It was almost time for lunch, and they knew it. The middle school girls at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) basketball camp were finishing their small group bible study as the clock approached noon. Their eyes wandered to the lunch boxes lined up against the wall as I hurried to get in a few final points and a closing prayer. After the “amen”, the girls scrambled to join the fray of the other campers eating sandwiches and playing games.

Over the sound of bouncing balls and laughter during the lunch break, the camp staff discussed the successes and failures they experienced in their groups. Some of us shared stories of good conversations with our kids, while others seemed to see no signs of spiritual growth. I was one of the discouraged ones.

The girls in my group didn’t want to answer any of the questions on our discussion sheet or volunteer personal information. On top of that, we lost all of our games against other teams in the competition sessions. I felt like a failure as a coach and counselor, and I wondered if they were learning anything or even enjoying their time at camp. It wasn’t until the last afternoon of camp that I found out that the Lord could use me for His ministry even when I thought that I was completely ineffective.

I sat on a mat with two sixth grade girls who were enjoying their post-game popsicles. In the last few hours of the camp, they opened up to me and I finally got to see their goofy, fun-loving, and passionate IMG_1324twelve-year old personalities. They told me about their families, friends at school, and favorite activities. They gave me hugs and told me how much they loved our group as they left with their parents at the end of camp. Basketball gave me a chance to bond and share the word of God with these girls that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

All across the United States, FCA uses this kind of sports setting to connect with many groups of people. There are day camps for elementary and middle school students, campus groups called huddles for high school and college students, and bible studies and outreaches specifically for coaches.

Their mission is, in summary, to unite people based on their passion for sports and use it to ignite a passion for Jesus.

According to FCA’s 2014 ministry report, over 1,200 people are on staff and working worldwide to spread the Gospel through sports. These staff members, along with thousands of other volunteers and community members, distributed 192,055 bibles over the course of the year. Individual donors, who believe so earnestly in the power of sports ministry that they give of their own personal money to fund it, were the biggest financial contributors to FCA in 2014.

Lauren, a senior student athlete at a Midwest college, is another one of the many believers in the power of sports ministry. After attending FCA camps and high school meetings as a high school student, she decided to continue her involvement in the ministry throughout college as a leader. She said, “Sports ministries like FCA are effective because of the unique atmosphere they create.  They provide a time for students to meet new people who share the love of sports, as well as a love for God.”

Another student athlete, Leah, had an impactful experience attending FCA summer camps as a high school student. “I specifically remember one year having a coach who truly taught me what it means to play for Jesus and use basketball as an act of worship.”

In her college years, she decided to take on the position of leadership that she had been so impacted by. Now, as a huddle leader at a local high school, she sees the fruits of weekly meetings and time spent with students. “The relationships I have been able to make and the willingness the girls have to be mentored and taught the Bible is amazing. They are seeking out Jesus and looking for people to help guide them along.”

Can Christians Really Be Competitive Athletes?

Despite the full-fledged support from many Christians around the world, many others remain skeptical about the value of sports in a ministry context. Mark Oppenheimer wrote an article for Sports Illustrated that questioned whether competitive athletes could truly hold to Christian values.

In the article, Oppenheimer called out CEO of Fellowship of Christian Athletes Les Steckel for what he considered to be hypocritical behavior. Steckel was quoted as being a proponent of the dangerous practice of cut-blocking, or blocking aimed at opponents’ knees, during his time coaching in the NFL. “I’d say, ‘Go cut ’em,'” Steckel recalls, “and they’d say, ‘But they have a career like me.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, they’re trying to take your career away from you.'”

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NFL player Tim Tebow was known for his outspoken Christian faith.

 

Some professing Christian football players were also condemned in the article for their all-out, “leave no prisoners” approach to the game. One said, “My job is to kick them in the head, knee them in the groin, stand over them and tell them never to get up.” Oppenheimer argues that it is too difficult for athletes to separate the Christian morality from the intensity of their sport.

Finally, Oppenheimer references the parable of the talents found in the gospel of Matthew, where each servant is instructed by his master to do the best he can with what he is given.

He writes, “Some Christians conclude from the parable that God wants us to use our God-given abilities as best we can; some sports-obsessed Christians take that conclusion a step further, excusing violence and hypercompetitiveness as obedience to God’s will that athletes do their best.”

