NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Sometimes it's hard to get bikers and NASCAR fans to dress up and attend church on Sunday morning.
So Southern Baptists are taking the Gospel to them, giving away free motorcycles at biker rallies and motor speedways as they try to attract new converts with a revved-up new style of evangelism.
Baptists in North and South Dakota for a second year in a row gave away a new Harley Davidson at the Sturgis, S.D., biker rally in August. To be eligible, people had to listen to a 3-minute sermon and fill out a card to get a raffle ticket.
"Just believing church is on Sunday or putting up a tent and holding a worship service and asking people to come, that at some point was a successful method. But over the years they have not been as effective," said Jim Hamilton, executive director of the Dakota Baptist Convention.
"When you have people seeing that bike and coming to you, there's a higher receptivity rate. They're more receptive to what you have to say."
Other events that attract hundreds of thousands of spectators — a NASCAR race in Bristol, races at the Texas Motor Speedway, and the Calgary Stampede Rodeo — have also proved fruitful conversion grounds.
This year at the Sturgis event, which attracts close to half a million people, about 4,500 people listened to the sermon and 870 of those made a profession of faith. The year before 744 of the 2,500 who listened made a profession of faith.
It's more than even some Baptist officials expected.
"There were many people who said to us they thought people weren't interested in hearing about God at a motorcycle rally," Hamilton said. "We would have considered 50 or so a success. We were blown away by that many people responding."
The Sturgis idea was inspired by Ronnie Hill, a Southern Baptist minister from Fort Worth, Texas, who over the last several years has given away a new Harley and $10,000 in cash at NASCAR races in Bristol, Tenn.
Hill also brought a mechanical bull to the Calgary Stampede Rodeo in Canada and the Texas Motor Speedway, where people could ride the bull after listening to a 3-minute sermon. Hill takes pictures of the bull riders and posts them on his Web site, www.irodethebull.com.
After Dakota Baptists contacted Hill, he agreed to help train Baptist volunteers to conduct their own giveaway and has given Gospel presentations during the motorcycle rally both years.
Hill, 38, said he got the idea when he saw more than 160,000 people at the Bristol race.
"As an evangelist, when you see that many people, you just want to grab a microphone and preach the Gospel," Hill said.
"I don't want people to think that people are just giving their lives for Christ just to win something," he said. "We tell them this (making a profession of faith) is not going to help them or hurt them win. It's giving us an audience with them. We're just giving away Harleys and we're going where they're at."
At Sturgis, once people made a profession of faith, they were given a Bible and encouraged to find a church when they return home, Hamilton said. Their contact information was sent to the Southern Baptist's North American Mission Board to pass on to churches near the new believers' homes.
The Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Florida Baptist conventions partnered with Dakota Baptists this year by providing volunteers and helping cover expenses for the giveaway.
It cost about $13,500 to rent booth space for the week at Sturgis, and Hamilton said Baptists gave away a 2007 black Harley-Davidson DynaGlide. The bike retails for about $17,000, but Baptists got it for around $14,000.
Once a destination for Hell's Angels and other gangs, the Sturgis rally still has some rough customers, but they're outnumbered now by professionals and other white-collar bikers.
Hamilton said Southern Baptists for years have gone to Sturgis and handed out bottled water and offered to check for high blood pressure, and he thought it was time to be more direct in ministering to bikers.
Brenda Goodman and her two grandchildren met Hill last year at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where her 10-year-old grandson rode the mechanical bull.
Hill gave his Gospel presentation to the trio, and Goodman — who lives in the nearby suburb of Lewisville, Texas — said she made a profession of faith and promised to start going to church again after not attending for years.
"What really impressed me were these nice-looking young men out in a big field, out there trying to touch people's hearts, trying to get the message out of about God," she said. "They bring out the bull to get everybody's attention. But it's really about God.
"I don't think it matters what you use, as long as you touch people's heart with God. Whatever tool you can use ... if you're sincere about touching people's hearts with God, that's the important thing."