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Tailgaters promote 'First and Ten' for Jesus


  First United Methodist Church members and Carolina Panther football fans attend the First and Ten worship service held just blocks away from the stadium.
UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
Nov. 20, 2008 | CHARLOTTE, N.C. (UMNS)


The Rev. Ann Self and musician Michael Chorba lead the service Sunday
mornings before home games for the Carolina Panthers.

It's a chilly Sunday morning in autumn, and the Rev. Ann Self is in a parking lot near the stadium awaiting kickoff at today's Carolina Panthers game.

"I have an entire box of toe-warmers if we need them, especially for the children," Self says as she carries another tub of supplies toward her tailgating site.

Does First United Methodist Church of Charlotte know that Self is spending part of her Sabbath at an NFL game? 

Well, yes.

This year, the church launched its "First and Ten" ministry to provide tailgate worship services on football Sundays at the corner of Morehead and College streets, amidst a sea of sports fans.

"We have to be about following the movement of God’s grace, wherever that might take us," says Self, who serves as minister of congregational development for her church.

She recalls the inspiration for the service. "My family was on the way to a college football game and, as we walked toward the game, we saw all sorts of products promoted from cell phones to tobacco products to men’s razors. And I thought, why can’t the church do that?"

The United Methodist Foundation of the Western North Carolina Conference provided a grant to pay for a tent, portable pews, tables, equipment and other tailgating paraphernalia. Church members help with the service and also serve up tailgating food. Many walk to the stadium from the church's campus, located about eight blocks away in the heart of an urban renewal area.

"The service is called First and Ten because we are First United Methodist of Charlotte, and our service here starts at 10," says Michael Chorba, a bank employee during the week and musician at today's service.

Addressing changing needs

The tailgate provides both worship and outreach experiences for about 50 members attending from the Charlotte church, in addition to any guests who might wander along.

"The church is about being in relationship with people," says Self. "This gives us an opportunity to plant a little seed of faith … in a simple fun way. We are responding to the changing needs of the area we serve."


Kaitlyn Roberts of First United Methodist Church gives Jack Branden, 5, a special game-day look.

Among the tailgate fans are Pete and Phyllis Johnson, both wearing Panther-turquoise shirts with the words "First and Ten" in bold letters.

"We go to the Panther games … which are on Sundays. This is the best of both worlds," he says. "The idea is to bring the church to the football crowd."

Church leader Phyllis Johnson likes the outdoor sanctuary and the tailgate's ability to reach out to people in the community. "Some of the folks we meet today might not be comfortable walking through the doors of the church, but they can approach us here," she says. 

On this particular Sunday, the sounds of worship music join a chorus of tailgating noises in the parking lot as Pastor Self delivers a message infused with football themes, especially appealing to this crowd and children from Sunday school.

"Who are the people in your life who are on your front line?" she asks, addressing a semi-circle of families near the tent. "Who protects you from things coming your way … or those who go before you to make a way?"

As the service draws to close, containers filled with barbecue sandwiches, hamburgers and quesadillas arrive to complete the tailgate atmosphere.

"The chicken tenders always go first," says a volunteer as he helps set up a buffet-style feast.

'Someplace positive'

A family passing by on the sidewalk stops to read the church's welcome banner.

"This is the first NFL game for our family," says Beth Koster, mother of two boys. "There is a lot of negative outside the game … drinking alcohol and things that you don’t want your kids to see. When we saw the church over here, we thought there is someplace positive our family can go."

While many church members serve food, others mingle with football fans in the community and invite them to church.

"Would you all like some beads?" asks sixth-grader Katie Ingram, holding more than a dozen strings of party beads. "We use the giveaway gifts to make friends and let people know the church cares about them."

Insulated can coolers bearing the church's name are also handed out. Members say they want people at the game to know that—win or lose and whether it's football season or not—another team awaits them.

"These folks may find one day in the future that they need support or they need some help," says Johnson. "We want them to have our name and to know where they can come to find it."

*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Resources

First United Methodist Church

Western North Carolina Conference

Board of Discipleship


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