By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — It’s not every day that a gathering in the church sanctuary begins with a rendition of Rocky Top ringing out from an orchestra.
But that’s how the evening started on July 27 at Red Bank Baptist Church in Chattanooga, where an energetic crowd — including a large number of football players and coaches from the local area — came together for “A Night of Orange and White.”
The event, which featured former Tennessee head football coach Phillip Fulmer, was one of numerous football-themed evangelism programs that have taken place across Tennessee and parts of Alabama.
Craig Whitt, the associate pastor of discipleship at Second Baptist Church, Clinton, and Sam McElroy, the Adult 3 and Senior Adults minister at Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, have served as the foremen of the “faith and football” ministry for the past several years.
The idea is to bring together football players, coaches, and fans for a night of fellowship and to hear the plan of salvation.
“One of the things that Sam and I enjoy most is that we get to see these young guys come (to church),” said Whitt, “because a lot of them don’t go to church anywhere.
“With this, they’re going to have a great time on a church campus, they’re going to hear the gospel and they’re going to have a great team-building opportunity,” said Whitt. “That’s really the vision behind it.”
In addition to the event at Red Bank Baptist, other programs have been held this summer in Union City (at Second Baptist Church), Clinton (at Second Baptist Church), and Cookeville (at First Baptist Church).
In many cases, local football players were able to attend the gatherings for free, thanks to sponsorships provided by the local churches, the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, or other organizations.
Each event typically begins with the special guest addressing the crowd, and the night concludes with a presentation of the gospel, normally given by the pastor of the host church, and an invitation.
“It’s a great outreach,” said Whitt. “It’s a chance for the church to work together as a body, and to get these (players) into the church and make a difference in their lives.”
Numerous well-known coaches and athletes have been the featured guests, including current Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, who spoke at Second Baptist in Union City in July.
Other featured guests in the past have included coaching legends Bobby and Tommy Bowden, former UT star Inky Johnson, and, from the baseball realm, John Smoltz.
“The (attendees) are coming to hear a player or a coach — that’s the draw,” said Steve Pearson, evangelism specialist at the TBMB, “but at each of these events, every one of these coaches/players will talk about their story and give their testimony.”
As McElroy puts it, “It’s more than football. It’s about seeing and hearing the personal side of it.”
During an interview prior to the “Night of Orange and White” in Chattanooga, Fulmer said he uses these opportunities as a platform to talk about the importance of living by Christian principles.
“We are going to have a bunch of kids in here tonight that are at an age where they can be easily influenced,” said Fulmer, who now serves as the special advisor to the president at the University of Tennessee, “and if they can get the right kind of guidance, then when they have a decision to make, they can make the right one.”
The ministry is having a strong impact. Pearson estimated there were more than 1,000 attendees, including roughly 700 football players, at the event in Union City, and said he “counted 45 football players who stood up (during the invitation) to say, ‘I am going to follow Christ.’ ”
The program in Clinton was also effective, with an estimated 800 attendees, including 500 football players and coaches, and roughly 40 first-time professions of faith.
The event at Red Bank Baptist began with Fulmer answering a series of questions from McElroy, and the night concluded with a message from Red Bank Baptist senior pastor Sam Greer. There were 32 first-time professions of faith during the night.
“We use this as an opportunity to not only reach out to our community, but specifically, targeting middle school and high school athletes,” said Josh Lancaster, the senior associate pastor at Red Bank Baptist.
“Tonight, we have well over 300 players and coaches from 10 different area schools that we’re investing in. And they’re coming in (for) free. Our event sponsors and our church paid for them to be a part of this for free because we wanted them to have the opportunity to hear the gospel.”
While the program at Red Bank carried a Tennessee football theme, the event at Second Baptist Clinton was crafted for Alabama fans. It featured former Alabama and NFL quarterback Brodie Croyle and his dad, John Croyle, who played for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Whitt said he has been impressed with the coaches and athletes who have spoken out about their relationships with Christ during this ministry.
“For them to be willing to come and share their faith, and share what Christ is currently doing in their lives – and has done in the past – that takes a lot,” he said. “These guys are in the spotlight, and for them to take a stand, it’s an awesome thing.”