God vs. The Saints

Men are abandoning church, and desperate pastors are using Super Bowl parties and pro-athlete preachers to bring them back. But is it still God's house if they worship the quarterback?

Aaron M. Sprecher / Getty Images

The people of New Orleans have a lot to thank God for. After a devastating flood, their city is rising again. Mardi Gras season has begun, with no less than 20 parades this weekend. And the beloved New Orleans Saints have finally, after 40-plus years, made it to the Super Bowl with a chance to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Now the question is: Will fans show their gratitude by watching today's game from a pew?

“If you get the young men, you win the war. You get everything. You get the families, the women, the children, the money, the business; you get everything."

It's become an annual tradition—American churches opening their doors on Super Bowl Sunday, not just with a sermon, but with hoagies, chips, and a big-screen TV to broadcast the game. The tradition has gained such steam that two years ago the NFL cracked down on the trend, alleging that the church Super Bowl parties amounted to violations of the league's copyright.

Step foot into one of these parties and you'll soon realize you’re in God’s house, not your own. You won’t find any beer to wash down that plate of nachos, and you might not find any beer commercials either. Most churches are quick with the remote during game breaks to censor the occasionally racy ads companies have paid millions of dollars for. Some will even share a mini-sermon during halftime in lieu of the televised musical performance. Why settle for The Who when you can have “Who are You Living For?”

Because churches don't throw Super Bowl parties out of love for the sport. Many do it with a singular—if unspoken—goal: to bring men back to the flock. Any good sports fan knows that stats don’t lie, and for churches across America, the numbers on male attendance are grim. The average U.S. congregation has been shedding men for years, and now skews 61% female and 39% male. The gap between has become so pronounced that women now outnumber men in every single Christian denomination.

But if a soul is a soul, does it matter whether that soul belongs to a man or a woman? The answer, according to clergy, is a resounding yes. Even in this day and age, many pastors see men as the religious trendsetters for their families, and feel that to get their attention is to get the attention of everyone under their roofs.

“A 1996 Focus on the Family statistic says that when the man comes to Christ, his family follows 93 percent of the time,” Pastor Don Wilson of Christ’s Church of the Valley said in a 2006 interview with the Christian Standard. Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s highly influential Mars Hill church agrees. “If you get the young men, you win the war. You get everything. You get the families, the women, the children, the money, the business; you get everything. If you don’t get the young men, you get nothing.”

With that mindset it’s no wonder churches are seeking new methods to reach men these days. Instead of appealing to their hearts and minds, many places of worship now target their jerseys, hoping that by mixing enough sports into church, guys will find renewed interest in God.

The Super Bowl viewing parties happening all over the country tonight are great examples of this. Designed to be a non-threatening environment focused on something other than spirituality, the idea is to draw in men who wouldn’t otherwise ever step foot in a church and let them connect with other churchgoing guys. It’s sports as a Trojan horse, only instead of sneaking an army into a city, they’re trying to sneak a Bible into a sports lover’s hands.

Except the Super Bowl comes but once a year, so many churches are trying to capitalize on sports in other ways. New Life Community Church in Marion, Indiana offers multiple “Common Groups” where men can hang out and play hoops, shoot firearms, play disc golf or real golf, and participate in Fantasy Sports Leagues. Church member Gregg Testa, who started up the shooting club at New Life last year, led a similar club at his last church in Arizona. “It was a good evangelizing tool for reaching people who normally wouldn’t come to church,” he said. “We had a few guys become regular attendees after being introduced to our church through the shooting club.”

Some churches have even gone so far as to embrace the once-vilified sport of MMA, according to a recent New York Times story. Others are bringing in high-profile Christian athletes to speak about the colliding worlds of sports and faith. At playingfieldpromotions.com you can book one of the almost 70 Christian athletes on their speaking roster, provided you’ve got the cap space in your coiffeurs. Having former L.A. Laker (and self-professed 38-year-old virgin) A.C. Green in to speak will set you back $5,000 to $10,000. Two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner nets $50,000 or more per event.

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While the marriage of sports and Christianity appears to be producing some fruit for local churches, some pastors are beginning to worry over what they see as an unholy union. Sports obsession is an American value, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the Christian communities of the Heartland. It's at such a fevered pitch that some pastors have likened the worship of athletes and sports teams to that of the idol-obsessed Israelites in the Old Testament.

Chad Gibbs, author of the upcoming book God and Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC, saw the devotion last fall on his whirlwind tour of Southeastern Conference football stadiums with football-obsessed Christian fans of each team. What surprised him most was how many churches had given up fighting against the juggernaut that is sports.“We used to laugh about planning church events around football,” said Dr. Terry Ellis, former pastor of Spring Hill Baptist in Mobile, “but we don’t even laugh about it anymore, we just do it. If your event goes up against Auburn or Alabama, your event is going to fail”

Others like Sam Masteller, the lead Pastor at Freedom Life Christian Center in Christiana, Pennsylvania, take a harder stance against the time and energy that many of his congregants devote to sports.

“It ticks me off that most men visit God in a comatose state on Sunday morning but passionately worship their sports god on Sunday afternoon," Masteller said. "Instead of living passionate stories of meaning and purpose they’ve centered their lives around celebrity athletes and the games they play.”

Masteller thinks sports have their redeeming qualities, but is only bothered when they supercede God.

“Of course I do,” he said. “But so many men in our culture live as if God will welcome them into heaven because they drafted a great fantasy team last year. The truth is, no man will ever wish for one more hour of SportsCenter on his death bed.”

It’s that death bed and what lies beyond it that continues to push church leadership to find new ways to reach the men who are disappearing from their congregations. And tonight, as the Colts and Saints go head to head in Super Bowl XLIV, many churches believe they’ll be engaged in a battle as well; one with stakes far greater than just hoisting up a trophy.

Bryan Allain is a writer, speaker, and chemical engineer who lives in Lancaster County, PA with his wife Erica and their two children. He writes daily about the humorous side of life, sports, faith, pop culture, and living among the Amish at his blog, BryanAllain.com.