Revved up for God

Back in the 1980s, while working as the religion editor for the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate, I interviewed a man who was a chaplain to NASCAR racers and their families. The chaplain was kind, and patient with my astonishment that NASCAR drivers would feel any interest in his services. I mention this to confess straight away: I've never really understood the lure of NASCAR. As someone who is phobic about dying because of a tailgater dialing the wrong number while trying to order a takeout meal from Applebee's, I can think of no better approximation of hell than driving in a NASCAR event.

That chaplain was a good example of the church taking its presence into NASCAR culture. From a lighthearted story by Bill Freehling of The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., comes an example of NASCAR culture stepping into the church -- albeit at the church's invitation. Freehling describes the scene at Salem Fields Community Church in Spotsylvania:

Pictures of NASCAR drivers were throughout the Gordon Road church. A mini No. 8 car and Goodyear tire were on its stage, where a band played country. Church officials wore black T-shirts saying "NASCAR Sunday pit crew." A big-screen television was set up for the race.

The point, said co-pastor Buddy Marston, is to attract people who love NASCAR but haven't been going to church.

. . . Salem Fields is decidedly more casual than most churches. Most people wear blue jeans and T-shirts -- attire that church member Ken Lardie said is more welcoming.

Yesterday's service opened with a band blasting out the lyrics of "I'm From The Country." But then the service got serious.

Marston, who is co-pastor with his wife, Gaye, delivered a sermon about the importance of never lying. Using a NASCAR metaphor, he said his marriage was troubled until he started being honest.

"We were on this giant oil slick," Marston said.

Last Friday, Baptist Press recently published this report comparing NASCAR culture with FAITH, the Southern Baptist Convention's program that combines Sunday school and evangelism:

An off-site tour of the Daytona Speedway was part of the National FAITH Institute, Jan. 24-27 in Daytona Beach. About 200 pastors and church leaders participating in the institute heard how NASCAR and FAITH share similarities when it comes to teamwork: Everyone on the team is important; if you have to make a pit stop, make it quick, then get back on the track; and there may be a lot of personalities involved, but everyone has the same goal.

. . . The Daytona 500 race brings thousands of visitors to Daytona Beach each February. Institute participants were reminded that those who watch the race are excited about things that don't last -- speed, noise and celebrities -- whereas FAITH teams become excited about the one thing that matters for eternity -- bringing people to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

There is, perhaps, a case to be made for NASCAR Sundays at churches -- especially those hyper-Protestants that want to break away from churches' traditional image. But these would be questions worth asking: When a church incorporates the events that compete with worship for members' attention on any given Sunday, how does this affect its identity? Do churches really believe they offer something more important than TV access to a sporting event? Do people who attend NASCAR Sunday show up again before the next NASCAR Sunday? And how should a church differ from our TV rooms at home?

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