Teens at The Ridge church in Columbus noticed when Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis stripped off his jersey and shoulder pads after his team’s recent playoff victory over the Indianapolis Colts. They noticed a small “Psalm 91” on his sleeveless shirt.
And when the superstar athlete stripped away football talk for Scripture references in a postgame interview the following week, the young people noticed that, too.
“Is Ray Lewis a Christian?” they asked Randy Gilbert, The Ridge’s student ministries pastor.
Lewis will be among the major players in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. The game, traditionally the most-watched TV program of the year, often becomes a big event at area churches’ gatherings linked with the game.
Some ministries use the event as an outreach, purposely inviting unbelievers while featuring an evangelistic video of NFL stars at halftime. Others use it simply as a time for informal fellowship.
At The Ridge, formerly Berean Bible Church, The Big Game has been both through the years. In fact, for a decade, the church invited a Christian, ex-NFL player to speak at the church on Super Bowl Sunday morning. The player then would follow that with a visit to a Ridge teens’ Super Bowl party, where they also would speak and mingle.
Some young people have become interested in Christianity after past events. But this year, without an NFL player, Gilbert sees the purpose as more low key.
“Now, I base the success of it on whether or not the teens have fun,” he said.
Columbus’ Tom Rust understands both the aspects of evangelization and enjoyment linked to the Super Bowl. Rust leads Face 2 Face, a national Christian sports ministry to athletes. It also highlights athletes’ testimonies of faith to encourage others through radio segments and even columns in The Republic.
Even before Rust launched Face 2 Face, he saw the teens he led in a local Youth For Christ chapter pay attention to athletes proclaiming faith publicly. He saw something similar recently with sixth-graders he spoke to at St. Peter’s Lutheran School.
They eagerly wanted to hear stories about athletes such as New Orleans Saints quarterback and ex-Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees, whom Rust profiled in a Gospel tract being distributed nationwide. Faith connections of the NFL’s Tim Tebow and the NBA’s Dwight Howard also interested the youngsters, boys and girls alike.
“Like it or not,” Rust said, “young people especially are trying to find someone to emulate.”
Rust knows whereof he speaks. He decided to go into ministry after hearing an Ohio State football lineman speak about his faith at a youth camp in 1965.
Rust also recalls seeing the focused attention of teens at The Ridge’s Super Bowl party in 2011. Indiana University and ex-NFL running back Anthony Thompson, a runner-up for college football’s coveted Heisman Trophy in 1989, spoke to the group.
Thompson’s link to faith is now more direct since he pastors Bloomington’s Lighthouse Community Church.
Pastor Randy Burton of Columbus’ Northview Assembly of God has seen the effectiveness of Super Bowl evangelism firsthand with the church’s informal gatherings in some recent years surrounding the big game.
“We did indeed draw people who were unchurched,” Burton said. “But the secret in attracting them was the relationships that were built between our members and these people — relationships formed well in advance.
“Visitors didn’t simply decide to come to church to watch the game instead of seeing it in the bar.”
Locally, Northview retains members today who first attended a Super Bowl event at the church. Burton thought for a long moment when asked if the church would have attracted these particular people in some other more traditional fashion, such as a worship service.
His answer was as direct as a Ray Lewis tackle: “Probably not.”