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Amid 40,000 NASCAR enthusiasts, they offer a quiet, clear witness

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–It’s spring, and a town of approximately 40,000 inhabitants has sprung up in the flatlands north of Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a town with its share of rowdies, roughnecks and rogues, but mostly a town whose citizenry is bound by a common love — NASCAR auto racing.

The town arises anywhere a NASCAR race is run. Inhabitants of the campgrounds at Texas Motor Speedway come with motor homes, campers and tents for the week prior to the NASCAR DirectTV 500 on Sunday, April 2.

The camping sites bear the marks of devotion. Fans in campers display the flags and related memorabilia of their favorite NASCAR drivers. Motor scooters and four-wheelers pass alongside walking fans in a steady stream to and from the grandstands of the racetrack.

Along one of these main streams of low-speed traffic is a relatively non-descript tent with a banner across the front that reads, “Welcome Race Fans.”

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From this tent scatter the dedicated band of volunteers with Texas Alliance Raceway Ministries, whose goal is to show this temporary town the love of Jesus Christ in action.

TxARM has been active at TMS since the first race there four years ago. The ministry sets up a tent in the race rack campgrounds and provides information and free coffee and hot chocolate, as well as musical concerts and a Sunday morning worship service.

The information, in the form of a map of the track and a handy page for keeping track of time trial times, is a foot in the door to get the gospel message out.

“A lot of people come to us for information. We always have race schedules ready that we can hand to them,” said Tony Edwards of First Baptist Church, Briar, Texas. “Every piece of literature that we hand out that is provided to us or that we produce ourselves has the gospel in it. That’s the main thing we’re trying to do is get the gospel out.”

John Babler is an assistant professor of social work and ministry-based evangelism at Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, works with TxARM for all three races at the track each year, camping on the campgrounds with his son, Hudson.

The approach is low-key. NASCAR fans are passionate about their sport but not always receptive to confrontational evangelism or traditional church-based outreach.

Paul and Kiki Cherry of Oklahoma City were attracted to minister with TxARM because of their own interest in NASCAR. They volunteered over the weekend along with eight college students from Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

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“It’s kind of a unique group of people, because a lot of them have had bad experiences with church in the past, and you have to come to them on common ground or you’re not going to reach them,” said Kiki Cherry. “What I love about this kind of ministry is I can walk up to a race fan as a fellow race fan and have an open door there and have an opportunity to witness to them, when they would never speak to me if I was just a regular Christian inviting them to church.”

Dennis McGowan of Motor Racing Outreach knows quite a bit about NASCAR fans. He travels to tracks around the country with a tractor-trailer rig, connecting with local ministries to provide entertainment and a gospel outreach to the fans.

“There are 6.7 million fans that go through NASCAR events during the year. … Only about 20 percent of them are churched,” McGowan noted.

On Thursday and Friday nights, MRO provides concerts for the race fans with giveaways that feature prizes and a quick presentation of the gospel message. The concerts feature contemporary country music.

“We found that if we use gospel music, southern gospel, anything like that, they stay away in droves,” McGowan said. “We try to appeal to them, use the music as a hook.” With the concerts and a Sunday morning chapel service, MRO has seen 508 decisions for Christ in the three years it has worked at the Texas track.

Rain poured down on the makeshift city Saturday, prompting a four-and-a-half-hour delay in the Busch Grand National series Albertson’s 300 race. As she watched the rainfall, Cherry spoke about Brenda, a fan she had met earlier in the week.

Brenda had talked with Cherry for 30 minutes, not believing Cherry was a Christian. “You’re a race fan, you don’t seem like one of those Christians,” Brenda told Cherry.

“I’ve really been praying for her and I’m hoping she’ll show up tonight and I’m hoping I’ll have a chance to really talk to her,” Cherry said.

Corey Gilbert and Summer Palmer, Southwestern students, said the ministry has given them a new appreciation for ministry-based evangelism, meeting felt needs while sharing Christ’s love.

“I can do this. I really can. I can be there and I can give people information and talk to them,” Palmer said. “But I’m not likely to get these kind of people to come to my church. They’re just not going to come, so I need to go to them, meet them where they are. It’s not exactly comfortable. It’s definitely different than normal.”

Gilbert spent the weekend driving shuttle golf carts to and from the track, picking up handicapped fans and delivering hot coffee and cocoa to track security employees scattered throughout the enormous site.

As he drove, he visited with the passengers. Sometimes the conversations can open up avenues of witness into the fans’ lives, as happened while Gilbert was driving one couple to the track. “I finally mention I’m studying to be a marriage and family counselor, [the woman] got up, came around and sat next to me and starts telling me, ‘Oh, I just divorced my husband …,'” he said.

The racetrack ministry does much to “humanize” race fans, who appear as a mass of humanity when seen in the stands on television every Sunday.

For Cherry, that has been the most spiritually energizing aspect of the experience.

The key is “really getting to know a little bit about some of these people, and really seeing them as people and not just nameless faceless masses. Learning to love them as people, and not as strangers,” she said. “When I have that common ground with them as race fans, I start to see them more as individuals who Jesus loves who I don’t want to see go to hell. It’s been really neat for me because it’s made me want to share Christ with them more.”

McGowan enjoys the “serendipity” of the moment when race fans decide to follow Christ: “They think they’re coming to a race and they’re coming to Jesus Christ. To me that’s very good.”

Additional photo posted in the BP Photo Library. Title: RACEWAY MINISTRY INCLUDES COFFEE.