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Redeeming the World of Sport by Redeeming the People of Sport Relevant Gospel Outreach Through Sports / Part 1
The Story of Ryan
Ryan had played against First Church’s softball team for a few summers. His first reaction was surprise the church entered an “open league.” He was impressed with their athleticism, “softball IQ”…and often frustrated with how often they beat his team. Moreover, Ryan was intrigued by the classy way First Church players conducted themselves while competing, win or lose. Even so, it was with trepidation Ryan accepted an offer extended to his team by First Church players to join in a post game “beer” (Hires Root Beer!). Enjoying “cold ones” in the park next to the field, conversations with First Church players led to an offer for Ryan to join First Church in a couple of post season tournaments. Those games allowed for relationships to deepen and enabled Ryan to “pepper” his new found friends and teammates with questions about life, family and even faith. He respectfully “doffed his cap” and bowed his head for pre game prayers and listened intensely to post-game testimonies shared by teammates. He “saw the gospel preached” on the field and “heard it affirmed” in post game devotionals. A year later, Ryan “took a knee” and accepted Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.
First Church’s proclamation (how they competed – in the image of Christ) led to opportunities for affirmation (verbal times of sharing and responding to questions). A modern day fulfillment of what Peter wrote in his first epistle: “be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within.” Ryan and his entire family were changed for eternity because First Church entered a team in a secular softball league and then trained its men in how to “preach the gospel…even when it takes words.” First Church knew how to, in the words of Bryan Mason: “play away.”
Sports Outreach Ministries understand the best way to “preach” the gospel is through a concept articulated by Jim Peterson as: “Proclamation, Affirmation.” Peterson defines “proclamation” as the way followers of Christ live their lives and “affirmation” as their verbal explanations of their faith. In other words, Christians are to live in such attractive ways as to make those far from Christ sit up, take notice and ask questions. If the gospel of Christ is winsomely lived out, it draws secular people to the sacred and causes them to ask questions as to the motivation for such a life. Such questions provide the opportunity for a verbal “affirmation” of the “hope that lies within.”
A Denominational Story
A number of years ago I was asked to lead a series of workshops on evangelism for a denominational summer youth conference. For two days I outlined strategies for how teens could reach their peers. On the third day I asked for the biggest obstacle the teens faced in reaching their schoolmates. I was stunned by their response: “our youth pastors and youth group advisors tell us to stay away from ‘those’ kinds of kids!”
Later that week all conference delegates, young and old, gathered for a rousing worship service which challenged all in attendance to “go and reach the world for Christ.” After the final Amen, I leaned across the pew to a C. E. director whose family had been leaders in the denomination for generations. I told her how much the service had inspired everyone to “go into all the world.” I looked for affirmation from my friend by asking: “we really do believe in reaching people for Christ don’t we?” She smiled and emphatically replied, “Yes we do.” She beamed with another affirmative response to my second question. “And we’ve believed it for generations haven’t we?” Then, I voiced a haunting thought/question: “then why are we so stinking small?” This inquiry produced an immediate change in countenance from this now crestfallen church leader. Wiping tears from her eyes she replied: “I don’t know why we can’t grow, but it breaks my heart.” I left feeling worse than she. I had not wanted to discourage her. I was truly seeking the answer.
Later that night, the annual post service “grudge match” of basketball pitted veteran pastors of the denomination against a few aspiring “young bucks.” All local church Sports Outreach Ministers know, not even a few hard fouls can disrupt a post game fellowship that flows freer than a steaming shower. As soothing water renewed tired and sweaty bodies all agreed it was a perfect end to a truly exhilarating night. Great singing, inspiring testimonies, profound preaching and hard fought competition had truly lifted the spirits of these “in the trenches” gospel warriors. Towels dried bodies and occasionally snapped unsuspecting “behinds.” Conversation reconnected long time partners in the gospel. The Sports Outreach post-game ritual usually begins with a stimulating question.
Being a young buck myself I sought the wisdom of these church leaders and asked the same question I posed earlier to the C.E. Director. “If our denomination is so committed to world evangelism then why are we so stinking small?” A younger Associate Pastor boldly broke the uncomfortable silence while: “Where fools rush in” rang in the minds of his older and wiser “elders.” He had been hot from 3-point range and this brash junior member saw no reason to stop shooting now.
“We do receive and we do believe in the message to go and reach the world for Christ but…” He slowed as he watched the towel-snapping “tomfoolery” stop and all attention shift his way. His swagger took a hit when he observed the inimitable superiors assume a “judge and jury” posture. More wary and yet still convinced of his answer he proceeded slowly with caution. “Yes, we do believe…in reaching out but…we also preach and…our people receive… a second equally convicting message: Holiness! ‘Come out from among them and be ye holy.’” Thinning heads of hair nodded assent to this theological “slam dunk.” A thoughtful pause pervaded the steamy room as the guardians of the denomination communicated approval via non-verbal head nods. Mr. 3-pointer was maturing. If only he passed the ball more and what was that cologne he used?
I continued, “So what you are saying is our people are really caught on the horns of a huge dilemma: reach those far from God at the risk of losing personal holiness or keep their personal holiness at the expense of reaching the “lost” for Christ. How do they deal with those opposing messages?” A respected sage of the denomination broke the silent reverie. The last to emerge from a shower stall, his gray speckled beard affirmed long service to Christ and His church. Thoughtful, quiet and yet confident, his assessment was “spot on: “Our people answer the dilemma in the typical way. They remain holy by having nothing personally to do with the ‘heathen’ they live next door to…while obeying the message to evangelize, by sending lots of money to overseas missionaries!” Even “Mr. 3-Pointer” seemed impressed. His offer of cologne was rejected.
Seminarians would have paid double tuition to have been lucky enough to take the self taught “course” we engaged in for the next hour or so and yet 20 years later the denomination is still “so stinking small.” Lessons learned aren’t always applied.
This story is truly indicative of the besetting dilemma of most 21st Century ministers and Churches. Church youth are judged by how successfully they avoid the sins of the “world” while adults take great pride in supporting more overseas missionaries than other churches, even as attendance at their church decreases. Many talk about evangelizing but most don’t have a clue about how to do it. It is a problem that has plagued the church for millennia. What to do? It starts by asking a most revealing question. What can Christians do better on earth than they can in heaven? To be continued...
 Attributed to St. Francis
 Attributed to Plato
 Bryan Mason has coined the phrase: “the church must learn to play away” to describe both a mentality and a methodology that enables churches to successfully enter into a secular world in relevant, winsome and strategic ways. His latest book “More than Gold” expounds this concept. It was written as a primer for the British Church in preparation for local church sports outreach surrounding the 2012 London Olympics. It would be a great resource for all churches. I would suggest securing a copy for each church leader to be read as a precursor to a leadership summit or retreat. It provides Biblical and Philosophical rationale for why churches should consider sports outreach. Even better, it is full of practical specifics of how to plan, implement and evaluate the outreach.
 Jim Peterson – Living Proof