Feature

A Party with a Purpose

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On Saturday mornings during the fall season, it is not unusual to see thousands of West Virginians trimmed in gold and blue, standing over the coals of a portable grill. In fact, when there is a home football game on Saturdays, Morgantown, West Virginia, is filled to the brim with more than 60,000 variations of the same theme: gold and blue jerseys, hats, T-shirts, flags and even cars that honk the West Virginia University fight song! Yes, Mountaineer football, and the tailgates that accompany it, is the one thing—perhaps more than anything else—that West Virginians from every stripe of life unite behind.

But in one parking lot, not a mile from the college football field, you will find about a dozen men dressed not in blue and gold, but bright orange. No, they are not hunters, nor are these blaze-clad men fans of Big East rival Syracuse University. Instead, they are part of the Men’s Ministry of the Morgantown Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. These men are there not so much for the football but for the football fans.

Parker Grimes, president of the Morgantown C&MA Men’s Ministry, said, “We noticed that the line of cars going to the Mountaineer games ended about right where our church parking lot is. When we got to thinking about the C&MA’s mission of ‘sending and going’ and realized that God was bringing 60,000 fans—all in need of Christ—right past our front door, it didn’t take much for us to connect the dots.”

And so they opened their door, quite literally. And on those Saturdays, Grimes and others of the C&MA Men’s Ministry in Morgantown can be found three or four hours before kickoff setting up orange cones, directing traffic, cooking burgers and hot dogs and giving chauffeured rides to the football stadium. And here’s the best part: it’s all free!

Grimes suggests that the free parking, free food and free ride to the stadium are simply practical outworkings of his faith. “God’s salvation was a free gift to us, why would we charge others to hear the same message?”

And that’s exactly the point. As cars pull into the church’s parking lot, drivers reach for their wallet, expecting to pay anywhere from $5 to $20 (the going rate for game-day parking in Morgantown—including lots immediately next to the church). Instead, one of the C&MA men hands them a CD recording of three testimonies and tells them it’s something they can listen to when stuck in traffic on the way home.

As the occupants get out of their vehicles, they are immediately greeted by more of the church’s tailgate crew. This welcome wagon crew doubles as the Tailgate Ministry’s evangelism team, giving fans a hearty hello, encouraging them to sample the free hot dogs and burgers or offering them the services of the church’s restroom facilities.

But it doesn’t take long for this crew to start talking about the Bread of Life. Fans of either team in the day’s contest are quickly engaged in friendly conversation. Before long, a simple and inoffensive presentation of the gospel creeps out to hearts that are more receptive than you may think.

“It’s really amazing to me,” says Geo Richards, a member of the evangelism team. “People are really willing to discuss deep issues and questions with you. It’s almost as if they have just been waiting to hear the question, ‘Do you ever go to church?’”

Richards is very willing to ask that question. “Once when I asked that question, the eyes of these two fans just lit up. They said that they had just been talking on the ride to Morgantown about how they needed to start going back to church but were not sure how to do so or if they even wanted to try. That’s the kind of open door to the gospel that God brings to us every week.”

The tailgate revelers seem apprehensive at first, as if remembering the old saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But, when they discover that the Morgantown C&MA’s Tailgate Ministry is an exception to that rule, they quickly loosen up. They see friendly faces, hear music filled with a biblical message being sung from the back of a flatbed trailer and even receive a hearty “We’re glad you’re here” as they fill their plate with as many free burgers, hot dogs and chips as they can possibly manage.

Grimes estimates that more than 250 fans pass through the lot each week, guessing from the roughly 120 cars that park there every week, each jammed with two, four or even six occupants.

“Tailgating is a lot of fun and a highlight of any college football game day. But we have the added joy of knowing that lives are being changed simply because the men of the C&MA church at Morgantown are willing to use what God has given us for the advance of the gospel,” Grimes states.

Just how many converts can this Tailgate Ministry account for? “We honestly don’t know,” says Senior Pastor David Goodin. “But that’s not really our job. God calls us to simply go and preach the gospel to all men. The rest is God’s job. The men of our church are simply being obedient to the ministry that God has laid upon their hearts.”

In some areas of the world, sharing the good news means blazing trails in jungles or learning another language. But in Morgantown, one church has found a way of feeding the appetites of the world, both physical and spiritual.

“One wonders how many other ‘tailgate-like’ opportunities are out there,” ponders Goodin. “We focus so much on going and sending that sometimes we forget that souls are also coming and being sent right to our front door. The men of our church have discovered that, on the way to Judea and Samaria, is a particularly ripe Jerusalem.”

Perhaps one day Mountaineers will unite behind more than just a football team. The C&MA Men’s Ministry in Morgantown, with its tailgate-party-turned-ministry, is preparing West Virginians of all ages for that day when “every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” And that is something worth celebrating.

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