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Football, faith center stage at student events

LEXINGTON, Tenn. (BP) — Tommy Bowden, former college football coach at Clemson University, recently spoke to hundreds of Tennessee high school football students about the importance of making good decisions in life.

Bowden said he wanted to emphasize for the more than 700 players, representing more than five counties and 12 schools, the importance of having the right priorities in life by putting God first. The event was held at First Baptist Church of Lexington, Tenn., on July 18.

“Football is important, but it’s not the most important thing,” said Bowden, who has been actively involved in speaking to young athletes about his faith for more than 20 years. “There is one thing that’s more important and that’s a relationship with Christ, belief in God and being obedient to His will.”

Decision making, Bowden noted, is a key in life both spiritually and on the football field.

“If you make good decisions you’ll be successful,” Bowden said. “The things you need to be successful in athletics are the same things that Christ teaches and the Bible teaches.”

The “Faith and Football” event was one of nine that took place throughout Tennessee involving local high school football players coming to have a night of fellowship at a local church.

Craig Whitt, discipleship pastor at Second Baptist Church, Clinton, has coordinated some of these events the past few years in Tennessee. They are run through a non-profit organization called Strength of a Champion Ministries.

All of the Faith and Football events in Tennessee took place during the last two weeks in July, and similar events were held in other states, Whitt said. More than 6,000 people attended the events in Tennessee — 90 percent being student athletes — and 296 decisions for salvation were reported.

Whitt said Strength of a Champion Ministries and the churches involved have three goals for players who come to the events:

— to have a good experience at church,

— to hear the Gospel with an opportunity to respond,

— and to know when something bad happens in their lives that the church loves them.

Clay Hallmark, pastor of First Baptist Lexington, said he started planning the July 18 event in partnership with Strength of a Champion Ministries and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (TBMB) more than a year ago.

Hallmark contacted a local high school football coach to help recruit other football coaches to bring their teams. Hallmark then recruited a variety of local vendors, churches and banks to sponsor the football teams to come to the free event.

The teams and coaches, some of them getting a chance to meet Bowden, ate dinner together before entering the sanctuary for a question-and-answer time with Bowden and Drew Tucker, associate Pastor at Bellevue Baptist Church near Memphis.

The Q&A session was followed by a Gospel presentation from Hallmark. He agreed with Bowden in his statement that the lessons learned through football are the same things needed to have an effective ministry.

“One of the biggest connections between faith and football for me is perseverance, and football takes a willingness to surrender yourself…. You have to humble yourself to play on a team,” Hallmark said.

“Those are all lessons that carry over into your Christian life and they’re also lessons that carry over into working together with fellow believers in the work of missions, evangelism and ministry,” he said. “The next great preacher, missionary or evangelist could be in the crowd tonight.”

Hallmark also emphasized the importance of the partnership with the TBMB through the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions.

Steve Pearson, evangelism team leader for TBMB, said these faith and football events are “attractional events” meant to draw people to church in order to hear the Gospel. The TBMB helped to facilitate the event by providing funds to feed the players and coaches, but the churches are the real driving force, Pearson noted.

“These events are generated from our churches. Our responsibility and our job is to come alongside these churches and to support them in their efforts,” Pearson said. “This is one of the ways that we can bring evangelism and outreach back to the forefront of Southern Baptist life.”