December 1, 2020

The IM Newsroom: Pizza, Youth Evangelism Relationship Celebrated

pizz.jpgThe 50th anniversary of one of the most productive relationships in Christianity was celebrated this week at Zondervan’s “Youth Ministry Hall of Fame” in Nashville as pizza finally received a long overdue recognition for its contribution to youth evangelism.

Wally Bennell, a Presbyterian youth worker from La Conquista, California, was the first person on record to lure teenagers to an evangelistic event under the guise of free pizza. Bennell’s widow, Arlette, attended the Hall of Fame ceremony and accepted the “Life Achievement In Evangelistic Innovation” award.

Hall of Fame Curator Skip Towne put Bennell’s contribution in perspective. “It was 1955, and youth ministry hadn’t yet really shown what it was capable of contributing to the church. Wally Bennell knew what young people all over La Conquista California were wanting from the church: free pizza. He stepped out, took a risk on something new, and millions of Christians around the world- and in heaven- owe Wally an eternal round of applause.”

A “Celebration of Pizza and Youth Ministry,” sponsored by Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and 18 other national pizza chains, took place at City Central Park with thousands of local youth groups enjoying pizza and contemporary praise music by Third Day. After the pizza fest, a group of speakers and musicians spoke about what pizza had meant to their own Christian journey.

Youth evangelist Toby Mazolli’s story was typical. A former New York City street gang member, Mazolli’s life was changed when St. Paul’s United Methodist Church began giving away pizza before a Friday night youth rally.

“I wasn’t coming in the doors unless they fed me. That’s just the kind of person I was. I was a long way from the Lord, and I wasn’t coming to church without a good reason. Pizza got me into church and kept me there. I don’t know where I would be without pizza.”

Shelia Warren, Vice-President for Development at Florida Baptist University, also spoke of Pizza’s role in her spiritual turnaround.

“I was always looking for a reason to stop going to church, especially in college, but the weekly pizza at our church’s college Bible study got me through a lot of tough times. Sometimes I would just take an extra piece with me to get through the week. I’d open my little dorm refrigerator, see that slice of sausage pizza, and remember that God was still there.”

Pastor Bob Worth said that pizza was a key to the success of his 18,000 member megachurch.

“Without a doubt, our commitment to free pizza has resulted in thousands of people coming to Christ. Pizza says that we love you and God loves you. No matter what kind of person you’ve been or what you’ve done, you like pizza, and that’s a significant first step toward the Gospel.”

Worth’s church spent over $31,000 on pizza last year.

International Missions expert Wilson Larue shared how pizza is revolutionizing world missions.

“Pizza is going places that even “The Jesus Film” won’t go. Students in Japanese universities will listen to a Gospel presentation if pizza is available. I believe that one day we’ll see breakthroughs in the 10/40 window because pizza was in there long before missionaries could evangelize.”

Several youth ministries were recognized for outstanding uses of pizza in evangelism.

Thousand Oaks Christian Church in Austin, Texas was recognized for giving away free pizza with a copy of “The Message” in every box.

Rick Warren’s Saddleback Valley Church was recognized for a “Purpose Driven Life with Free Pizza” campaign that was used by thousands of churches. A follow-up, “Forty Days of Pizza and Devotions,” has already set records for participation. Warren plans to send pizza to every resident of Rwanda next year.

Joel Osteen’s Church now allows pizza to be delivered in during the sermon, and the church’s youth are invited to the world’s largest pizza supper every Sunday night. Osteen said that, “God’s favor seems to be on the pepperoni.”

Many churches sent in reports of how pizza had sustained dying church programs, such as youth choirs, VBS and Wednesday Night youth activities.

Youth Minister Marty Acorn was overcome with emotion when Ralph’s Royal Pizza founder Harold Smith presented Acorn with a year’s supply of free pizza.

“Our little youth group is about to die, and this will make an incredible difference. I don’t know how to thank you.”

Seminars on pizza and youth evangelism brought together veterans of using pizza with ministries looking for new and better ways of utilizing pizza. Some of the seminars included…

“Seekers Pizza.”
“Multiplying Your Free Pizza Ministry.”
“Ethnic and International Pizza.”
“Praise and Pizza.”
“The Praying Pizza.”
“Senior Adult Pizza.”
“Pizza In The Sanctuary: A Guide to Cleaning Supplies.”
“Pizza and the Regulative Principle.”
“What Pizza Would Jesus Eat?”
“Images of Jesus in Pizza.”
“The Anointed Pizza.”
“Free Will and Pizza.”
“Pizza in the Baptistry.”
“Infant Pizza Ministry.”

A “Pizza and Youth Ministry” display in the Youth Ministry Hall of Fame will be open to the public for the rest of the month.

