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Originally published October 31, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 31, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Sports Church out to earn a victory with fans

For many, football is hallowed, a sacred ritual that stirs a fire that rivals few other passions. So what do you do when your favorite team...

Special to The Seattle Times

Sports Church

When: Meets at 5:30 p.m. Mondays.

Where: Snohomish Boys & Girls Club, 402 Second St., Snohomish.

Information: www.sports-church.com

House Church: Meets at 6 p.m. Saturdays at the Boys & Girls Club. For more information, go to www.experiencethehouse.com.

For many, football is hallowed, a sacred ritual that stirs a fire that rivals few other passions.

So what do you do when your favorite team is playing a must-win game on a day that is typically reserved for worship — and not of the football-gods variety?

Enter DJ Rabe and Sports Church. Merging the Lake Stevens pastor's love for football and the Lord, Sports Church strips away many of the defining characteristics of a conventional churchgoing experience.

Rabe figures that because lots of folks want to watch football on Sundays he can offer one church on Saturday, and you can watch football on Sunday without "guilt," and then go to his church Monday and watch more football.

Set in the teen center at the Snohomish Boys & Girls Club, the nondenominational service seems more like a casual get-together to watch "Monday Night Football" with some buddies.

Attire is come-as-you-are, which often means jeans, T-shirts and sports jerseys. Bleachers stand in for pews, and discussion centers on touchdowns, interceptions, fumbles and blown calls.

During halftime, sports-memorabilia prizes are given away and the floor is open for the clergy to talk about the game, issues of faith or both.

Rabe calls Sports Church the answer to the careful negotiation required when one has to choose between attending church on Sunday and missing the big game.

"Football and sports have been splitting up families for years," said Rabe, a married father of three who often is referred to as "Coach." "I don't think we should have to trade one for the other."

The target is people who have largely sworn off traditional church services.

"What we are aiming for is to reach the guys [and females] who feel they have to trade church for sports," Rabe said. "It's not just about football; it's also about creating an environment where people can share their faith."

Sports Church is an offshoot of The House, an emerging church that Rabe set up in Snohomish — also at the Boys & Girls Club — this fall. The House is about "redefining the church experience," Rabe said.

Both are ruled by a simple philosophy: "Welcoming the Never-Churched, the Rarely-Churched and the Over-Churched."

Sports-minded city

When it came time to put down roots for Sports Church, Snohomish was an obvious choice, Rabe said, because it is a town that takes its football seriously. With Sports Church, he wants to replicate the energy and excitement of a Friday-night high-school football game.

The idea to offer a sports/church hybrid came about through Rabe's friendship with Mike Unverzagt, who runs The House church in Vancouver, Wash.

An ordained minister with the Assembly of God, Unverzagt started Sports Church in the Vancouver-Portland area. Instead of a community center, Unverzagt's ministry takes place at sports bars and pubs. (Rabe chose a community center to make it more accessible and family-friendly.)

The model of The House and Sports Church is built on a come-as-you-are philosophy. The House Saturday church services are done in a cafe-style setting intended to be inviting and faith-driven, but without proselytizing.

Sports Church, Unverzagt said, is a fresh approach to reach those who aren't typical churchgoers. It's also a response to a need for churches to look at different ways to reconnect with one-time churchgoers who no longer attend.

"The idea is for people to strengthen their relationship with God," Unverzagt said.

The Assembly of God supports the concept, he said, because "they want church to get out into the community."

The purpose of the halftime message, which can take on a spiritual tone, "is to help build people up so they can live a better life," Unverzagt said.

During a recent Sports Church, the Boys & Girls Club was transformed into football central. Although the home team wasn't playing that night, a sea of blue and green demonstrated Seahawks solidarity.

As adults munched on nachos and popcorn, chased down with soda, children played pool and video games.

Troy Dinsmore, of Marysville, said Sports Church appealed to him because of its emphasis on sports and team building — and it provided a no-pressure atmosphere to check out a new church.

Dinsmore was among the nearly two dozen folks who turned out at the first Sports Church last month to kick off the pro football season.

The event got Dinsmore's approval. "I thought it was cool to get to watch football and hear a positive message without having to miss the game," he said.

Jim Garcia, athletic director for the Boys & Girls Club, said Sports Church is another way for the organization to insert itself more into the community.

Initially, Garcia had reservations about a program housed at the Boys & Girls Club that has a religious bent. (Although Sports Church and The House rent space from the club, the Boys & Girls Club does not endorse or affiliate itself with any religious organization.)

But the founding principles of teamwork and community-building that guide Sports Church fit with the mission of the Boys & Girls Club, he said.

"It brings people together. You aren't sitting in your living room watching the game," Garcia said. "Snohomish takes pride in athletics. The Boys & Girls Club can supplement that."

For Theresa Hurley, of Arlington, Sports Church is a way to fulfill her commitment to both church and her favorite team, the Seahawks. The family-friendly environment also is important to the single mother of three.

"I think people are looking for different outlets to get together and share common interests, whether it's football or Jesus," she said. "This is another opportunity to create community in your life."

One of those areas where Rabe hopes to build community is with young people. Rabe, 36, has devoted much of his pastoral work to finding ways to make the church experience engaging to youth. "Children and young people are the future and our greatest resource," he said. "Youth will always be the focus."

A graduate of Rhema Bible Training Center in Broken Arrow, Okla., Rabe says he is ordained through the Paraclete International Ministries and is not affiliated with the Assembly of God.

Planning to grow

While Sports Church and The House are just getting off the ground, Rabe is already looking down the road. Recently, the church began hosting Sunday tailgate parties. It aspires to take the Sports Church experience on the road to homes throughout Snohomish County.

Every three years, he wants to launch a new ministry, such as a program for parents or Christian music groups.

When football season ends, Sports Church will continue, Rabe said, with a shift to basketball, hockey and, come spring, baseball.

While Rabe recognizes that this style of church isn't for everyone — he is quick to add that traditional and formal church services work for many — he hopes it will inspire other pastors dealing with flagging attendance to mix things up.

"The statistics confirm the heart's cry that we need to redefine the church experience," Rabe said. "The challenge to pastors is to open up and ask why people aren't coming."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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