Football is the most popular sport in America. Basketball is a close second, but after that the margin is too considerable. At least one football-themed movie is released every year, and if you were like most American boys under 10, you were four times more likely to select “athlete” as your first choice for a future dream job than any other option, including “doctor” or “superhero.”
Football is big. So big, in fact, that its main annual event, the Super Bowl, could feasibly be ranked as a national holiday on par with the Fourth of July.
Our question: Is the Super Bowl a cultural event the church can afford to ignore? What allowances (if any) should your Sunday service make to reach the football fans in your community during this season?
We interviewed several church leaders from various denominational traditions to find an answer. We’ve narrowed down three approaches to the Super Bowl currently active in the church space:
Many churches (and a majority of those interviewed) fall into this camp. Opportunists see the cultural value of things like football and look for ways to direct that energy toward church. During the Super Bowl season, spirits are high, and people are thinking in categories of teamwork, goals, and overcoming obstacles.
Every year, Resonate Church picks Super Bowl Sunday to commission their new church plant teams. In 2016, they established a new site in Eugene, OR; in 2017, another in Monmouth, OR. This has proved so successful that Resonate is going long and sending off two teams to separate universities in Idaho this year. The entire service will be devoted to the vision of the church plant teams and the stories of their members.
According to David Royall, administrative director of Resonate Church, Super Bowl Sunday is the only Sunday in the year when all six of Resonate’s sites coordinate their schedules to streamline one single service together. It’s a time of remarkable camaraderie.
When the last prayer is said, church is over for the day, which frees up the members of Resonate Church to watch the Super Bowl together in their homes. “If somebody was against the idea of changing Sunday routine to accommodate football, I would respond by saying your Sunday routine isn’t sacred in and of itself,” says David. “I think it’s important to use things like football to be missional and connect with people you otherwise wouldn’t.”
Appropriators resemble Opportunists, except they like to incorporate elements of football in their services. This can be as simple as encouraging church members to wear the jerseys of their favorite teams, decorating the lobby, or preaching a sermon with a sportsy theme.
No one does Appropriation better than Christ Church of the Valley (CCV), and it is a direct result of their outreach target: Reach the man to reach the family.
Enter Mike Haas. Mike Haas is not a real person. He’s a persona CCV has created to help them accomplish their mission. That is, he’s a hypothetical profile of the sort of person CCV is trying to reach.
CCV did their research. They found that if the mother in a family comes to Christ first, there was a 17 percent chance that the rest of the family would follow. However, when the father is won to Christ, then the odds that the rest of the family would also start attending church skyrocketed to a whopping 93 percent. Whether we think this is how it should be, it’s how it is, and CCV decided the best thing to do was to create a ministry and church environment that would appeal the most to unchurched fathers. That way, they get the whole family.
Mike Haas is married with children, works a steady job, and is an influencer in the community. He is competitive by nature and likes to win, whether that is in the board room, living room, or golf course. Everybody on staff at CCV knows who Mike Haas is and what he likes. And what he likes is sports.
“Football is pretty significant here,” says Reggie Rice, lead adult ministries pastor at CCV. “It is part of our target approach…We create a culture where sports are encouraged and celebrated.”
In addition to decorating their lobby and hosting a Super Bowl party to encourage more people to join small groups, CCV also plans to launch a new series immediately after Super Bowl weekend on establishing goals (get it?) to win (GET IT?) at life.
“It comes back to the heart for outreach,” says Reggie. “What are the opportunities available? Our whole strategy is to recognize our target. We want to meet people where they’re at, and on Super Bowl Sunday, they’re thinking about football.”
While both the Opportunist and the Appropriator leverage some aspect of the Super Bowl, the Pragmatist has a more distant approach. In his mind, Super Bowl Sunday is just another Sunday. While he doesn’t object to people watching football on the Sabbath, he questions if organizing services around football events is all that effective.
“I see many churches are trying to tap into a cultural event to draw in crowds,” says David Richmon, pastor of Green Lake Presbyterian Church. “I don’t see that happening.”
David’s policy: “What you reach them with is what you’ll keep them with.” In his mind, it probably isn’t very feasible—from a ministry and outreach standpoint—to deliver a Sunday service that is unrecognizable from a normal service just to get people in church. Ultimately, you can’t deliver what you’re selling, since it will be back to church-as-usual next week—and if people were interested in regular church, they wouldn’t need a football-themed service.
“There’s also something to be said for the fact that God gave us the Sabbath,” says David. “We’re on His schedule; He’s not on ours.”
Kicking It Off
Which is your church: An Opportunist, an Appropriator, a Pragmatist, or a mix?
Whatever it is, there’s at least some strong parallels between how you run a church and how you coach a team. Both have goals, teams, leaders, and obstacles. That’s why we put together the free ebook, Swingin’ for the Fences: 10 Big-League Ministry Lessons from Baseball’s Best Teams. Our residential baseball fan (who also happens to have an extensive career in ministry) identifies what churches can learn from baseball’s best (and worst) teams. If you like sports and work in a church, this is a must read.