Outreach in an ESPN World

Hundreds of churches take the Great Commission onto the playing field – reaching children, youth and adults through the universal appeal of sports. Is your church ready to compete?

Would Jesus ride a mountain bike?

Terry Ash discovered the answer four years ago after moving his family to Granite Bay, Calif. At the time, he was “a casual Christian, who sporadically attended church and didn’t serve in any way.”

But when he went mountain biking with his Hewlett-Packard co-workers, Ash met Steve Keller, director of the mountain bike division for Bayside Adventure Sports (BAS), a ministry of Bayside Church in Granite Bay (baysideonline.com). Ash connected with Keller and soon joined the BAS gang on monthly rides. 

 “I remember coming home effusive and telling my wife, ‘God rides a mountain bike,’ ” Ash, 51, recalls. “Since then I’ve made many friends at Bayside and I attend every Sunday, tithe regularly and serve in the ministry. BAS has been a ‘God thing’ for me and brought me to a relationship with Christ I never experienced before.”

Keller and other ministry leaders believe Ash is representative of an untapped mission field—today’s sports sector. “More than 90% of Americans are engaged on a weekly basis in some aspect of playing, observing or being occupied by sports and recreation, including fitness,” says Rodger Oswald, founder of Church Sports International (churchsports.org; CSI), a California-based ministry helping churches reach their communities through sports.

Through swinging golf clubs, shooting hoops, catching waves and more, churches can meet unchurched children, youth and adults right where their interests are—on the playing field. Learn how and why your church should get in the game of life-changing sports evangelism.

Obsession … or Outreach Opportunity?

According to a 1999 Sports Illustrated study, Americans spend nearly $250 billion on sports and recreation each year—greater than the annual revenue of Ford, General Motors and Chrysler corporations combined. And if people aren’t playing, they’re watching sports, thanks to 24-hour sports channels like ESPN, NFL Network and Versus. When the Indianapolis Colts played the Chicago Bears in 2007’s Super Bowl XLI, 93.2 million viewers made it the second most-watched Super Bowl broadcast in history.

Americans even read about sports, on a plethora of sports-oriented Web sites including FOXSports.com and CBSSportsLine.com, and in magazines such as Sports Illustrated, first published in 1954 and now claiming more than 3 million subscribers and 23 million weekly readers.

“Since that’s what people are doing, it only makes sense for the church to use sports as a platform for sharing the love of Jesus Christ,” says Kerry Wilkerson, director of the sports ministry at 5,200-attendee Healing Place Church (healingplacechurch.org; HPC) in Baton Rouge, La. “The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22, ‘I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means, I might win some.’ I believe that if Paul were alive today, he would be heavily involved in sports ministry.”

If you’ve been thinking that sports—especially those Sunday morning soccer games—hinder your church’s outreach efforts, think again. Today’s sports-obsessed culture offers you an invaluable opportunity to connect with people of all ages in your community.

Calling All Kids

“Sports ministry is an effective tool to reach children with the Gospel,” says Caz McCaslin, founder and president of Upward Unlimited (upward.org), a Spartanburg, S.C.-based national non-profit children’s sports ministry. Upward partners with 1,800 churches of all denominations nationwide to host basketball, cheerleading, soccer and flag football. “Changed hearts and lives are seen in both those who play the sports programs and those who administer the league,” says McCaslin.

Changing lives is the goal at Grace Place in Lamar, Mo. (grace-place.org), a congregation of 73 whose Upward basketball and cheerleading programs drew 265 children this year—only 23 from the church. During the church’s Upward Awards Night, 60 children and adults indicated they had prayed and asked Jesus into their hearts through the sports program. One was 16-year-old Hayden Laepple, who’d played Upward basketball as a child and now volunteers as a referee.

“I believed I was saved, but I wasn’t living how I should,” recalls Laepple. “Then I began to question if I really was a Christian.”

In January, Laepple heard a friend’s testimony during halftime of an Upward game he was refereeing. Before the game was over, Laepple sought Grace Place Pastor Kevin Sheat and prayed to receive Christ—he was baptized the next day. According to Laepple’s testimony, engaging children in sports ministry early on can forge a connection with a church, and encourage them to make true commitments to Christ even after they enter their teens.

