When we think of sports, we often think of the competition—of winning. What if we viewed sports as more than a game? What if, instead, we viewed it as a non-threatening entry point to find common ground and build relationships with people who would not ordinarily darken the door of a church?
I encourage you to think of ways to experience the sports you play as an avenue for the gospel. To spark your creativity, here are three points of focus to make your favorite sports activities more than a game.
First, remember that sports are a crucible for character. Competition can draw out the best and worst in anyone. When God radically transformed my life, I had a history of being overly competitive and inordinately intense in sports. Some of those bad habits carried forward into my life as a Christ follower. I would often erupt in the heat of the competition, and, as a result, leave many games feeling embarrassed that my behavior was an obstacle for people to see Christ in me.
After repeatedly failing to curb my unhealthy competition, I was considering hanging up my shoes because I didn’t want to discredit my faith or dishonor my Savior. At this exact time, God raised up a new sports ministry at my church, with a vision to see sports as more than a game. By opening this opportunity, I felt like God was giving me a second chance to redeem sports for His glory and restore my competition in a more healthy way. Maybe you feel that way or know someone who does. God has not given up on you; He is forming your character.
With a fresh start and a new outlook, I began intentionally recruiting and leading teams. My first goal was not to win a men’s league championship t-shirt, but to assemble a team where people who believed differently could belong, be known, and be in it together. In the process, God continued his character work in me on the court and gave me opportunities to display humility and repentance. Surprisingly, several of my teams did experience success on the field of play, as well as off the field in rich relationships and eternal conversations.
That’s when I ran across a man named Al during open gym basketball. Al didn’t know anyone when he came into the gym, but my friend James and I noticed Al and intentionally sat down next to him on the sidelines. Al was a good player who thought basketball was going to bring him stardom. When I sat next to him, I tried to make a natural connection around the game we both loved.
Al would later admit how he appreciated that we came up and talked to him and treated him like a person. Nothing was forced or contrived, we just showed interest in him. Mixing intentionality with a natural connection and familiarity, Al began to drop his defenses and our relationship grew.
Sports are a unique opportunity for community. The rules change when you are on the same team, doing something together. And the relationship changes. When I saw Al, I saw a really good ballplayer, but I didn’t view him as competition. I wanted to know him and invite him into more of a relationship.
It was the same with my other teammates who did not yet know Christ. I began to appreciate the value of intentionally getting my team together—cultivating the time before, after, and between games to develop relationships with them.
After building a relationship with Al over some time, I could tell Al had an interest in God and had questions he needed to process. So, it was natural to invite Al to join a group of basketball buddies from the gym who were meeting to discuss life, God, and the Bible. It was thrilling to watch Al explore spiritual truths and discover that the group was fun and full of intense competitors who weren’t perfect.
My experience with Al and with several other teams that I have led is that by intentionally building community, sports opens up doorways to more meaningful discussions. Here are three simple ideas on how you can do that.
First, be curious. Ask God where He is at work in the life of the person. That’s what I did when I saw Al sitting on the sidelines. Be in prayer for the person. Then, let curiosity be the bridge that gets you to actively engage with him or her. Notice the good in the person, God’s image, and get curious about it. Listen to God’s Spirit during a conversation and lead with questions that invite the person into dialogue. Be curious about where God’s story intersects with his or her story and when you can introduce him or her to His amazing Story.
Pique curiosity. When you engage in a conversation, what if you piqued the person’s curiosity by dropping clues about your faith, your walk with Christ, your dependence on God, and your transformed life? As you seek to discover his or her story, you can also drop clues about your story and God’s story. My experience with this approach is that people naturally begin to get curious about my faith story, opening up greater opportunities for conversations about God.
Finally, be safe. Create a safe atmosphere for spiritual exploration, find common ground, extend love, drop any agenda, build relationship, and invite the person to freely investigate God’s truth without judgment, correction, or argument.
That’s what I did with Al. I was authentically curious about him and his journey. We talked about real stuff that mattered. Over time, Al opened up to God’s work in his life and humbled himself to Christ. Al still competed hard, but he did it for a greater good than just winning. God called Al into full time ministry with Athletes in Action and he is now the Community Center Programs Director at The Salvation Army in the Engelwood neighborhood of Chicago—one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Al uses his sports platform as a doorway to conversations about God with the youth from that difficult urban environment.
Sports is our cultural religion. When we meet people on the grounds of their “temple,” we are meeting them on their terms and turf. In 1 Corinthians 9:22-23, Paul gives us an intentional mindset to have about sports as mission: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
For the sake of the gospel, will you view sports as more than just a game? Will you get intentional and invite someone to join you in what you already do you—like golfing, running, or playing hoops or hockey? Will you enter into his or her world, love and welcome him or her, and seek to introduce him or her to the Jesus that redeemed your life?