It's a question that pastors often wrestle with as they seek to follow God's calling on their lives: How do we reach more people in our community? With church attendance on the decline, at times, pastors can feel as though they're grasping at straws when it comes to impacting their community and expanding outreach.
In my many years of ministry, one thing has proven true time and time again: you must meet people where they're at. To meaningfully engage with unchurched individuals and families, it's essential to find some kind of common ground to form the basis of a connection that is rooted in genuine concern. And while there are countless ways of doing this, I've found sports to be one of the best.
While it's certainly true that not every American enjoys watching or participating in athletics, the vast majority do. Seventy-three percent of American men and over half of American women watch NFL football, and nearly three-quarters of American kids play some kind of team or individual sport. Sports are often woven into the fabric of families – allowing them to connect over the shared joy of watching their kids have fun on the field, and creating teachable moments for valuable lessons like teamwork, humility, and persevering through challenges.
Some might argue that adding sports to a church's strategic ministry plan distracts from its core mission of preaching the Gospel and praying for the needs of the world. However, in my experience, it actually creates greater opportunity for transformational impact. We can't overlook the realities of the society that we're living in. The church's influence on American culture today is far less than it was fifty, twenty or even ten years ago. Many people don't even know what goes on inside the walls of a church or why they should set foot inside. But a mission-driven, community centered sports ministry has the potential to become a consistent bridge that enables us to develop relationships with unreached families who might otherwise look at the church as irrelevant or unnecessary to their daily lives.
I don't have to tell you how popular sports is to American culture. Even though sports participation is declining in America, the share of children ages 6 to 12 who play a team sport on a regular basis was nearly 40 percent in 2017, according the Aspen Institute.
Through my work with Upward Sports, I've seen over and over how churches can leverage the power of sports to draw families into a faith community and invest in their long-term spiritual health. Kids from all backgrounds and circumstances are able to make new friends and develop mentally, athletically, socially, and spiritually by participating in church-sponsored sports. Likewise, parents find that they feel less isolated as they get to know the other parents cheering on the sidelines. One mom with a special needs child said that the Saturdays she spends watching her son's games allow her the rare opportunity to feel like a normal "soccer mom." Much of her time is spent shuttling back and forth between doctor's appointments, meetings and school – but on Saturdays, she gets to sit back and enjoy watching her son play and have fun just like any other kid.
Sports also give the church countless opportunities to intentionally teach kids about the Gospel. The emotions that inevitably arise in the context of team sports awaken questions of community and self-worth. Christ-centered coaching can model how to be kind in victory and gracious in defeat. It can show kids that, even amidst the highs and lows of the game, their identity is grounded in a love that does not waver, no matter how well or poorly they perform.
It also opens the door to the kind of deep, long-term relationships that generate transformative change. When parents see that their kids are well-cared for and surrounded by people who ask about their week and really listen, they notice a difference. That difference can spark an interest in what happens inside the church not just on Saturday mornings, but on Sunday mornings as well. By equipping churchgoing families involved in sports teams and then deploying them to connect with newcomers and make a point of inviting them over for dinner or out for a post-game ice-cream run, real ministry impact happens on the field, in the gym, and out in the community at large .
And forming these kinds of relationships doesn't just benefit the unchurched community – it benefits the church as well. It's easy for many of us in the church to inadvertently hide ourselves away, interacting only with likeminded people while forgetting we are meant to be salt and light in the world around us. Friendships with those who don't share our worldview gives us opportunities to live out the truth of God's word in such a way that those interacting with us experience Christ's love on a very real and personal level..
In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church about his approach to evangelism. He writes about his willingness to adapt in order to relate to others and ultimately, share his faith in Christ. "For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them," he writes. "To the Jews, I became as a Jew…To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some."
As we incorporate sports into our ministry strategy, it enables us to speak to a culture that gathers around the TV or the soccer field in search of connection and purpose. When used correctly, athletics empower us to share the Gospel with greater poignancy and power to the neighborhoods and nations that are in desperate need of hearing the good news through relationship with Christ-followers who have been transformed by it.
Mark Steinert is the Partner Experience Director at Upward Sports.