Churches Reach Out to World Cup Fans

The pastor grabbed the microphone after the day's last match and bid a 'blessed evening' to dozens of World Cup fans who watched the big-screen TV in his makeshift tent of worship.
( [email protected] ) Jun 20, 2006 03:05 PM EDT

STUTTGART, Germany (AP) - The pastor grabbed the microphone after the day's last match and bid a "blessed evening" to dozens of World Cup fans who watched the big-screen TV in his makeshift tent of worship.

After quietly escorting out a drunken France supporter who began belting out team songs, Pastor Christoph Immanuel Bruckmann returned to an emptying tent.

No one lingered to talk about soccer, and maybe God, but for Bruckmann that was no reason to lose faith. The World Cup lasts a month, and there are plenty of games left.

Churches across Germany have seized on the world's biggest sporting event as a chance to reach those indifferent to religion.

Thousands of congregations have received broadcast rights to games. Some are showing them on large screens in churches — others, like Bruckmann, in impromptu places of worship. Preachers have worked soccer themes into their sermons.

Only about 15 percent of Germany's 26 million registered Catholics regularly attend church, and church officials say the numbers continue to shrink. Among 26 million Protestants, churchgoers number just 4 percent.

Church officials looking for a message that resonates point to similarities between soccer and religion: both have rituals, offer a sense of community, a chance to leave the ordinary behind. Vast stadiums, which hold tens of thousands of frenzied fans waving banners and singing in time, are modern-day temples.

And Germans are worshipping the World Cup, especially with their team off to a strong start.

In the southern German town of Freudenstadt, Roman Catholic priest Markus Ziegler started a sermon with Germany's last-minute 1-0 victory over Poland the night before.

"When we think all is lost, there is always hope," Ziegler, who once played in a league of seminary students and writes World Cup commentary for a Catholic Web site, said he told his congregation.

One fellow soccer aficionado is Werner Thissen, the Roman Catholic archbishop of northern Germany. He has written a book of 90 commentaries (for a game's 90 minutes) on soccer and theology. Under "A," for "Abseits," German for offside, he reflected on social isolation.

Germany's Protestant Church arranged for broadcast rights of the tournament's 64 games for its 17,000 congregations, and about 2,600 of them have shown interest, church spokesman Christof Vetter said. He didn't know how many churches have decided to broadcast the games, but there's anecdotal evidence many have.

Using the World Cup for outreach appears to be a Christian phenomenon. Muslim and Jewish communities in Germany are not involved in similar efforts, officials for the umbrella organizations of both faiths said.

And a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Church cautioned against excessive expectations.

"We have to be realistic," said spokeswoman Martina Hoehns. "Most people come here to watch soccer."

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 the crowd overflows from the nearby public viewing area.

But he's not giving up.

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

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