Christmas Eve Sunday began early for Andrew Kneisler. He woke up before sunrise and clothed himself in layers. Kneisler left his home in Overland Park, Kan., and arrived at Arrowhead Stadium with friends to attend the Kansas City Chiefs’ home game.
Tailgating, as is the case at all NFL games, was in full sizzle that morning throughout the parking lot. Despite the temperature being below 30 degrees, thousands of fans grilled their favorite meats, discussed football and played catch with coats and gloves. Kneisler, along with several other fans, exited the parking lot around 9:15 a.m. He participated in another ritual that is not offered in every NFL stadium.
Inside the Pavilion, just south of the stadium, Kneisler, who wore a gray Chiefs ball cap and hoodie, entered the room to praise Jesus.
Kneisler, 48, sat with his friends on white folded chairs aligned to resemble pew rows. Most of the conjoining congregation of about 200 people wore red Chiefs jackets, hats and jerseys. They began their service, FCA’s Faith and Family Chapel, the way most churches do on Sunday mornings: by singing to the Lord.
“Jesus, I sing for all that You’ve done for me,” they sang.
Since 2014, the Chiefs, through their partnership with FCA, have offered their fans a nondenominational Christian pregame chapel service, the only such recurring onsite faith event in the NFL. With tailgating before games being an integral part of the NFL experience, Chiefs fans have the opportunity to attend the chapel since most are forced to miss their usual Sunday worship service for a game that starts at noon.
Kneisler, a real estate agent, was thrilled to be singing worship songs with fellow believers before watching the Chiefs in person.
“With the games being on Sunday, it answers a dilemma of where’s my heart really at,” Kneisler said of the chapel, which he first attended two years ago. “It’s a great place to worship without having to rationalize what’s this game really worth.”
Vance Watt, the worships arts pastor of The Word at Shaw Church in St. Louis, led the crowd in three worship songs — “This is Amazing Grace,” “Chain Breaker” and “Good Good Father.”
With Christmas the following day, Jared Crabtree delivered the message, one that didn’t just center on Jesus Christ’s birth.
In a red Chiefs jacket and ball cap, Crabtree, the director of student ministry at Redeemer Kansas City Church, held the Bible and explained the joy of his first child, a son, being born. He pointed at his 7-year-old son, Samson, who was in the crowd. Crabtree opened his Bible and read Luke 2:8-14, the angel’s joyful announcement of Jesus’ birth. He then challenged the congregation to celebrate Jesus Christ beyond just his birthday, to worship Him and His sacrifice throughout their life.
“He came with a mission to save humanity,” Crabtree told the fans of Jesus Christ. “That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, that God came in the flesh with a plan to rescue us from our sin.”
A Chiefs fan, among others, sings a worship song during a chapel service this season.
In his 17-minute sermon, Crabtree explained Jesus Christ’s purpose on earth — how He was a perfect human in a broken world, how He led the 12 disciples and how his joyous birth ultimately led to his necessary death. Crabtree prayed that God would change the hearts in the crowd, that more people would turn to Him.
Crabtree finished his message by encouraging the crowd to reflect, especially during Christmas, on the power of God’s grace.
“He hangs on the cross and accomplishes the will of God to purchase our redemption,” Crabtree said of Jesus Christ. “That is the greatest news in the universe. That is the gospel. That is worth celebrating. That’s why Christmas even exists.”
The service concluded with communion, a first for this season.
Clark Hunt, the Chiefs’ chairman and CEO, attended the service with his wife, Tavia. The couple brought their three children, and the family sat in the back row.
“It’s neat that he makes the effort for him and his family to come,” Kris Thomas, an FCA area representative in Kansas, said of Hunt. “I guarantee on Christmas Eve they have a lot people out there who would like their time. And yet they make this a priority. I haven’t been here where they haven’t been here."
Hunt, 52, became the Chiefs’ chairman in 2005. He, along with his siblings, inherited ownership of the team after his father, Lamar, died in 2006. Since then, Clark Hunt has employed a chaplain for the team.
Tavia and Clark Hunt, the Chiefs' chairman and CEO, regularly attend the chapel service.
He hired Phillip Kelley, a former college baseball player who became a pastor, to be the Chiefs’ chaplain in August 2013. The following season, the two men began having conversations about more than just the team’s players and coaches. What could they do for the community? Clark, with the support of Tavia, asked Kelley to figure out what would be needed to do a Sunday chapel service for fans.
Kelley, a pastor at Grace Church in Overland Park at the time, called Marcellus Casey, who was FCA’s Kansas City area director at the time. Within two weeks, Kelley and Casey presented their idea: A 45-minute service at the Pavilion with supported resources from FCA.
Clark approved. Two weeks later, Kelley and FCA staff members wore black Faith and Family Chapel T-shirts. They arrived at the stadium’s parking lot at 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2014, and began inviting fans to the chapel.
“I love it because it’s evangelism,” said Alex Campbell, FCA’s Kansas City center area director who has volunteered at every chapel service. “You get to walk alongside people who you don’t get to meet every day. I’m all for that.”
Mike DeVito, a former Chiefs defensive lineman, delivered the message at the first chapel. More than 350 people filled the Pavilion with Hunt and his wife included in the crowd. Kelley shared his joy of the first experience on his website. He wrote, “It was one of the most incredible ministry experiences I’ve ever witnessed.” He also noted that eight people that day gave their lives to Jesus Christ.
“You’re establishing a new culture,” Campbell said. “You get to see this thing come to a fruition where lives can be changed. Now people are actually saying, ‘If this happens, then I’ll get season tickets (for next year).’ The service has that much of an impact, and the season-ticket holders are saying, ‘We need this.’ It’s got to be fulfillment for the Hunt family for even having the vision.”
Two women told Thomas they, after attending their first chapel service together, have never missed one since. They plan their Sunday game days on arriving at Arrowhead Stadium early — and no longer for just tailgating.
Seeing the blessings from the Chiefs’ chapel, Campbell and Thomas hope other NFL teams will following in providing a service for fans.
The Buffalo Bills are the first team to take such action. Last year, William Hein visited the Chiefs’ chapel. Hein, who is with the New York-based Kingdom Bound Ministries, followed Campbell to observe every detail of the service. Hein then convinced Bills owner Terry Pegulas and his wife Kim to organize a one-time chapel service this year with the hopes of offering one for every home 1 p.m. game next season.
Called Church at the Game, the nondenominational Christian chapel was an hour-long service on Dec. 17 before the Bills hosted the Miami Dolphins. FCA and Athletes in Action provided support as partners. The event, which was held at the Bill’s training center, which is adjacent to their stadium, attracted more than 400 fans.
A week later, on a chilly Christmas Eve morning, the Chiefs completed their fourth regular season of having their chapel. When fans began to exit the Pavilion around 10:30 a.m., Clark thanked the team’s supporters for attending the chapel. A few fans told Clark, “Go Chiefs!” as they went back outside to continue their tailgating.
“Sometimes the gospel can go places and be in spots that people are not expecting,” Kneisler said. “There’s an element that says, ‘You matter,’ and it’s a place to feel like it’s not just about the event. Having an owner that allows that to happen is pretty special.”
FCA staff members and volunteers pray before each chapel service for the fans who will attend.
Photos courtesy of Jeffrey Klepac.