At the World Cup, Churches Reach Out to Fans

The pastor quickly got on stage after the final whistle of the day's last World Cup match, took the microphone and wished the audience a 'blessed evening.'
( [email protected] ) Jun 16, 2006 12:37 PM EDT

STUTTGART, Germany (AP) - The pastor quickly got on stage after the final whistle of the day's last World Cup match, took the microphone and wished the audience a "blessed evening."

"Come back sometime," Immanuel Bruckmann told dozens of fans who watched Brazil beat Croatia on a large TV screen in his quiet, open-sided tent church only a few metres from the beer-soaked rowdiness of the public viewing area.

A drunken France supporter began belting out team songs, and Bruckmann quietly escorted him outside, reminding him that he was in a church, after all. No one else stuck around this time to talk about soccer - and maybe God - with Bruckmann, but that's no reason to lose hope.

Like many pastors across Germany, he has seized the world's biggest sporting event as a chance to reach those indifferent to or estranged from religion.

And that's a growing number. Only about 15 per cent of Germany's 26 million registered Catholics attend church regularly, and the numbers continue to shrink, church officials say. Among 26 million Protestants, churchgoers make up an even tinier group, just more than 4 per cent.

Clergy point to the powerful similarities between soccer and religion: both have rituals, offer a sense of community, a chance to leave the ordinary behind.

The huge World Cup stadiums, holding tens of thousands of frenzied fans dressed in their teams' jerseys and waving banners and singing in time, are redolent of modern-day temples.

Church officials said they don't fear competition from an "ersatz" religion, and instead have sought to tap into the soccer fever that has pervaded not just Germany, but most of the world, during the World Cup.

Thousands of congregations have requested broadcast rights to games, and some show them on large screens in their houses of worship, others in nearby community centres.

Preachers have worked the soccer theme into their sermons.

In the town of Freudenstadt in southern Germany, Roman Catholic priest Markus Ziegler said he started his sermon Thursday with a reference to Germany's last-minute 1-0 victory over Poland in injury time the night before.

"When we think all is lost, there is always hope," Ziegler said he told his congregation, comparing life to a soccer game.

The sermon was well received, said the 42-year-old Ziegler, who once played in a soccer league of seminary students and writes a World Cup commentary for a Catholic website.

Fellow soccer aficionado Werner Thissen, the Roman Catholic archbishop of northern Germany, has written a book of 90 commentaries (for a soccer game's 90 minutes) on soccer and theology. Under "A," for "Abseits," German for offsides, for example, he writes about social isolation.

During one of Hamburg's fan festivals at the start of the World Cup, Thissen said he wandered through the crowd and encountered a greater openness among people to talk.

Some were every day conversations about where to get the best "bratwurst" or who would win the World Cup, but some fans asked about the church and how to return to the fold, he said.

Germany's Protestant Church arranged for broadcast rights of the games for its 17,000 congregations, and about 2,600 communities showed interest, church spokesman Christof Vetter said.

"We tell people, the church is wherever you are," Vetter said.

During the World Cup, the German Christians got some reinforcements from the United States - dozens of college soccer players from a Christian group called Athletes in Action who play German youth teams and talk about their faith.

Christian Kocherscheidt, one of the organizers, said the U.S. team, affiliated with the Chicago Eagles soccer club, lost 8-1 in a game against one of the local youth teams, but did well in getting its message across.

Both Protestant and Catholic officials in Germany proudly note that despite low turnout for Sunday services, churchgoers still outnumber those attending weekend Bundesliga games.

But during the World Cup, soccer definitely has the upper hand.

In Stuttgart's pedestrian mall earlier this week, thousands of France and Switzerland fans crowded outdoor cafes and pubs, raising beer mugs and shouting team songs.

Pastor Bruckmann acknowledged that his church tent is fullest when there is a big game on, and he gets the overflow crowd from the public viewing area.

But he's not giving up.

"It's the job of Christians not to pull back," he said.

In Frankfurt, 24-year-old soccer fan Christoph Wendel said he was never a believer, even though he was baptized and married in the Lutheran Church.

Standing outside the main train station, where a church-sponsored dance troupe from Australia performed to Britney Spears songs, he said religion is not important to him.

"It's great what the church is doing, but I can't identify with it," the interior decorator said.

Martina Hoehns, a Catholic church spokeswoman, cautioned against excessive expectations.

"We have to be realistic," she said. "Most people come here to watch soccer."