Other children’s sports ministries are more customized than Upward. In 2005, members of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, Texas (cabcwaco.org), wanted to reach children with disabilities and their families. So the 6,500-member congregation began a special-needs sports outreach at their church, drawing 25 children to its basketball, football and cheerleading program this year.

“Do the kids and their parents walk away with smiles on their faces? If they do, then the program is successful,” says Barry Miller, Columbus Avenue’s minister of recreation and missions. He’s found that the most important factor in sports outreach—especially with special-needs children—is not having a hidden agenda.

“We’re simply doing this because we care about the parents and their children,” explains Miller. “If they come to our church because of the sports outreach, that’s OK. But if they don’t, that’s OK too because we love them and God loves them.”   

With children’s sports ministry though, if children come, chances are good the parents will too. Last fall, Don Seitz Jr. enrolled his 11-year-old daughter, Kirstin, in a children’s basketball league at Healing Place Church. During the season, he discovered a work-related friend also had a daughter in the league.

Through his friend’s invitation, Seitz, 41, brought his family to HPC in late January, and they immediately felt at home.

“Somewhere between the second and third visit, God began to touch my heart,” he recalls. “God began to transform me. I received Jesus as my savior, and with each passing week, my faith has grown.”

Seitz and his wife, Jeri Ann, now volunteer in the children’s sports ministry.

“I am excited about helping to bring others to Jesus,” Seitz says.

This year, more than 500 children and their families participated in HPC’s baseball and softball leagues, with only half of them from the church.

“Children’s sports are by far our largest emphasis,” Wilkerson says. “We are reaching people by providing a safe, clean, family-friendly environment where the players are introduced to the people of the church, and relationships are built that show the love of Jesus to those who have not yet crossed the line of faith.”

Winning Extreme Youth

Mark Strouse, assistant pastor of youth and outreach at 150-member Bonita Valley Baptist Church in Bonita, Calif. (bonitavalleychurch.com; BVBC), was driving around San Diego two years ago, contemplating ways to reach local teens and young adults with the Gospel, when the answer skated by.

“I noticed skaters all around town, even at the illegal spots where skateboarders were prohibited,” says Strause.

So in November 2005, he brought Christian skaters from Glory Skateboards (gloryskateboards.com) to do a skate outreach in the church’s parking lot.

“To our amazement, we had about 80 skaters attend,” recalls Strouse—and 10 of them committed their lives to Christ. After much prayer, research and a $15,000 donation from the church, Strouse bought his own launch ramps, roll-ins, boxes and rails, and kicked off Eternity Skate Ministry (eternityskate.com) in May 2006. In the past 10 months, 25 skaters have made decisions for Christ.

“I’ll probably keep going until they stop having it,” says 16-year-old Jordache Roybal, who received Christ after one of Strouse’s mini-sermons. “It’s a lot of fun. This is the first church I’ve been to that has something like this, and other churches should do it too because there are a lot of kids like me out there looking for a place to hang out and have something to do.”

Like Bonita Valley, hundreds of churches are attracting a new generation of teens and young adults through increasingly popular extreme sports like skateboarding, surfing, snowboarding, motocross, rock climbing, caving, kayaking, rappelling and white water rafting. Enlisting the help of organizations like Glory Skateboards that have experienced professionals and the right equipment, makes the process both easier and safer for church leaders with little or no extreme-sport knowledge.

But rappelling down a mountainside isn’t the only way churches can use extreme sports to reach youth. Maranatha Chapel in San Diego (maranathachapel.org) recently partnered with Walking on Water (walkingonwater.org), a non-profit organization reaching the global surf community for Christ, to host a premiere of their movie Heart of a Soul Surfer, the story of teen surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm in a shark attack.

“Obviously San Diego is a big surf community, and we have a lot of youth,” says Maranatha Assistant Pastor Gary Lawton. “We knew there would be a big response.”

And there was. In fact, only standing room was available in Maranatha’s 3,000-seat sanctuary. After the movie, Pastor Ray Bentley did an in-person Q&A with Hamilton and ended the evening with a Gospel presentation.

“A few hundred kids raised their hands to receive Christ!” Lawton reports. “Kids need athletes as role models, those who are really excelling in their sports career but using it as a platform to talk about the Lord. Churches just need to find the right kind of sport and athletes to minister to the things their kids are interested in.”

