- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

MIAMI — Football’s faithful will file into house parties, bars and, of course, Dolphin Stadium tomorrow to observe their holiest of holy days. But they will also turn out in force at churches across the country, which are tapping the popularity of sports in hopes of saving souls.

Organizers of church-sponsored Super Bowl gatherings see the events as a departure from the formality of organized religion — the type of event that could make someone who doesn’t typically attend services feel more at home.

“It’s a way of reaching out into our community in a very informal, low-key way where we show people we’re regular Joes like they are without the pressure of church,” said Pastor Luis Acosta of Pines Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist congregation north of Miami in Pembroke Pines.

Pines Baptist has been holding Super Bowl events for a few years and expects about 300 people, mostly men, at its flag football game and watching party this year. The church drew about 250 people to a block party Jan. 13 that featured NFL-themed games, former Dolphins players signing autographs and giveaways including a plasma-screen television.

Mr. Acosta said the church doesn’t take a heavy-handed approach to nonbelievers who join in such events. There won’t be so much as a prayer at the Super Bowl Sunday event. If a guest enjoys himself, a member might invite him to a church social group meeting, then maybe a Bible study, then perhaps an actual service.

“We just follow God’s lead,” Mr. Acosta said.

Pastor Mike Pierce of the nondenominational Poplar Creek Church in the Chicago suburb of Bartlett, Ill., takes a similar approach. About 100 people will watch the game on the big screen in the sanctuary. Like other church events, it’s meant to simply create a friendly, fun environment, but not an overtly religious one.

“We don’t turn everything into a spiritual event,” Mr. Pierce said. “Good, clean fun is still spiritual.”

Many pastors agree, simply trying to make their churches welcoming environments for new guests. Carrollwood Baptist Church in Tampa has been holding a Super Bowl gathering for more than 15 years and attendees have become so comfortable at the event that some bring recliners from home.

“I like it because it’s very laid back,” said Robert Smith, a 32-year-old Rockford, Ill., resident who has attended Super Bowl parties at Dominion Christian Center there. “There’s no pressure.”

Churches also are aware many people are unwilling to do anything other than watch the game on Super Bowl Sunday.

“We can offer a good event surrounding something the culture uses or we can just hold church and no one’s going to come,” said Jim Waters, an associate pastor and minister to students at First Baptist Church in Milton in the Florida Panhandle.

William Baker, a retired University of Maine professor who has written two books about sports and religion, says the interplay between the two dates back to ancient times, and that in modern-day America, evangelical Christians make the most of the relationship.

“Any visitor from Mars on Super Sunday, whether he watches television or goes to the stadium in Miami,” Mr. Baker said, “would say these people believe, maybe in God, but for sure they believe in the American flag and in the flyover military display and in patriotism, but most surely they believe in sports.”

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