Depending on your standpoint, it's either the most thrilling or depressing news of the Summer. For a month from the June 14, the FIFA World Cup will again be dominating TV screens, water cooler conversations and every sponsorable product in the universe. A line-up of 32 teams, including England but (sorry American readers) with a few notable absentees, will battle it out all over Russia for the chance to take home that coveted gold trophy, and whatever happens, sporting history will be made.
As a cultural behemoth, many churches will see the tournament as an 'opportunity' for mission and evangelism. For some, this will merely extend to putting a witty poster outside the church that says something like: 'Jesus saves all your penalties.' Others though will take a more ambitious approach, putting on events which screen the games and aim to get people who don't normally go to church across that threshold.
Having been involved in many such events, including one which went spectacularly wrong, I feel it's my duty to make a plea to any church considering this idea. Of course it's a potentially brilliant, low-impact way to invite friends along to church, and to help them to see that Christians are normal people who take an interest in regular stuff like sport. Yet if you're going to do it, then please do it right. From bitter experience (on which, more later), I can tell you there are some pitfalls to avoid, and some important things to bear in mind if you don't want an evening that's as painful as a last-minute loss to Germany.
Pick the right game(s)
There are a whopping 64 matches to consider when selecting the perfect date for your event. The number of people interested in Denmark vs Peru (discounting the populations of those two great nations) is likely to be on the low side; don't imagine that any but the most hardened fans will be interested in making a night out of every single match. Choose a game that you think will have great interest to local fans (for English readers, the England v Belgium game on June 28 is a good bet), and make sure you're not scheduling a church screening at the same time as your friends at another church down the road.
Football fans plan ahead. It's a stereotype of course, but the football fan who doesn't know what he's doing this evening will already be thinking about how and where he'll be enjoying the big games of World Cup 2018. It's easy to forget about a June/July event until the summer begins, but by then the ink will already be dry on many people's arrangements - including those within your congregation. So choose your match now, and get the word out about what kind of event you'll be putting on. You might be surprised by how many people are prepared to try something a bit different to the usual bustling pub environment.
Create an atmosphere
If people come along to your event, they're probably turning down the opportunity to watch the game at home, or in a bar with friends. In either of those settings, they'd have had the chance to shout, leap about, and either celebrate or commiserate with others. So make sure that you are creating a scenario where people feel comfortable to relax and enjoy the game as they might anywhere else. Some of this is affected by lighting, how the seats are arranged, and how formal or informal the welcome is. If possible, try not to make the venue feel like a church or hall, but more like a party space.
Football fans like snacks, and yes, they tend to like a drink too. Most people aren't looking to sink ten pints while they watch their dreams of international sporting glory die before their eyes, but they do like a social beer or two. It may be that this isn't possible due to the theology or regulations attached to your church, but if you're relaxed about the idea of social drinking in a John chapter 2 sense, then why not provide a donation-based bar (I've never known such a thing to be particularly abused). And even if you can't do that, make sure you at least purchase your own body weight in crisps, pretzels and nuts.
Don't scrimp on the screen
Here's the big advantage that most churches have over the majority of pubs and homes: access to one or more giant screens. This is one of the key reasons why people will agree to attend your event, so take a bit of care in advance to ensure that your projection and sound system have been optimised for the event. In no circumstances should you screen a football match at church on one of those ancient 28-inch TVs that you wheel out on a trolley. If you do this, everyone will leave, and within a few short years your church may well die as an indirect result.
Remember: no-one came to hear you preach
As promised, here's the inevitable horror story from my own ministry. I was part of a youth ministry team that put on a screening of England vs France in Euro 2004 (a game which went horribly wrong on every level). I decided that having got the young people to recruit their friends in huge numbers to what we'd billed as a social event, I would betray all of their trusts by giving an impromptu gospel presentation in half-time. Within two minutes I'd realised my mistake from the horror on every face in the room; I'd essentially committed the awful sin of tricking people into church. So unless you've explicitly billed a talk as part of the event, don't see this as a stealth opportunity to hit sinful football fans over the head with the four-point gospel.
This kind of event doesn't need to be complicated. All people are looking for is a relaxed environment where they feel welcome, get to consume a few redundant calories and won't be judged if they cry. Churches are great at almost all of these things; if you bear the simple rules above in mind, there's no reason why your World Cup event can't be a roaring success. Get planning!