Few Christians will actually support this position. In fact, many think that the parable of the talents can serve to remind both athletes and coaches alike that their master is God, and they should look to please him with athletics first and foremost. FCA is one of several organizations that look to spread this mentality worldwide.

Sports Ministry Goes Global

Sports have a power to transcend culture and bring people together. Pastor Al Nucciarone, an FCA staff member living in Israel, has found that athletics are a powerful medium for reaching a wide demographic of people.

Nucciarone, known affectionately in his circles as Pastor Al, initially moved to Israel seven years ago to become the pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church. He partnered with Fellowship of Christian Athletes shortly after, saying it was “a natural fit. In the Middle East, sports are a way of building relationships with people.”

In a place rife with religious conflict, he saw an opportunity to connect with people through the universal language of sports. “Everyone plays sports. They’re very neutral. It’s a way of reaching the gap between Jew and Arab. Once you’re on the playing field, it doesn’t matter.”

Through leagues, camps, and even watching games on TV, Pastor Al ministers to everyone from young children to professional football players. Because of sports, he is able to see people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds connect and come together in ways he never though possible.

One outreach that FCA Israel is involved in is an adult league of American football players from all different backgrounds. Retired NFL players work with the athletes on their football skills, which opens the door for them to share the Gospel. Pastor Al notes, “We have an American football team with Jews and Arabs on the same team. That’s a miracle.”

I asked Pastor Al specifically about the structure of the sports camps he puts on because I was curious to see if they are similar to the FCA camps in the U.S. Somewhat to my surprise, they’re almost exactly the same.

Youth from ages 8-18 attend the camps, and high school and college aged American players act as counselors. At the beginning of each camp session, the kids hear a bible study based on the camp theme. After that, they break into sports specific drills and games. Parents attend an awards meeting on the last evening of camp where all the children receive a certificate, a basketball, and an Arabic bible, and the Gospel is preached.

Pastor Al specifically remembers one successful camp in 2013. “There were 300 people in the room for the awards ceremony, including many Muslims. An evangelist preached a message on the camp theme, ‘Christ the relentless one’. Afterwards, half of the people in the room stood up to receive the Lord, including five Muslim women in full traditional attire.” The new believers received follow up from a local ministry and had the opportunity to join a bible study.

“To me, that was worth it all,” he said. “All the training and sports has to lead to that. To see people respond to the Gospel was the greatest thing.”

While Pastor Al is still in the minority of FCA staff members because he serves overseas, the popularity of sports related missions trips and outreach is increasing. A recent group of athletes from Baylor University is one of many college-aged teams of athletes that travel internationally to do sports ministry. They flew to Zambia in May 2014 to share the Gospel and provide aid to those in need.

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Baylor athletes play with children in Zambia.

Many of their athletes were amazed at how they were able to overcome challenges of cultural and language differences with the locals simply by sharing a playing field with them.

Women’s basketball player Epiphany Clark wrote on an online blog, “One challenge for us has been communication at times. While most speak English, sometimes words or phrases are not translated over and we have simply turned to sports to bridge the gap. Through sports we have been able to communicate, but through the sharing our of faith and the gospel we were able to truly impact (more like be impacted     by) our new sisters and brothers here in Ndola.”

Is Sports Ministry Here to Stay?

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There’s no denying it – youth sports themselves are on the rise around the nation and the world. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association in 2011, 21.5 million kids between the ages of 6 and 17 played sports in the U.S. alone. Many studies show that sports lower rates of obesity and drug use in adolescents.

Besides the physical benefits, sports also provide children with opportunities to learn social skills, teamwork, and fairness. Basketball courts and soccer fields around the world are training grounds for millions of young people, in more ways than one.

Sports ministries like Fellowship of Christian Athletes have more than kept up with the increasingly competitive sports world. In 2014, FCA’s sixtieth year of operation, the ministry increased its monthly revenue from donors by 67%, added more people to its staff, and expanded its publications to reach wider audiences.

FCA is not satisfied to simply increase its performance in statistics. The ministry holds its vision “to see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of players and coaches” as its foremost goal. As long as people continue to put balls through hoops and score goals, FCA and other sports ministries will continue to have people to minister to worldwide. No matter the language, age, or cultural background, people can see the love of the Christ through their love for the game.

Pastor Al summarized the most valuable part of sports ministry when he told me why he chose to dedicate himself to serving people through athletics. “Sports break a barrier. They can be a means of peace, though ultimately through Jesus. Everyone meets on the same level on the playing field.”