Activating Adults

When 1,800-attendee West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pa. (becominglikeJesus.org), decided to use golf to reach the men in their community, it was for two reasons: More than 30 million U.S. men play golf, and the nature of the game is more personal than basketball or baseball—golf is a non-contact sport providing plenty of time for dialogue on the course.

“Golf is something guys are looking to do already,” says Eric Nesbit, director of the outreach West Shore started in 2006 in partnership with In His Grip Golf Association (inhisgripgolf.com), a nationwide ministry designed to equip Christian golfers to reach their communities with the Gospel. “That’s why sports is so effective as an outreach ministry—because men will do it.”

April through August, the church’s golf league of 25-30 men meets for weekly tee times at a local course, and this summer they plan to host their first golf invitational slotted for 128 people.

“We have seen many nonbelievers come and show more interest in the church because they were invited to the league by a man at our church,” Nesbit relates.

To cultivate relationships in the off-season, Nesbit started an In His Grip Bible study and is planning a golf retreat for next spring.

“Being surrounded by Christian men, hopefully the unchurched will see a difference in us,” he says. “If golf is the tool that gets us there, that’s the goal.”

Also helping churches use sports as tools is Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA; fca.org), the largest Christian sports organization in America reaching out to young athletes. In 2006, FCA intentionally broadened its focus from campus to church—placing salaried individuals in local churches to develop and coordinate all-ages community sports ministries and camps.

“God put on my heart that FCA would be the sports outreach ministry of the church,” says Shane Williamson, FCA’s metro Atlanta director. “We’re currently partnering with eight churches who sense sports could be an amazing outreach opportunity in their community.”

FCA pays half the salary of each church’s sports coordinator, whom the church and FCA select together. “Sports is the universal language,” Williamson says. “We’re here to enable churches to catch the vision of using sports as an outreach tool to the community.”

And many communities are responding. “Sports is one of the most effective ministries a church can have to reach adults and families who want to be outdoors,” says Bayside’s Greg Weisman, men’s and BAS pastor heading up 15 different adventure sports including mountain biking, hiking and fishing. “Church, in most people’s minds, is an indoor thing. We don’t 
usually reach outdoor people until we take church outside.”

In fact, about 1,300 families are willing to do church outdoors through Bayside’s sports. And because of that connection, hundreds of people now attend weekly indoor services at the church.

“Bayside is located near the Sierra Nevada mountain range, so it’s logical for us to have a ministry for people who love the outdoors,” Weisman says. “Every church should look at its community and ask God, ‘What do the people outside our church walls love to do?’ And then start a ministry to those people.”

Ash, who was baptized by Weisman in 2005 along with his daughter, Meghan, couldn’t agree more.

“Without this ministry reaching out to me where I was, on the bike trail, all this never would have happened,” he says. “God indeed rides a mountain bike.”

Eric Tiansay is a freelance writer and an avid angler and sports fan himself. He interviewed nine churches about their sports ministry for this piece.


Checklist for Successful Sports Outreach

  •    Construct a budget to cover expenses for facilities, equipment, athletic materials, refreshments and insurance.
  •    Secure facilities six months to a year in advance, and comply with all permit and reservation procedures. 
  •    Recruit leadership—directors, coaches and referees—early on. Make sure recruits are committed to the sports ministry philosophy and goals. 
  •    Require CPR and first-aid training for all leaders. The best possible ministry during an outdoor activity is keeping participants safe. 
  •    Promote your sports league or event by placing a notice in the church bulletin, hanging posters around the church and community, distributing fliers in local public and private schools and parks, and asking the pastor to announce activities from the pulpit.
  •    Clearly identify dates of registration and address the issue of insurance waivers in all advertising.
  •    Purchase equipment that’s safe and durable. Beware of “bargains.”
  •    Purchase uniforms, comparing vendors, prices, billing arrangements and delivery. When ordering, verify sizes, amounts and colors.
  •    Decide if the church will be “custodian” of uniforms each season, or if competitors will keep their uniforms. Re-using uniforms saves money; however, someone from your church will have to become the launderer, and will need a place to store them.
  •    Set teams.
  •   Distribute uniforms.
  •    Play ball!

—Rodger Oswald, Church Sports International   

by Eric Tiansay
Eric Tiansay is a freelance writer and an avid angler and sports fan himself. He interviewed nine churches about their sports ministry for this piece.

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