Not everyone was supportive of the recognition of such an effective marriage of ministry and food.

Bill Jenson, an elder from North Little Rock’s Faith Community Bible Church, protested outside the Hall of Fame.

“Pizza is never mentioned in the New Testament, and any church that uses it has shown it has no respect for the Word of God.”

Jenson suggested that pizza was part of the “emerging church” heresy.

“Emerging churches use things like pizza, candles and mazes to lure in people with no interest in the Bible. I’d warn everyone to avoid churches that use pizza or anything else that Jesus never endorsed.”

Jenson refused a free pizza sent out to him by several youth ministers at the conference.


  1. Caelius Spinator says

    At my college campus ministry, we took turns cooking the meal we shared after our main service on Sunday night. People generally liked the fairly simple stuff I cooked, but they really liked it when I made pizza.

    My favorite meal of those years was when a visiting priest brought a big steaming pot of chicken and sausage gumbo. God’s favor seems to rest on andouille sausage.

    I know this whole piece is a parody. And it’s very funny as such. But it reminds me that a strong evangelical message is much better expressed by the food you cook yourself than whatever you order from Papa John’s.

  2. The sin of delivered pizza vs the blessing of homemade….

    another seminar….

  3. *cackle*.

    (Obligatory note: perhaps because most Japanese are lactose intolerant, pizza is the one Western foodstuff it’s almost impossible to find in Japan. I’d have done just about anything for free pizza, if it had been offered while I was there…)

  4. When I was in college, I went to the Presbyterian Fellowship’s Free Pizza night at 6:30pm, but I always found myself at the Baptist Center’s worship service at 7:30pm. Sometimes I felt guilty about leaving the Presbyterians for the Baptists as soon as I had my fill of pizza, but not often. Maybe it was because the Baptists were friendlier and easier to get to know than the Presbyterians. Maybe it was because the Baptists always had brownies and ice cream once their service was over.

  5. I’m not sure how to interpret that piece. Is the moral that free pizza can be good, but anything even moderately good becomes ridiculously comoditized and seminarized (Pay Your Entry Fee Here)?

    I like free pizza. One of the most successful academic organizations I’m a part of has a much more collegiate and informal atmosphere because it nearly drowns members in free pizza. It also is the most helpful in giving useful graduate advice and fostering cross-curicular discussions among the liberal arts. So I see pizza as a very good example of the Church extending a friendly (if optional) guesture.

    At the same time, the Church these days can’t just use something that is useful. They must worship and/or sell it. And then repackage it every year as the New Great Thing.

  6. This piece has given me the courage to start a “Blessed Are the Pizza-Makers” seminar at my church. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but God has given me a sense of pizza about it.

  7. We always said Middle Schooler would give up their grandmother for free pizza.

  8. Y’know, I actually started going to church because of a youth night with pizza. Bring your own topping to share, bake it in the church oven sort of thing.

    And now, I’m a Christian. True story.

    If I ever do get involved in youth ministry of any sort, I will try to remember to use pizza as a hook. It worked on me.

    Years ago, when I was a Baptist, I taught the youth Sunday school for a while. I tried to remember to bring breakfast treats for the kids every week. Usually just the thaw and bake cinnamon rolls, but it really was appreciated. Sometimes, when we feed the body, the spirit has an easier time being fed, too.

    While this sort of looks like a silly parody, there is a lot of truth in this essay.


  9. Brian Pendell says

    Y’know? I’m as dense as a doorknob, so lemme see if I get the point:

    The Church just can’t take a good (or bad idea) as an idea.

    On the one side, you have people who will take that good idea and productize it, commercialize it, make a video, a book, a 40-day church program and an annual conference until the original good idea is drowned under rampant consumerism.

    Then the other side jumps all over the first, and rejects the idea in toto, good as well as bad, because that’s not the way they did things in the NT.

    And both sides are silly.

    Is that it? Or am I totally mis-interpreting?


    Brian P.

    — who alas, does not have the gift of satire —

  10. It seems to me that the point isn’t that free pizza (or any other evangelisation tool) is good or bad, useful or useless. Clearly it can be useful.

    The problem arises when the driving force behind what churches do is making church attractive, reeling people in. In the first place, a church that focuses itself entirely on making itself attractive to non-Christians isn’t likely to also offer much to people who already believe; it becomes multi-level-marketing where, once you believe, the next thing to do is to recruit five more people. Secondly, we treat “more people in church” as the end, rather than the means to a greater end…

  11. There is no hidden key to that piece of satire. It works or it doesn’t.

    BTW- I am a great believer in free pizza. God bless it.

