GREENEVILLE, Tenn. -- Two years ago, leaders of a unique ministry at Mount Zion United Methodist Church booked a Louisiana duck hunter to speak at their banquet dinner.
They had no way of knowing that Phil Robertson would later star on a wildly popular reality TV show, “Duck Dynasty,” with more than 8 million cable viewers.
On March 9, Robertson and his wife and co-star, “Mrs. Kay,” came to east Tennessee where 3,300 fans – many dressed in camouflage – packed an elementary school gym to hear his Christian message and pay homage to hunting.
“[God] showed you that dead men -- dead flesh in a casket -- can be energized and stand back up on earth,” Robertson said to the crowd. “I can see it now: A heaven full of ducks, and I’ll be there forever and not a game warden anywhere.”
Robertson was the star attraction of the third annual “Sportsman’s Night Out,” organized over the past several months by a congregation of 130, said the Rev. Kristen Burkhart, Mount Zion pastor.
“We call ourselves a little country-size church with a great-big God-size heart,” said Burkhart.
A total 300 volunteers from local churches of different denominations were recruited to cook and serve a barbecue dinner, direct traffic, line up autograph-seekers, and help sell Robertson’s signature duck calls made by his multi-million-dollar company.
When the scraggly-bearded “duck commander” was escorted to the stage by seven local police officers, the audience gave him a standing ovation.
“It’s a good show,” said Britt Neas, explaining why fans love Robertson and the down-home antics of his “Duck Dynasty” family. “It’s got values, it’s wholesome, and it’s funny.”
Several participants commented on the round-the-supper-table prayer that concludes every episode. “Every show I’ve seen is a Christian show,” said Johnny Vest, Mount Zion member. “It’s funny and there’s no obnoxious stuff in it.”
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HAPPY, HAPPY, HAPPY
“Sportsman’s Night Out” was started in 2011 by seven Mount Zion members who wanted to raise money to pay for the church fellowship hall. As hunting enthusiasts, they planned a “wild game feed” with their own kills of deer, bear, elk, fish, moose, squirrel, possum, and groundhog.
In that first year, 400 people came to hear Chris Wills, pastor for Bassmasters Classic fishing tournament. Fourteen people dedicated their lives to Christ.
“It was at this point that the focus of the group was drawn to the potential for ministry instead of just focusing on raising funds,” Vest said.
On their second event in March 2012, Mout Zion members were elated (and shocked) when 800 people came to dine on deer and hear the message provided by Christian hunter and video producer Melvin Wright. It was the same month that “Duck Dynasty” premiered on the A&E network.
The congregation soon realized that the next “Sportsman’s Night Out” required special planning. Organizers changed the menu and moved the event to Hal Henard School, enabling them to sell 3,000 tickets.
The tickets sold out in December, and the people started lining up outside the school six hours before Robertson was scheduled to speak. The school set a record number of people in the building with 3,300.
“If we can set a record here, we can set a record in church tomorrow,” Mount Zion member Pat Hankins told the audience. “And Mount Zion United Methodist Church will be happy, happy, happy to have you.”
“Happy, happy, happy” is a Phil Robertson catch-phrase, along with calling doves “the filet mignon of the sky.”
“We’re not into getting them to come to our church,” said Pastor Burkhart. “We just want them to go to ‘a’ church. We’re hoping to get people who may prefer being in a deer stand on Sunday morning to realize there is still a way they can connect to church.”
After being presented with a scripture-inscribed gun (Romans 1:16) and demonstrating some duck calls, Robertson referred to the Bible and the nation’s founding founders to speak on blasphemy, atheism, abortion, education, and health care.
“With temporary health care – with government-mandated health care – we all die,” he said, holding up a Bible. “It’s just a waste of money. But God said I’ll give you eternal health care if you just trust me, and it won’t cost you a nickel.”
Burkhart recruited 30 pastors of all denominations to pray with individuals responding to her altar call. Twenty-nine people committed their lives to Christ, and 218 made recommitments, according to Mout Zion member Phillip Archer.
Mount Zion expects to receive a $30,000 profit to apply to the fellowship hall debt and for missions, Burkhart said.
Duck Dynasty Star speaks to thousands in Greeneville (WBIR, 3-10-13)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.