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In Your Faith

Christians Using Sport to Spread Word

January 24, 1998|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The minister spoke of beer, and not to condemn the product.

As church leaders from across Southern California packed a Biola University auditorium recently, the keynote speaker told of a brewing company, thirsty for the widest possible audience, that spent millions to advertise on sports broadcasts after its study revealed 96 of 100 Americans played or watched sports or talked with someone who did.

"The beer companies figured out where the people are. The church hasn't got a clue, in a lot of ways," said David Gibson, a Minnesota pastor who uses sports celebrities to attract as many as 6,000 men to an annual evangelical breakfast in Minneapolis.

"We might bemoan that fact, but that's where the church needs to be."

As Christianity approaches its third millennium, evangelical leaders are increasingly spreading their message on the wings of sport.

Churches that once limited their athletic involvement to a parking lot backboard now sponsor skateboard festivals and Super Bowl parties, marrying modern technology and marketing to old-fashioned preaching in order to, in Gibson's words, "engage a non-believing culture."

Said Ray Caldwell, the Los Angeles director of Athletes in Action, an international sports ministry: "Every Sunday, you have millions of people playing or watching sports that would be terrified to set foot in a church."

No longer need they set foot in church to hear the Christian message.

Evangelical organizations are stepping outside church to meet sports fans on their turf, from surfing ministries in San Clemente and roller hockey ministries in Fountain Valley to Final Four and World Cup parties that substitute video testimony from Christian athletes in place of the halftime show.

In interactive ways that transcend professional athletes publicly thanking God for their skills, and in diverse ways that eclipse the college basketball tours that introduced evangelical religion to athletics three decades ago, sports ministries now spread the word to audiences large enough to fill stadiums and small enough to fill living rooms.

Although some Christians abhor the NFL, blaming its popularity for declining attendance at Sunday services, the evangelical movement embraces the opportunity to reclaim the league's biggest day in the name of Jesus.

The Super Bowl has attracted the four largest audiences in the history of American television, including a record 138.5 million for the 1996 game between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The interest of the people is already focused," said Rodger Oswald of Church Sports International, a San Jose-based ministry. "We're piggybacking off that interest."

So, as this year's Super Bowl approaches--Sunday in San Diego--evangelical Christians invite friends to parties that promise fun, food and potential salvation. Sports Outreach America, a coalition of Christian sports ministries, sells its Super Bowl party kit to churches and individuals for $39.95 via a toll-free phone number, fax line or World Wide Web site.

The kit features a 12-minute video that splices NFL action with Christian messages from Mike Holmgren, coach of the defending champion Green Bay Packers, and Green Bay players Don Beebe and Eugene Robinson.

For an additional charge, party planners can order packs of trading cards, with photographs of NFL players on the front and testimony about their belief in Jesus on the back.

The video, timed to fit neatly within the halftime period, concludes by challenging viewers to join in accepting Jesus as their savior. Steve Quatro, Sports Outreach Los Angeles' executive director, estimated 300,000 people attended 5,500 such parties across the United States last year, and he said both numbers are expected to increase this year.

"There's the presentation of faith and the selling of faith," said Ben Hubbard, chairman of the comparative religion department at Cal State Fullerton. "I think there's a line between the two, and I think you know it when you see it.

"Super Bowl for Christ, that's where I see it."

Evangelical leaders believe the urgency of their message--one cannot attain eternal life without accepting Jesus as savior--justifies its being spread in creative ways. They act upon the biblical command Matthew writes that Jesus gave after his resurrection: "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).

While that command binds all Christians, Hubbard said believers of most denominations tend to share their faith through social action and personal discussion rather than group proclamation. Catholics, for instance, prefer to teach their beliefs in schools, demonstrating their values to the larger community by assisting the poor, hungry and sick.

"There are many ways to make disciples of all nations," he said. "This kind of hard-sell approach is not that common. This is really an evangelical Protestant thing.

"To what extent do you make the spreading of Christianity a marketing gimmick? It strikes me a video at halftime about Christian athletes is a gimmick."

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