Churches planning for a Super Sunday

Outreach: Evangelical Christians will be throwing Super Bowl parties tomorrow to make a pass at `the unchurched.'

January 29, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Super Bowl Sunday is a great time for raucous parties, rabid fans, ravenous appetites -- and religious conversion.

That's why hundreds of evangelical Christians across the country will be throwing Super Bowl parties to reach out to what they call "the unchurched."

In its seventh year, organizers of the Super Bowl Outreach say that more than 45,000 people nationwide have committed their lives to Christ since the parties began in 1993.

"The folks you're going to get for these parties are folks who don't usually go to church, who aren't Christian, but might be open to the idea," said the Rev. Thurman Williams, who has thrown Super Bowl parties at Faith Christian Fellowship Church in Waverly. "It's a good bridge event. They might not feel comfortable coming to church, but they will feel comfortable coming to watch the Super Bowl with you."

"It's sort of a guy thing," said Larry Smith, pastor of the Grace of God Fellowship in Millersville. "We're a full gospel church and it lets people know that we're still down here on earth with everyone else. We can relate with what's going on."

In many ways, the Christian Super Bowl parties are indistinguishable from any other such gatherings. You need a great television -- at Key Worship Center in Dundalk, they have a projection television that will make the players larger than life. You need high-fat, high-calorie food, like pizza, hot dogs and chips. And some cold beverages to wash it all down.

But the gatherings are mostly in church halls, although some will be in homes and apartments. You won't find any Miller Lite in the cooler. And at halftime, instead of the Disney extravaganza, organizers will play a 14-minute video featuring the Christian testimony of Denver Broncos Tony Jones and Mark Schlereth, as well as interviews with people affected by the shootings at Columbine High School.

Organizers hope that having tough-guy professional athletes talk about their relationship with Jesus will reach people who might think real men don't go to church. Last year's video featured quarterbacks Mark Brunell of Jacksonville and Trent Dilfer of Tampa Bay, and videos in previous years showed players like Green Bay's Reggie White, former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren and then-Philadelphia Eagle Irving Fryar.

In fact, some evangelical Christians like to root for teams that feature their born-again brethren.

"Jacksonville has been a popular team because of the testimony of the quarterback [Brunell] and all the Christians on that team," said Smith.

The pastor said he was impressed by Rams quarterback Kurt Warner's statements at the end of last week's divisional championship game giving credit for the victory to Jesus. "We'll have some guys from our church rooting for the Rams just because of that."

Inspired by Paul

Using sports to preach the gospel is a natural, said Michael Wozniak of Sports Spectrum, a division of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based RBC Ministries, which produces and distributes the Super Bowl Outreach videos. The inspiration goes back to the apostle Paul, who in his First Letter to the Corinthians compares Christian life to an athlete running a race.

"Society places so much attention on sports that certain games attract everyone's attention. There's so much emotion in sports. The Super Bowl is one of those cultural events when people want to get together and watch the game," said Wozniak.

So how does some guy who just wants to watch the game end up in church? Their church-going friends invite them.

"The football game is the means of bringing men together in fellowship," said the Rev. Levie Rice, pastor of Highland Assembly of God Church in Highlandtown. "We want to show them that Christianity is not the dull, dry, boring existence that some people feel it is."

And the personal invitation is the key.

"I already have a promise of two men who don't go to church who are coming, the man who pumps my gas and another guy," Rice said.

Uncomfortable spots

Rice's congregation will watch the game at the church led by his son, the Rev. Gary Rice, pastor of Dundalk's Key Worship Center. The younger Rice, who has thrown the Super Bowl Outreach parties for several years, said the event is not without some challenges, particularly with commercials. Last year's Victoria's Secret spot, featuring models frolicking in lingerie, was just too much.

"It puts the church in kind of an uncomfortable situation," Gary Rice said.

Low-key approach

Local church leaders organizing the parties say they don't expect their guests to jump up and accept Jesus after this one experience, although several said a few men have joined their churches. The approach is intentionally low key.

"We just try to serve people and love them as they watch football and maybe hear a little about Jesus," said Tim Leary, of Hopkins' InterVarsity Fellowship, a Christian group that ministers to students, who is throwing a party in his apartment.

"That's the goal of the whole thing," said Levie Rice. "To bring men to Christ."

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