BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – They arrive with their game faces on: Teenagers keyed up about a game of dodgeball.

But before the balls begin flying, youth pastor Allen Sasser-Goehner gathers the more than 40 players in the shade of a city park to lay down rules. He grabs a well-thumbed Bible, turns to Romans and reads, then briefly talks about encouraging one another, standing together and pursuing more than one’s own pleasure.

Everyone silently joins hands and prays. Among them are teens who attend Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and others who simply came along with a friend for a good time. They ask God to be with them and to spare them any broken bones.

Christian youth leaders in Montana and other spots around the country consider dodgeball more than just a game. For them, it’s also a way to bring together teens from different denominations – and most importantly – bring Jesus Christ to young people who are seldom in church.

It helps that dodgeball is enjoying a resurgence, thanks in part to last year’s hit comedy movie, “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story.”

“It’s a good recruiting tool,” said Gary Branae, youth director at Billings’ American Lutheran. “It’s easier to get them to something like that than Bible studies.”

Paul Hansen, who oversees student ministries at the evangelical church Faith E., said it’s difficult to help teens see that Jesus is relevant. “You have to be creative and do things that intrigue them,” he said.

On any given week, 80 to 100 high school students attend youth group at Hansen’s church, but a dodgeball tournament the congregation held earlier this year attracted more than 200 students, most of whom were not tied to the Billings’ ministry, he said.

To get students to come, youth-group regulars like Thor Kanning wore white T-shirts to school that simply read: “Join My Team.”

“Kids would come and say, ‘Why are you doing this?”‘ Kanning, 16, recalled after the recent dodgeball tournament, where he played with Sasser-Goehner’s church, King of Glory Lutheran. “You’d say, ‘It’s because we want to fellowship to you and reach out to you.”‘

This “relational outreach” focuses on forging friendships before sharing faith.

“Me, personally, when kids are new, I don’t want to hit them up right over the head talking about God,” said Shayna Skalicky, youth director with Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

She couldn’t say for sure how many teens have started attending youth group or services after the church’s first big dodgeball tournament, but she said numbers are just one way to gauge success. The main goal is building relationships, and dodgeball has opened doors to new ones with young people they normally wouldn’t see in church, she said.

The same is true at Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian. The church’s Cat DaCosta said three or four people who came to play dodgeball at Peachtree are now taking part in small-group studies of the Rick Warren best-seller “The Purpose Driven Life.” Church activities are often advertised with fliers or posters and players are also invited, DaCosta said.

“We let people know it’s here, and try to open the door to them,” she said.

The only thing that seemed to be on the minds of the kids playing dodgeball recently in Billings was staying in the game.

The Attack Frogs won last season’s big Dodge Down tournament and the now-coveted trophy, a gold-sprayed piece of hardware comprised of a secondhand cup and partially deflated rubber ball. The trophy wasn’t at stake in mid-September’s season-opening tournament, though some of the kids played like it was.

Two boys yelled as they rushed to the line to choose their weapons. But there was also acknowledgment by players of an opponent’s sweet move or a nice catch by a teammate at a critical point in the game. Some moms were there, offering support and soda pop.

In the heat of battle, and occasional confusion on the rules, tempers never flared. No curses were heard.

“I know people that get really into it and get really intense,” said 17-year-old Ryan Brady, who counts himself among them. “And then, when get they get ‘out,’ and they’re standing in line, they realize it’s just a game.”

That’s how 15-year-old Zane Goll feels. Goll, who attends an evangelical Foursquare Church but was playing with his friend Charlie’s American Lutheran team, said he just wants to have a good time with his friends – and, maybe, score one for the smaller guys.

“It’s fun and anyone can play it,” he said. “You don’t have to be superjock or a super-athletic guy. You can be an average kid and go out and play ball.”

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