'Holy Huddle' helps football fans keep the faith

Posted: Sunday, December 26, 2004

DALLAS — For a long time, the Cowboys cost the Unity Church of Dallas people and money.

On Sundays when the Cowboys kicked off at noon, some members stayed home. Others left worship early — before tithing time — to avoid missing the opening kickoff.

''They were putting up announcements saying, 'Don't trample the children when you stampede out of here before the service ends,''' church member Denise Maindelle said, perhaps stretching the truth just a bit.

Then church members Ken Sutherland and Mike Connor approached the pastor with a suggestion: Why not show Cowboys games on a big screen in the church fellowship hall?

The Rev. Ellen Debenport thought a ''Holy Huddle'' was a fine idea.

''I preach all the time that we need to live balanced lives,'' said Debenport, the 1,000-member church's senior minister. ''If someone's interested in church and football and being with their families on Sunday, I think that's great. So if we can accommodate that and build community in the church at the same time, that's fine with me.''

Across the football-crazed nation, the temptation to skip services in favor of the home team challenges many regular churchgoers this time of year.

Some, like Tim McMillen, who operates a Pittsburgh Steelers fan Web site, do the best they can. In one post, McMillen wrote that he would play on the church praise team, ''then burn rubber back home to catch the start of the game.''

''Any old ladies who get in my way coming out of church are gonna be very sorry,'' he joked.

Larry Ghan, an elder at the Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Pocatello, Idaho, said he almost always picks God over football.

Occasionally, though, a Minnesota Vikings kickoff at 11 a.m. Mountain time is just too much to resist.

On a recent Sunday, Ghan had little choice but to attend services: The congregation was counting on him to preside over the communion.

''My first commitment is to the Lord, so I'm going to be there,'' he said. ''But that doesn't mean I'm not a little bit edgy and twitchy wondering how the Vikes are doing.''

In Brentwood, Tenn., south of Nashville, the lure of the Tennessee Titans played into one church's decision to start a Saturday night service.

''They get the same sermon and most of the same hymns,'' said the Rev. Howard Olds, senior pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church.

Most importantly, they get Sunday morning free to watch the Titans, let their children play in a youth soccer game or engage in other family activities, Olds said.

In the Green Bay, Wis., area, it's not uncommon for churches to review the Packers' schedule before setting the times of events. So when the NFL recently moved two noon games to 3 p.m., the Rev. Don Behrendt of Peace Lutheran Church found it difficult to hide his displeasure.

All of a sudden, the church's 4 p.m. children's Christmas program found itself smack in the path of the Packers.

At the last minute, the church changed the December pageant to 1 p.m. to avoid the conflict. A newspaper editorial criticized the decision, describing any parent who would miss a child's Christmas program to watch a football game as a jerk.

''I would agree with that,'' Behrendt said. ''But you don't want kids to find out their parents are jerks any more than they have to.''

At the Unity Church of Dallas, Holy Huddle has brought a halt to the previous 11:45 a.m. exodus of Cowboys fans.

In a fellowship hall with a piano and stained-glass windows, dozens of church members munch pizza, get to know each other better (during commercials) and watch the first half of the game. At halftime, they drive home, presumably in time to catch the second half.

''I really think it makes a difference,'' Debenport said. ''If nothing else, it called attention to how many people were leaving, so they seem more likely to stay. And if they're really desperate to see the actual kickoff, they can do that here.''



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