ATLANTA — After the final at-bat of Thursday's game between the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins, the stadium seats will turn into pews.
That's because it's "Faith Day" at Atlanta's Turner Field. No, the hot-dog vendors won't preach John 3:16. But churchgoing fans – with, promoters hope, their non-Christian friends in tow – will assemble after the game to hear Braves star pitcher John Smoltz share how his life changed by believing in Christ.
From prayer circles after football games to Bible readings before NASCAR races, spirituality in sports is as common as carbonation in Coke. But the explicit marketing of a religious event by a major-league sports team brings the relationship to an unusually intimate level.
To many fans, the arrival of evangelism in the outfield is a natural evolution. Baseball has a spiritual rhythm, they say, with long stretches conducive to chatting Scripture. Others worry about using the national pastime to market religion as casually as an " '80s night." Promoters call the event "intentional ministry" – a way for evangelicals to connect with others looking for life purpose. Critics worry that events like Smoltz's pitch for faith amount to a conversion curveball.
"In the South, [Faith Day] makes sense because of the very strong historic evangelical culture, but the fact is that [evangelical game-night promotions] are spreading and moving out into other corners of the country," says Christopher Hodge Evans, author of "The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion and American Culture."
Part evangelism, part marketing, all baseball, the Faith Day movement began in baseball's minor leagues after 9/11, capturing the mood of a country that began singing "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. "Faith does coalesce with sports in a more substantial way today than [in the past]," says Andy Overman, a former athlete and minister who teaches classics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
But rarely has that intersection been so explicit. During and after the game on its "Faith Nights," the Nashville Sounds minor league team also hands out bobblehead Noahs and camouflage Bibles instead of free T-shirts and bats.
Minor league teams from Buffalo, N.Y., to Huntsville, Ala., are holding similar promotions. The effect on ticket-sales is often dramatic. Faith Nights in Nashville regularly increase ticket sales by 60 percent. The Las Vegas Gladiators, the arena football team, had its highest Sunday attendance ever during a Faith Day event this spring.
Results like those captured the attention of big-league promoters, who are determined to bring the phenomenon – without the flashiness of camo Bibles – to "The Show." After the Braves hold their major league-first Faith Day Thursday – which includes a post-game Christian music concert – the Arizona Diamondbacks will hold its first Faith Day later this season. The Florida Marlins will try one next season.
Meanwhile, Third Coast Sports, Inc., the major Faith-Day promoter, says it's ready to announce similar events for one NBA team and one NFL team this week.
Atlanta may be a natural candidate. Half the team professes Christian faith. It's the buckle of the Bible Belt. And Christian promotions here go back to 1983, when the Atlanta Hawks held "God and Country Night."
But it's the appearance of athletes freshly showered from the game that makes Faith Day new and enticing for fans and athletes alike. "For an athlete, this makes a lot of sense: their life is performance, and when you perform your faith in front of an audience, you get the kind of thrill about your faith that you usually get from pitching or scoring a goal," says Professor Overman.
But the Braves and promoters are careful to point out that the post-game fellowship takes place not on the mound, but in the outfield. Fans have to buy separate tickets for Faith Day and have to physically leave and reenter the stadium in order to avoid confusion.
"We've been very careful to make sure what we're not about is ambush evangelism," says Third Coast Sports president Brent High, the mastermind behind the events.
But the effect, critics say, is a tight call down the foul line. A league that sold its playoff TV rights alone for $2 billion only a decade after selling rights to the entire season for $500 million, they say, has few reasons to complain about attendance or revenues. Their question: Is Faith Day an example of greed in the guise of godliness?
"Baseball at its best has always aspired to be a celebration of what unites us; it's the great secular Americanizer," says sportswriter Dave Zirin, author of "What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States." "So [Faith Day] is a rather remarkable and shocking step backward from that ideal."
Waiting for Tuesday's game at Turner Field to start, Braves fan John Clifford admits he was surprised when he first heard about Faith Day.
But then it made sense: At Georgia Tech baseball games, players are introduced by their favorite songs, and more than half tend to be Christian ones – which the audience nearly always responds to by clapping over their heads. Still, he says, "[Faith Day] is a new boundary for Atlanta."
But 17-year Braves fan Sarah Matthews says such events are a natural outgrowth of the team's already overt Christian values. "I have huge respect for John Smoltz. He embodies values that I want my kids to see, and I think it's great that they're doing it," she says.