New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow drew a crowd of about 15,000 to an outdoor Easter church service Sunday, telling the gathering it's important to be outspoken about faith while admonishing athletes about not being better role models.
"In Christianity, it's the Pope and Tebow right now," Celebration Church pastor Joe Champion said. "We didn't have enough room to handle the Pope."
Tebow -- devout Christian, backup NFL quarterback and cultural phenomenon -- has a flock of admirers drawn as much to his religious leanings as his Heisman Trophy skills.
Tebow told them he welcomed the attention on his convictions, as well as the "Tebowing" prayer pose he often strikes on the field, because it puts his faith and prayer in the public conversation.
"I really don't think I was the first athlete to get on a knee and pray and it's funny because I've actually had the same routine for the last seven years and just this year they started calling it Tebowing," Tebow said. "I do think it's pretty cool because at least prayer is being talked about. My biggest prayer is for a high school kid to get on a knee and pray and it's not something that's unique or different."
The service was peppered with lively Christian rock songs, and Tebow hit the large stage to cheers from those who could see him, while others toward the back of the crowd watched on massive video screens. Tebow sat for a 20-minute interview with Champion to talk about his faith and the role it plays in his public life.
"It's OK to be outspoken about your faith," Tebow said.
He also took a shot at professional athletes who insist they are not role models.
"Yes you are. You're just not a good one," Tebow said.
Champion asked Tebow what he thought needed to change culturally in America.
"First and foremost is what this country was based on: one nation under God. The more that we can get back to that," Tebow said to applause.
The event had the feeling of a rock concert with hundreds of school buses shuttling crowds to the sprawling mega-church from nearby shopping malls. The church invited people to bring lawn chairs and blankets for the two-hour service under sunny skies.
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Debbie Sandoval and her husband and two sons arrived before sunrise wearing Tebow's Jets jerseys and set up camp close to the large soundstage with a row of chairs. Additional large video screens and loudspeakers were set up for those toward the back.
"I love that boy ... He's like my third son," said Sandoval, who is not a regular member of the church but wasn't going to miss a chance to hear Tebow speak.
"Everything about this young man's extraordinary life is special," Sandoval said.
Media access to the event was tightly controlled inside the roped-off field. Reporters were required to have an escort when walking through the crowd, and photographers were not allowed inside during the service. Television cameras were allowed to record only a portion of Tebow's speech, and no live video streaming of the service was permitted.
Church officials initially expected up to 20,000 and said Tebow's appearance on Easter Sunday was coincidental. Church spokeswoman Tara Wall said it was Tebow who reached out to pastor Champion, and Sunday was the best date available.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.