  12. Once in our house church (where we have a meal together weekly), one of our men who was working at Pizza Hut offered to bring pizza for everybody in place of the normal potluck. Several of us chipped in to help with the cost of the pizza. Interestingly enough, the Holy Spirit was completely hindered that night, and now I know why — we didn’t accept the pizza as a free gift. We joined our “works” with it, and ended up ruining what God wanted to do…. 😉

    Sorry, couldn’t resist adding my own (weak) comedy routine. The above story is actually true, except for the part about the Holy Spirit being hindered!

    steve 🙂

  13. I recently heard a college pastor talk about handing out poptarts in the quad as the greatest evangelistic tool…and he said they’re not LifeWay poptarts, and they don’t have sprinkles in the sign of the cross!

  14. Brian Pendell says

    “BTW- I am a great believer in free pizza. God bless it.”

    Oh, come now, can’t you see the dangers of pizza? Jesus himself warned against the dangers of following him for free food .. (John 6:26 – 27). The primary quote was “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

    Clearly by appealing to man’s base instincts by offering him free food we are hindering the gospel, tempting men to follow Jesus not because they are convicted of sin but because they want to satisfy their ravenous natural appetites. We should rather provide absolutely nothing, so that men may learn to crucify their flesh with it’s sinful desires. It would be far better to have men in church because of their desire for Jesus, not their desire for pizza.

    Besides, human beings naturally have good feelings when they are satiated — God help them, a person might actually feel good after eating a slice and, feeling good from the pizza, start feeling — the horror! — SELF-ESTEEM.

    And that directly contradicts the “T” in “TULIP”. A person who feels good about themselves could forget their total depravity, take their eyes of Jesus, and start down the dark road of “I’m good enough on my own”, thus leading to homosexual acts and drunken orgies in our youth “ministries”. Goodness, the dangers of pizza!

    We know that God hates pizza because his judgement is upon all those who eat it. Those who dare partake of the accursed circle will find themselves growing fat, out of shape, develop high cholesteral and die years before their time, an early death that is the sign of God’s judgement of men. Even as he smote Herod for daring to accept homage as a God, so he will strike the eaters of pizza with heart attacks, high blood pressure, and assorted cancers.

    Pizza is just another Satanic trip to lure people away from the faith and draw them into the bowels of hell.

    Coming soon to a Jack Chick comic near you, with illustrations of young whole-some looking teenagers eating pizza and then burning in hell in the last panel, with Satan laughing at them.

    MASSIVELY tongue-in-cheek,

    Brian P.

    This has been a pitiful attempt at a joke. In the event of an actual joke, you would have been rolling in laughter. This concludes operations under the Emergency Joke System. Normal flaming commentary operations will now resume.

  15. *snicker, snort*

    Oh dear Lord…how many times in my 11 years as a Yute worker did we attach the “Free Pizza” tag to any and all outreach shingdigs??

    Mike…that was priceless…I suggest sending it to Youth Specialties, Zondervan and The Wittenburg Door…at least The Wittenburg Door will appreciate it!!


  16. In all honesty, I actually thought that this was a legitimate story for the entire first half. In fact, this statement made me realize that it was actually a parody, “Warren plans to send pizza to every resident of Rwanda next year.” I don’t know if I’m just gullible or if it just wouldn’t surprise if someone did try to pull something like this.


  17. I have just two questions (so far):
    (1) Will there be kosher pizza for Messianic Jews?
    (2) Will the pizza be consecrated by someone in apostolic succession?

  18. This is a joke, right? (As with much of evangelical Christianity, it’s hard to tell.)

  19. An old Christian truth comes to mind:
    “If there ain’t no eatin’ there ain’t no meetin'”

  20. alan rogers says

    You can order in delivery at Joel Osteen’s church? Where’d you find that tasty tidbit?
    -big al

  21. You got me, Al. I made it up.

  22. The sad thing is that I actually thought for a while that this post might possibly be real.

  23. You mean it was a joke???!!!???

  24. J. K. Terberg says

    This brings to mind a 30 hour famine youth event at my home church:
    Of course it was concluded with a pizza-fest, but…
    One of the teenagers had never fasted for more than 2 hours in his life and it showed. He had to work during part of the evening of the 30 hour famine youth night. He worked for a pizza shop as a delivery man. While driving to a delivery, he seriously began to wonder if he would survive the fast and thought that his very life may be in jeopardy. So he took what he felt was the most logical course of action: He opened up a customer’s pizza box and helped himself to a piece. When he delivered the pizza, he explained that the pizza had a piece missing because he had been fasting all day and that if he would not have eaten it he would have passed out while driving. Apparently, the customer was too dumbfounded to give much of a response.
    Good for pizza to save a life.