By Jessica Connor
SALUDA – What do you when you’re the pastor of a tiny rural church that draws maybe 20 people each week – if you’re lucky?
You get your members out in the woods shooting bows and arrows, and you watch your numbers grow.
That’s what happened at Gassaway United Methodist Church, a small congregation in Saluda pastored by the Rev. William Hightower. Last year, determined to see his church thrive while so many other tiny churches are folding across the nation, Hightower started brainstorming about a ministry that could unite his church through a new element of fun and fellowship.
“There’s not a whole lot to do in Saluda as far as recreational activities, but a lot of people hunt and fish, so archery just seemed to link up real well with folks in the congregation,” said Hightower, a Saluda native.
His congregation loved the idea, and Archers for Christ was born.
Now, every other Sunday from late spring through the fall, Gassaway members ages 4 to 70-something gather for an afternoon bow-shoot, followed by supper and plenty of mingling time. Seasoned archers teach the raw beginners, and they come up with games to play, like Tic-Tac-Toe or learning Scripture while busting a balloon with a bow and arrow.
The church provides the targets and some bows and arrows, from the traditional Robin-Hood-style longbows and recurves to the modern-day compounds and crossbows often used in bow hunting.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Hightower said. “Other churches have baseball, softball, basketball. This church is able to do archery with a wide age group.”
From a bare 20 in service a year ago, Gassaway has seen its numbers slowly start to climb as its members increased their fellowship – and their eagerness for church.
Melissa Porter and her family are active participants in Archers for Christ and longtime members of Gassaway, and she has seen the difference in church firsthand.
“I sit up in the choir and watch and count the people, and it used to be, ‘Oh, come on, one more person please come in so we can be 20!’ Now it’s like, ‘Wow, we had 39 today! Wow, we’re at 42 or 45.’ And they’re new folks who are not related to anybody.”
Her youngest Charlie, 5, wouldn’t miss archery Sunday for the world, Porter said.
“He jumps up and down: ‘Mama, we’ve got archery today! Mama, we’ve got archery today!” Porter said. “He just loves it.”
Her daughter Rachel, 10, won first place in her school’s archery competition last year.
“The coach asked, ‘Where did you learn to shoot?’ and she replied, ‘At church!’” Hightower said, laughing.
Hightower, Porter and the others involved with the ministry appreciate how archery is expanding church from a Sunday morning obligation to a weeklong journey.
“Church is not just a Sunday deal,” Porter said. “Church and a relationship with God is an all-the-time kind of thing. You don’t have to just sit there. You can have fun and enjoy it.”
Hightower’s wife, Karen, agrees. An avid sportswoman who loves the outdoors, she laments how many churches don’t do enough fellowship any more – people go to church on Sunday, and then everyone is trying to get out of church and get home as fast as possible.
But shared activities like archery can truly bring a congregation together.
“You can fellowship just as well outside the church rather than stuck inside four walls listening to somebody talk,” Karen Hightower said. “I think we need to enjoy what God created for us. You can have Bible studies, and Bible studies are great, but when you say Bible study, they say, ‘Oh, boring – study,’ and they only last 20 minutes. On Sunday, we were out two hours shooting bows, and it was fun. People are excited. They get together and see what Christ is all about.”
Men, women and children of all ages participate, and it’s not just Gassaway members. The church is advertising its ministry as open to the entire community, and they hope people from their district and across the state will come join in the fun. Some don’t shoot at all, just come and visit, while others make a friendly competition out of the sport – more for bragging rights than anything, Porter said.
“It’s a really nice fellowship time,” she said.
In addition to what Archers for Christ is doing for the church, Hightower also appreciates what the sport does for individual spirituality. He has been shooting a bow since he was a child, making homemade bows with string that would break right away, and later getting serious about archery in the 1980s and 1990s. He, his wife and their two daughters often spent their weekends doing archery, and they recently bought their granddaughter Heather, almost 3, a bamboo bow.
“When Jesus talked to his disciples, he talked about how the plower puts his hand to the plow and looks straight ahead,” Hightower said. “The guy holding the plow must be focused. It’s the same with archery. You must focus straight ahead on the target.”
Hightower said as Christians, it’s the same challenge – to stay focused on Jesus. If you take your eyes off the target, if you blink, you won’t hit the bull’s-eye. You won’t be all you can be as a Christian.
The ministry also serves as a form of evangelism by getting unchurched people comfortable in a church setting and, eventually, open to the idea of attending church.
Chip and Dianne Shuler have been active with Archers for Christ since the beginning; Chip and their son are avid bow shooters, and Dianne enjoys it as well. The Shulers said they love to see area youth flocking to Gassaway on archery Sundays, giving the kids something constructive to do in a safe, Christian environment.
“It’s just good, clean fun,” Chip Shuler said, describing archery as a tool to bring people, especially youth, to Christ.
In the end, that’s really what it’s all about, Hightower said: Showing them His love in something as simple as shooting bows and arrows.
“We can be archers for Christ and show folks that being a Christian is not just about being in church but fellowshipping with others,” he said.
To get involved: Call the Rev. William Hightower at 864-993-1588 or 864-445-7842, or e-mail him at [email protected].