SAN DIEGO, Calif. A handful of San Diego Padres players are planning to deliver some powerful punches Aug. 31 as the team faces the Los Angeles Dodgers at Petco Park.
And while they intend do some solid swinging at home base, it's their moves after the game that could have eternal consequences as they share their testimonies in the annual Fellowship Night, sponsored by Padres Chaplain Doug Southerland and the National Network of Youth Ministries.
"Our goal is to get as many people as we can to bring their unsaved friends to hear the gospel," said Ric Tolhust of the National Network. "That's been our heart's desire."
The ministry signed on at the request of Southerland, who was seeking to beef up attendance at Fellowship Night, which originated more than a decade ago at the Padres' former home at Qualcomm Stadium.
So far the partnership appears to be working. Advance tickets for group sales were 3,500 as of July 19. Last year about 2,000 fans participated in the after-game event. The largest crowd ever topped out at more than 5,000 after a visit by the New York Yankees.
"We are really making a much more concerted effort," the chaplain said.
Southerland, who leads three separate Sunday morning chapels for the Padres players, the visiting team and the umpires when the club is in town, said these types of outreaches are an effective evangelism tool.
"I find that people are interested in the players' lives outside of what they see on the ball field," he said.
The spiritual adviser said it's also important that the players become comfortable sharing their stories, since so many young people see them as role models. As more and more athletes are making headlines for criminal behavior off of the field, Southerland said those who lead a Christian lifestyle have an important counter message about character.
"My worldview is that God created us, God designed us and the more God is at the center or our lives, the more we reach the design He intended for us to be," he said.
Among those scheduled to speak at the event are Trevor Hoffman, Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzales, Josh Bard and Scott Linebrink.
In addition to his 15-minute chapel services, Southerland offers a weekly Bible study when the team is at home. Several times a year he will head out with them on the road and conduct a Bible study then.
In an era of free agency, mid-season trades and skyrocketing salaries, Southerland said the face and chemistry of his sandlot flock varies from year to year.
"I've had very lean times with very few players," he said.
Last year, he added, he had the most Christian players ever. This year's class ranks second.
"We are thinking this (Fellowship Night) is the first step and that it will continue to grow," Southerland said.
Both Tolhurst and Southerland said they were aware of the Pride night protest, but said they have not heard of any repercussions that might affect their event.
"I haven't had any calls," Tolhurst said.
Southerland said fan access to the players is too big of an evangelistic opportunity to bypass.
"Our goal is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and get them into a place, a church where they can be ministered to," the chaplain said.
"It's not for the Christians even thought the name (Fellowship Night) implies it. It's for the Christians to bring their non-Christian friends."
Such was the case last year when a woman from Southerland's church brought her unsaved brother to the event
"He wanted to stay and hear what they had to say," Sutherland said. "I don't know if he was saved at the event, but it certainly started something in him. Within the year, he died of cancer."
If you go
What: Fellowship Night at the San Diego Padres (vs. Dodgers)
When 7:05 p.m. Aug. 31
Where: Petco Park
Scheduled speakers: Trevor Hoffman, Jake Peavy, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Bard and Scott Linebrink
Sponsors: Padres' Chaplain Doug Southerland and National Network of Youth Ministries.
Tickets: For individual tickets go to www.padres.com and click on the tickets button underneath the search box, click on the group information sales link on the left column, then click on the group ticket window link. Login: fellowship. Password: padres
Group sales: For blocks of 25 tickets or more, contact Karin Warner at firstname.lastname@example.org.