Organizers turn to forms of entertainment as extension of pulpit

“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “I keep it, staying at Home.” Everyone worships differently, but what would Dickinson think of church with a skateboarding ministry? Or of cruising to Nawiliwili aboard the Pride of Aloha with Christian entertainers and theologians aboard?

In an increasingly tight bid for the hearts and minds of Christian auds, organizers are turning to concerts, professional sporting events and other forms of live entertainment as an extension of the neighborhood pulpit. Such gatherings have long been the site for personal epiphanies and spiritual conversions, often of a less Christian variety — take Burning Man, the weeklong bohemian festival, where attendees connect with like-minded revelers in the desert.

Could similar intense group experiences be the new arena for expressing religion in the 21st century? By combining a night at church with a night on the town, organizers have drawn controversy while offering religious-minded individuals alternate — albeit unorthodox — venues to practice their faith.

“The attendance speaks for itself. Everywhere we go, attendance rises,” says Brent High, CEO of Nashville-based Third Coast Sports. The company produces a packaged Faith Night service, bringing Christian music artists, giveaways and in some cases witnessing by the players on the field to sports games.

The company’s roster has grown from one client — the Nashville Sounds — to a dozen minor-league baseball teams, a handful of arena football teams and one minor-league hockey team. The company recently scored a partnership with the Atlanta Braves and fields calls from the NFL and NBA almost every day, says High’s partner, CEO Mike Snider.

By marketing Faith Night events through the grassroots network of churches in every town they visit, the company spreads its message — and boosts game attendance as much as 22%, according to the Nashville Business Journal.

High calls it “PyroMarketing” — from Greg Stielstra’s eponymous business tome.

Along with courting corporate sponsors (such as Christian colleges and restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, which closes its restaurants on Sundays), the company builds word of mouth by talking to ministers and church groups, creating “customer evangelists” who fill seats, buy tickets and promote the event to friends.

“We have a rep that works every city,” High explains. “They go to pastor’s breakfasts, youth-ministry network meetings and Christian colleges that meet with church leaders on a consistent basis and just plug themselves into those different groups.”

“You’re taking that outreach style into marketing,” says Snider, “and it works.”

Concert promoter J. Damany Daniel is courting a similar demographic for Korban Worship, a daylong Christian music festival held in Tulsa on Sept. 9. With youth-oriented acts like Desperation Band and Daniel Eric Groves, Daniel hopes to attract 18- to 35-year-old “Christians who want a more genuine encounter.”

“We’ve gone the traditional route,” Daniel says. “We’ve done the posters and the flyers and the newspaper advertising. We’ve gotten some write-ups in local magazines, and we’re doing some radio spots. But we’re focusing the majority of our efforts on connecting with local organizations and local churches.”

He adds, “People want to know about stuff, but they want to hear about it from their friends and from word of mouth in their peer group.”

The promoters insist their methods are missionary, not mercenary.

“We get a lot of ‘You’re making money off of Jesus!’ and this kind of stuff, and that’s really not the case,” Snider says. “It is a business, but we set it up as a true ministry.”

High says congregants will more “readily accept an invitation to Turner Field than they will to your building with a steeple on top on Franklin Road.” There, the ritual of the Sunday church service is lost, but the bond between like-minded Christians may actually be intensified.

“People are hungry,” agrees Daniel. “People want to connect with each other, and they want to connect with God. They’re just looking for opportunities and outlets to do it.”

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