WILDWOOD, Mo. (BP)–Burgers, motorcycles, a Super Bowl champion, a former player for the St. Louis Cardinals and a marathon-running retired Army officer. No wonder they called it “Manly Night.”
“Manly Night” is an effort by West County Community Church in Wildwood, Mo., to draw in men -– especially non-Christians -– and then challenge them to live up to the ultimate example of manliness, Jesus Christ.
“All of us want to be treated as a real man, but it’s amazing how often we can live in selfishness and sin,” said West County pastor Phil Hunter. “‘Manly Night’ is just a time for our men to invite their friends who do not yet know Christ to step up.”
A motorcycle stunt show by Brad Bennett and the chance to meet a few celebrities, namely former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny and former St. Louis Rams offensive tackle Grant Williams, helped bring in the crowd.
“About 70 percent of our people were raised Catholic,” Hunter said, “so we must emphasize, especially to men, the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus.”
It began with a cookout, as each church member attending staked out a seat at a different table, the remaining seats at each table being reserved for those he invited. This way, each guest attending was able to hear a testimony from a person he already knew, even before the crowd of more than 300 shuffled into the auditorium for the main program: testimonies by Bennett, Williams, Matheny and church member Mark Coomes. By the end of the night, at least 20 had accepted Christ, with dozens more making other decisions.
Bennett climbed off his motorcycle to take the stage and told how a single encounter with the Gospel changed his life. A lover of motocross since he was young, Bennett quickly advanced to the top ranks in his sports.
“It’s the goal of every rider to get a big factory contract, earn lots of money and take advantage of everything the world has to offer,” he said. “I was chasing that dream. … It was all about me.”
As an up-and-coming star on the motocross circuit, Bennett was invited to dinner at his riding hero’s home, Steve Wise.
“For the most part we just talked about motorcycles,” he said. “But after about an hour he stopped and told us how he was left empty when his life was just about riding and about what it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That really caught my attention as a kid who never grew up in church or thought about spiritual things. I was hanging on every word and the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.”
Wise sensed Bennett’s heart and took him aside and presented the plan of salvation. Bennett said he didn’t have to think twice.
“When the truth of God’s Word is presented, and it says you can have a gift that lasts forever, it’s amazing so many people have to think about it. The moment you accept that gift, you’re born again. I was a new creature.”
Bennett raced for a few more years but then quit at 27 years old to begin a full-time ministry featuring his motocross skills.
“Why did I take a different path? Because God had truly changed my heart.”
Although Williams had fans in the crowd because of his days with the Rams, he also faced a lighthearted ribbing as he reminded them he won his Super Bowl ring by defeating the Rams as a member of the New England Patriots in 2002. Williams told the men that even though he grew up knowing the principles and stories of God, they didn’t impact his life because he was lacking a personal relationship with Jesus.
“I memorized Bible verses and we maybe missed church once a year,” he said. “But for me it was just something we did: It was tradition, ritual and agreeing to a set of principles. I could have told you that the wages of sin is death, that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and that Jesus paid the price for my sins, but it certainly didn’t strike a fire in me. There was no relationship.”
Instead he found his “fire” in athletics, playing in every sport available, eventually excelling in baseball and football and earning a position as team captain on the Louisiana Tech football squad.
“I thought I could get away with anything being as valuable as I was to the team,” he said. “As a player, I thought I was above the law.”
But after endless parties and his second DUI, he lost his place on the team and was barred from even setting foot on campus.
“For the first time in my life, I couldn’t make it just because I could help carry a piece of pig over a line of chalk,” Williams said.
He served hundreds of hours of community service and after a year was readmitted and allowed to play football for Louisiana Tech again, although his prospects of getting drafted into the NFL appeared slim. Then, at yet another party, he began to hear God’s still small voice.
“I realized in my heart that He had been there all along even though I’d never had a true relationship with Him,” Williams said. “Finally, as a senior in college, I gave up control, stepped back and gave my life to Christ.”
Soon after he became a Christian, the draft was held and no one called. But he was OK with that.
“For the first time, I realized that wasn’t the most important thing,” he said.
Then, 20 teams called him up inviting him to training camp as a free agent. It was the first major decision that Williams and his new wife would make as Christians. God eventually took them to Seattle, but Williams was still five slots from making the team.
“I knew that if I was going to make the team, it would be God’s doing and not mine,” he said. “I made the team, but it wasn’t just to help get a piece of pig across a line of chalk. I kept asking, ‘Why am I here?'”
Williams was there in part to move the chunk of pigskin, but it was on the team that he met an accountability partner and truly began to grow as a Christian.
“Knowing principles and Scripture are important, but a relationship with Christ is the only way,” he said.
Matheny, who left the Cardinals for the San Francisco Giants before retiring earlier this year, said he treated everywhere he went as his mission field.
“I grew up in a strong Christian home,” Matheny said. “I was in church more than I was anywhere else. I grew up very comfortable with ‘church.’ I knew where to sit, when to sing and what to say.”
But at a revival service, Matheny heard the Gospel in a new setting from a new guest preacher, and he wasn’t comfortable as the Holy Spirit tugged at his heart.
“He asked, ‘Who is Jesus Christ to you?’ I had heard it before, but that day it rang in my head.”
That night, his parents led him down the so-called Roman Road to salvation and he accepted Christ.
Matheny led a “closet Christian life” in college as he played baseball for the University of Michigan.
“I was a coward with my faith,” he said. “I can’t imagine how many people needed someone like me to stand in the gap and be a witness, to be a man, but I wasn’t. Looking back it makes me sick that I just sat there and basically denied Him.”
After school, Matheny was a bubble player whose ascent to the big leagues was very much in doubt. But Matheny succeeded and was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers.
During his first game in the minor leagues, he was invited to attend a chapel service.
“This guy had every opportunity to tell a few good stories and make himself look cool to all these young athletes, but he decided to do something that changed a lot of lives and that was to tell the truth,” Matheny said. “He was bold.”
It was then and there Matheny decided to step to the plate — not just as a baseball player, but as a Christian, and make baseball his mission field, from the 20-hour bus trips to the filthy locker-rooms. For his first game in the big leagues, he arrived at the clubhouse three hours early.
“As I looked around the room, it hit me like a brick wall: here are a bunch of guys who have more money than they could ever spend, who have more fame than they ever wanted, had every toy you could possibly dream of, all in the palm of their hands,” he said. “It became obvious to me that they were all miserable, absolutely miserable, simply because we’re all born with a God-shaped hole and we can’t fill it on our own. Someone needed to tell them and I decided it would be me.”
This story first appeared in The Pathway, the newspaper of the Missouri Baptist Convention.