In the Southeast, football is so celebrated that some joke it’s a religion. Craig Whitt, associate pastor of First Baptist Church Bentonville, Arkansas, and Sam McElroy, pastor of legacy adults of Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tennessee, use the love of football as a new way to evangelize, including at a recent event at First Baptist Church Trussville.
Though living in different states, McElroy and Whitt have similar stories. They were both saved in their teens, both have served in about the same number of churches and both are pastors now.
Furthermore, the pastors have a mutual love of sports, especially football.
For almost the last decade, Whitt and McElroy have been coordinating “A Night of Champions,” a one-night event that brings together middle and high school football teams and other same-aged athletes for a night of fun, food and an invitation to meet Jesus.
“[There is] the need to reach the next generation,” said McElroy. “Methods may change, but the message is still the same.”
A Night of Champions was held this year in July and August in 15 churches in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Georgia. Lindsay Lane Baptist in Athens also hosted an event.
The evening starts with supper and, after moving to the auditorium, a local Fellowship of Christian Athletes director or student pastor begins the program with hype and fun games.
The special guest is introduced next. This year the special guests were:
— David Pollack , former University of Georgia All-American who was a host on ESPN’s College GameDay.
— Chase McGrath, University of Tennessee kicker.
— Malik Willis, Tennessee Titans quarterback.
— Will Reichard, University of Alabama place-kicker and punter.
— Velus Jones Jr., wide receiver formerly with the University of Tennessee and now with the Chicago Bears.
— Ty Simpson, University of Alabama quarterback.
— Jason Simpson, University of Tennessee at Martin head coach and father of Ty Simpson.
Each special guest athlete participates in a question-and-answer session with the host, focusing on what it’s like to be a Christian high-level athlete or coach. This session includes the faith journey of the guest, and before concluding with another athletic challenge, the host gives an invitation to meet Jesus, which is the main reason for the evening.
According to McElroy, follow-up with those who are saved is threefold and includes the local church, the team’s coach and the area’s FCA director. In addition, each player who comes forward is given a Bible.
Teamwork and the gospel
A Night of Champions was born out of McElroy’s and Whitt’s mutual love for athletes. Thinking that many teenage athletes don’t go to church, they wanted the athletes to have a great experience at a local church where they would also hear about teamwork, character building and the gospel.
The event provides an opening, organizers said. At the July 27 event at Lindsay Lane Baptist Church, for example, some 350-400 students came to hear Ty and Jason Simpson speak.
Jon Thackston, main campus missions and outreach pastor, said seven area high schools were represented. Students heard the gospel and received information about following Christ as they left.
With so many sports teams in this age range taking prayer out of their opening ceremonies and not being allowed to share Christ in schools, one might think that there would be some resistance from communities for having these young athletes brought to a church for an experience like this.
However, when asked if that’s ever been a problem in the nine years A Night of Champions has been held, McElroy gave an emphatic, “No!”
Spencer Jones, minister to high school students and Matt Dickey, minister to middle school students, both at FBC Trussville, agreed with McElroy. Both participated in the Aug. 7 Night of Champions held at their church.
“We have not gotten any pushback from the community. They welcomed the event,” Jones said.
The athletes and their coaches were welcomed outside the church by volunteers wearing referee uniforms. Walking in through an inflatable tunnel, they were met by various sports-related inflatable games in the lobby, which they used while waiting for the provided hamburger and hot dog supper.
After eating, the teams gathered in the auditorium where DJ Platinum played energetic Christian music.
A raucous game of cups, a t-shirt cannon and footballs thrown into the mass of uniformed teens and adults prepared everyone for a great night.
At the official start of the program, Buddy Champion, senior pastor of FBC Trussville, welcomed the teams and coaches and prayed for the upcoming hour.
The guest for that evening, David Pollack, was introduced. A video showing some of the highlights of his career followed.
“(Greater Birmingham) FCA worked with the local coaches in order to let them know about the opportunity to hear David Pollack, and Night of Champions enlisted David to come be with us” Champion said. “It then took an army of First Baptist Trussville volunteers to bring the evening together.”
During his Q&A, Pollack capitalized on the fact that the room was filled with Auburn and Alabama fans, provoking a loud reaction anytime he mentioned either team in the context of losing against Georgia.
But the interaction wasn’t all about sports, the injury that sidelined his athletic career or what he’s been doing since then. Talk of what Jesus did for him throughout those times was heavily sprinkled throughout the nonreligious parts of the discussion.
“David was great to work with and was laser focused on sharing athletic insights and how He has found Christ in His life,” Champion said.
Dickey gave the invitation. This was his first Night of Champions, and it was something he said he’d never forget.
“The most memorable moment was seeing 103 athletes come forward indicating they wanted to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior,” Dickey said.
Jones then challenged those who were already Christians to encourage the new Christ-followers in their faith.
He echoed Dickey, saying, “This was our first event, but nothing can be more powerful than watching 103 students give their lives to Jesus!”
“First Baptist was blessed by the evening, and the Kingdom of God was enhanced and enlarged when everything came together for the gospel to be shared,” Champion said.
To find out more about A Night of Champions or this ministry’s other events, go to strengthofachampion.org. To learn more about hosting, go to the Contact Us tab on their website or call Craig Whitt at 865-566-8163.