Jacksonville, Fla.—Each Sunday during the fall, Christians all over America wrestle with this dilemma: Is it OK to miss church to go to the football game?
The struggle is real, but not for much longer in the Jacksonville metropolitan area.
On Dec. 13 at 11 a.m., tailgaters and ticket holders enjoyed a new worship experience called GameDay Church in the parking lot adjacent to Old St. Andrews Church before the Jacksonville Jaguars host the Indianapolis Colts at 1 p.m.
David Tarkington, lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Orange Park, said the idea to plant a church in the St. Andrews facility initially came to him several years ago, and his interest was renewed every time he attended a sporting event and saw the historic church.
This year, Tarkington reached out to the Jacksonville Historical Society, which maintains the facility and rents it out for events.
Josh Dryer, pastor of church planting at FBC Orange Park, is working with Tarkington to make GameDay Church a reality. Dryer said as he and Tarkington began to dream up ways to further the Kingdom in Jacksonville, the vision for GameDay Church began to crystallize.
“The Lord is opening doors all around us for the expansion of the Kingdom in places that we don’t normally look,” Dryer said. “We need to be available to be used by Him to reach those places.”
It hasn’t been an obstacle-free journey from concept to execution. When Tarkington spoke to the director of the historical society, he was told he could rent the facility any time except during Jaguars home games.
“I told her that was the only time I really wanted it,” Tarkington said.
As he began to share his vision for the church, the director became intrigued and said she would work to accommodate his request.
Unable to pull everything together quickly enough to have the event during a November home game, the next opportunity was the Dec. 13 game against the Colts. However, the church was booked for that day. Undeterred, Tarkington and Dryer continued to negotiate with the historical society and were able to arrange to hold GameDay Church in a high-traffic area adjacent to St. Andrews.
Tarkington said the Jaguars’ organization has been agreeable to the GameDay Church concept as part of its faith and family emphasis. The team also has allowed GameDay Church to sell Jaguars tickets through a link on the church’s website.
“We may be the only church selling Jags tickets on our website,” he joked.
If the concept is successful, the Jaguars have indicated that GameDay Church could be a staple at all of next year’s home games.
“Jags leaders know there are many church attenders in our community,” Tarkington said.
He and Dryer hope to attract not only church attenders, but their friends who might not be willing to go to a more traditional worship service.
“Some may already be believers who need a time to worship, and there may be those who love football, but might not love Jesus yet,” Dryer said.
Tarkington said it will be less like a typical church service and more like a “tailgate under a tent.” The “high-energy” service will feature music by Ascension Worship and a brief message by Tarkington, in addition to games and free food. People will be encouraged to use the church’s app to leave contact information or to register a profession of faith. As part of the Jacksonville Baptist Association’s network of 200 churches, Tarkington said they will be able to connect people to churches near them no matter where they live.
“Over 63,000 people are gathering six to eight times a year at EverBank Field, and we couldn’t find a gospel witness in that area among that group of people,” Dryer said. “That’s a medium-sized city, gathered on a regular basis that’s not currently being reached by an evangelical church.”
Tarkington wants to take the gospel to where people are gathered.
“We often try to create crowds at our churches,” he said. “We’re going where the crowd already exists.”
Tarkington is fully prepared for this group to look a little different than the typical church crowd.
“If we’re going to the crowd, we need to be prepared to meet the crowd,” he said. “We don’t expect our fish to be clean before we catch them.”
If GameDay Church is successful, Tarkington and Dryer would like to see it not only continue in Jacksonville, but in other cities as well. Both men are committed to partnering with like-minded churches in other markets that want to capitalize on the many fans who gather for football, baseball and soccer games all around the state and even the country.
“We’re a sports-crazy society,” Tarkington said. “I’d love to see other churches engaging people where they are and presenting the gospel in a clear way.” (BP)
Nicole Kalil is a reporter for the Florida Baptist Witness.