 18 to 35. His church also lures younger congregants with loud rock music, outings to gun ranges and a black-and-green color scheme reminiscent of a video game.

Also, the pastor has tattoos and a mohawk.

“We’re not trying to put on a show for anybody,” Mooneyham said. “We’re just dudes.”

The AR-15 giveaway found controversy — in comments on the church’s Facebook page and in other pulpits.

Steve Urie, pastor of the Joplin Diversity Fellowship, a non-denominational congregation open to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender worshippers, said giving away weapons leads to violence.

“I don’t think it’s just nontraditional,” said Urie. “I think it’s careless and reckless.”

But Dan McCain, who plays lead guitar for the Ignite band and was one of the two AR-15 winners, said firearm ownership doesn’t equate to violence.

“I’ve never won anything in my life, so it was exciting,” he said.

Though not a fully automatic weapon, the AR-15 discharges rounds as quickly as its operator can pull the trigger. It was one of several guns used in Aurora, Colo., where a gunman killed 12 people in a movie theater, and similar to the style of rifle used in the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

In a YouTube video shared on Ignite’s Facebook page, Mooneyham called one of the rifles in the giveaway, made by Black Rain Ordnance in Neosho, Mo., the “Lamborghini of guns.”

Mooneyham said he disputes the label “assault rifle” as a misperception of the AR-15. He also took exception with those who equate it to violence.

He recalled the biblical story of Cain and Abel as evidence that murder has happened — with other weapons — since the beginning of time.

Mooneyham said the AR-15 giveaway spoke to Ignite’s membership.

“It’s just our nature, whereas if you have a church where it’s 75- to 85-year-old women, they would give away a nice quilt, and they’d be excited about it,” he said.

In 2011, Ignite Church drew national attention when it sponsored billboards featuring provocative photos to tout a discussion series about marriage and sex.

Mooneyham said the latest promotion was meant to get people to go to church.

“If we get people in the door, we get to preach the Gospel,” he said. “If we can get more people to follow Jesus, I’ll give away 1,000 guns.”

Eli Yokley writes for the Joplin, Mo., Globe.

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