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Butte Pastor Fakes Abbreviated Service for 49ers’ Game
Inside joke quickly became an overnight national sensation

BUTTE — For Pastor Tim Christensen, San Francisco 49ers football trumps church — but only temporarily.

Christensen and his son John pulled a little prank on their parishioners at Gold Hill Lutheran Church on Sunday, catching them off-guard with a one-minute sermon and resulting in a barrage of unintended nationwide media attention.

John, 18, shot a video of the pastor quickly blessing his congregation, then cutting short the second service while invoking the San Francisco 49ers-Carolina Panthers playoff game, which started at 11 a.m.

John posted the video on YouTube, intended only for the church faithful on the Gold Hill Lutheran Church website and Facebook page and maybe the Christensens' personal Facebook pages.

What was meant to be an inside joke quickly became an overnight sensation as media outlets near and far hounded Christensen all day Monday with interview requests and permission to repost the video.

"Would you all like to be forgiven for your sins?" Pastor Christensen asks his congregation right out of the gate on the video.

"Yes!" they shout.

"OK. That's great. You are," he quickly blessed.

Then came a truncated explanation to a giggling congregation:

"Those of you who weren't at the earlier service, you may not be aware that there's a football game," Pastor Tim tells them. "Not that I have a vested interest in this game or the outcome of it, whatsoever. I just thought we'd have an abbreviated service."

He then kisses each bicep, Colin Kaepernick-style, and flashes open his white robe to reveal a Superman-style San Francisco 49ers T-shirt to abundant laughter. It's Christensen's spot-on impersonation of his favorite quarterback of his life-long favorite NFL team.

The video ends there, but Christensen held a complete second service that wasn't recorded.

"We went back in and did a full service for about an hour," he said. "We had the game on DVR, so later our whole family went on a self-imposed media blackout, which is just like the opposite of what today is."

Christensen perfectly predicted Kaepernick's move later, when the QB stole the Superman part of the pantomime from opposing quarterback Cam Newtown in an in-your-face move after scoring a touchdown. The Niners beat the Panthers 23-10 to advance to the NFC championship game against Seattle on Jan. 19.

By the time the Christensens woke up Monday morning, they had gotten 4,000 hits on John's YouTube.com channel. That number swiftly rose to 16,000 hits, then 80,000. By midmorning Tuesday, it boasted 368,000 hits and counting.

But that's just the tip of the media attention lathered on the pastor. The shortened sermon caught fire, as he was interviewed by many major media outfits: ESPN, Bleacher Report, The Sporting News, The Today Show, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, Good Morning America, Fox Sports News, Yahoo Sports News, TMZ Sports and DeadSpin. Even Yahoo Eurosport.com picked it up.

"Really, this has just been crazy," said John, a 2013 Butte High graduate who volunteers at the Butte Emergency Food Bank and Frontier Home Health and Hospice. "I can't differentiate between real life and dreaming because I had a dream about this last night."

On Monday afternoon, Pastor Christensen awaited word from The San Francisco Chronicle and several Bay Area radio stations clamoring to touch his Niners-lovin' robe for an interview.

Raised in Northern California, Christensen has been a Niner Faithful since 1972, when he attended his first game in the former Candlestick Park.

His parents, John and Anna Marie Avanzio, still live in San Francisco. Like the pastor and his family, they're lapping up the attention.

My 90-year-old dad is lovin' this," said Christensen. "He's cracking' up."

The pastor and his son joked about revealing the Superman T-shirt in Sunday services, so John made sure he sat in the front row, camera in hand.

"I knew he'd done it," Christensen said. "It was so weird to watch it. In the moment it was funny."

Despite a few complaints from a Southern radio station and an unnamed Texan who already filed a written complaint with Christensen's bishop, the joke appears quite harmless.

Fielding the slew of media requests Monday severely interfered with Pastor Christensen's day job, which he takes quite seriously.

"I'm trying to do my work as a pastor in this community, too," he said "I'm a Niner Faithful, but I'm also a faithful Christian and a pastor of the church."
 
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