There are some things that identify my community every fall. I live in Jacksonville, Florida (well, actually a suburb of Jacksonville.) When I meet people from out of state, I find that they have heard of Jacksonville, but aren't too sure where on the state map it is located. So, just in case you need a geography primer, Jacksonville is located at the "bend." We are located in the northeast corner where the panhandle meets the Atlantic Ocean and turns south.
Jacksonville is the kind of area where people who are transferred here due to work (CSX and US Navy, mostly) decide to stay after retirement.
It's the "biggest little town" I've ever known with over 1 million residents.
I would say the largest religious preference in our community isn't Baptist, Catholic or another denominational tagline, but would have to be "Football."
Every fall, the weekend schedules for many center around high school, college and professional football.
Like many, I too am a fan and love to cheer on our local teams and sit back and watch the roller coaster of emotions of others in our community when their teams fail to perform to expectation.
Back when I first moved here, this city was as excited as I have ever seen it. The NFL had awarded Jacksonville with a franchise that would dramatically change this "little big town" (not the country band, BTW).
I did exactly what others did at the time. I jumped on the bandwagon of fans at the outset and put aside my other allegiances to become a Jacksonville Jaguars fan. I was at that first Monday Night Football game when the Jags beat the Steelers in the last seconds. Wow!!! What a night. The years of Brunell, Boselli, Thunder & Lightning and playoff runs were unbelievable. While the most recent years have tested the faith of those who love the teal and black, the Jags are still our home team, and I'll remain a fan.
So, as I think back to those first seasons, I remember when many local pastors would preach sermons that intended to guilt their church members regarding their Sunday activities. In other words, beyond the beach and time with the family at the lake, there now was a community-wide gathering just about every Sunday at 1pm in the fall. This gathering was at the now-named EverBank Field as fans gathered to watch the Jaguars play.
Over the years, I have heard less guilt-driven sermons intent on making Christians feel bad for watching football on Sunday. Well, it wasn't really that pastors were upset that their church members were watching football on Sunday. It was more that pastors were frustrated that church members tended to leave early on Sunday to get to the game or stayed all afternoon and in the days of "Evening Worship" would miss the church gatherings.
Let's just say that "guilt-driven" sermons based on football viewing did little to sway the attendance patterns of fans. Now, the play on the field did much to affect attendance, but that's a subject for another day.
Churches Aren't Too Good At Creating Crowds
For years, churches in the west have attempted to create crowds for events, services and programs. Sometimes, they (we) have found success, but mostly these are short-lived. Sometimes, the crowd-gathering efforts seem weak and are often viewed as an end and not a means to an end.
The truth of the matter is that most churches do not create crowds well. When the money and effort is finalized and the crowd hasn't arrived (or the intended crowd, at least) the church faces feelings of failure.
Go Where The Crowd Already Is
The missional movement among churches helped leaders view things differently in the community. Over the years, I have shared this concept with our leaders and with other pastors. Rather than try to create a crowd, why don't we go where the crowd is already gathered?
In many cases, whether at community events, concerts, high school games, or festivals, our church has sought creative ways to serve at these events. Serving at these gatherings is much different than "crashing the community party" and gives authentic, practical opportunities for connecting with those outside the church walls.
That brings us to our new endeavor as a church. I asked the questions to our Leadership Team, "What if we brought the church to where the crowd is already gathered on Sundays in the fall? What if we 'did church' at the Jaguars game?"
The Jaguars play in EverBank Field. Located on the same piece of property, next to our minor league baseball park and basically in the parking area for EverBank is an old church building. This church building - Old St. Andrew's Church - is owned by the City of Jacksonville and maintained by the Jacksonville Historical Society. We have contacted the leadership of this group and initially were told we could rent the facility on Sundays, other than home game dates for the Jaguars. Then, we explained what we desired to do. We wanted to have a church service specifically on those home game dates, for fans who already have tickets, are early arrivers (tailgaters) and who may desire or at least be curious about possibly attending a church service prior to kickoff.
After a few weeks of conversations and negotiations, we are attempting to move forward with GameDay Church. Since the church building is not available on the date we need, we will be unable to meet indoors, but have been given permission to erect a large tent on their lot for this gathering.
So, on Sunday morning at 11am on December 13, GameDay Church will launch on the grounds of Old St. Andrew's Church. We are still in the planning stages, but on this day, the church will gather for worship, teaching from the Word of God and perhaps some time of fellowship (i.e. tailgating) with BBQ and other grilled items and maybe some games prior to the big game!
While we acknowledge that the majority of people who will likely attend are already church members/attenders in our community, we are praying that some of them will bring a friend or two to this church gathering in the parking lot of the Jaguars stadium?
Is this a Mars Hill moment? There may not be many philosophers gathered as Paul encountered, but there will be a crowd, nonetheless. There will likely be some interesting conversations as well.
Many in our community do not think about going to church on Sunday mornings. What if the church went to them? Sounds biblical to me.
More to come on GameDay Church. In the meantime, check out the website here - gamedaychurch.org.