Redeeming the World of Sport by Redeeming the People of Sport Relevant Gospel Outreach Through Sports / Part 4
According to my friend, there was one particular day in which many Christian missionaries held an audience with Gandhi. Over the course of an extended meal they discussed much about various religious topics and at one point the missionaries encouraged Gandhi to consider accepting Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. After some dialogue to that end, Gandhi got up and walked to the edge of the garden (yard). He returned a short time later with a rose in his hand. My missionary friend quoted Gandhi:
“You Christians, you missionaries, you work so hard. Learn a lesson from the rose.”
He lifted up his recently plucked flower for all to see and began to gently waft its delightful fragrance under the nose of each person seated in the circle. These now attentive followers of Christ listened expectantly to what Gandhi was to say next.
“If your lives are as beautiful and fragrant as this rose…”
At this point he began to strip petals from the rose and placed one in each set of hands. He invited all to feel the luxuriant silkiness.
“And you are pleasing to the touch…people will traverse the garden and…”
At this point he pricked his finger with a thorn on the now petalless stem and drew blood.
“…people will traverse the garden and even put up with your thorns, just to get next to you!”
If your lives are as beautiful as the rose!
Sports outreach locker rooms don’t always have a great “fragrance” but when Sports Outreach is done well, it is winsome and attractive to those far from Christ.
Is your church struggling to reach secularized, non-churched, non-believers? Read on and
“Learn a lesson from the rose…”
I. What Churches That Reach Secularized People Share in Common
Churches that successfully reach secularized people share three things in common: what they believe; what they know; and what they do. First, churches that effectively reach people for Christ are motivated by a set of foundational beliefs based upon Biblical mandates. Second, these churches are informed by research so as to know what their neighbors value, think and do. Third, these churches develop strategies for relevant ways to love and serve their neighbors.
Unfortunately, just knowing what to do doesn’t guarantee action. Sadly, most churches and many church members are too busy, too self absorbed or too uncommitted to sacrificially “incarnate” the gospel message. Regretfully, these churches fail in their responsibility to fulfill the “Great Commission” given to them by Jesus. Successful evangelistic outreach is utterly dependent upon a firm belief in the Biblical expectation that each church member is called to reach their neighbors, families and friends for Christ. While it’s true most churches are not reaching people for Christ, it’s encouraging to know at least some are successfully reaching new generations. They are successful because of what they believe, know and do.
What does your church believe? What does it know and what is it doing to share the “Great News” with others? Has your church become an aquarium – a place to care for fish already caught - or is it truly following Christ’s command to go and be “fishers of men?” Do you want to join a growing group of churches that are effectively making a difference? Read on…
A. What Churches Believe
First, and primarily, churches that successfully reach the non-churched, believe all people live eternally - either in heaven or hell. To that end, they believe God cared so much about “lost” people that He: “sent His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” They also believe it is their responsibility and great privilege to communicate that message to lost people.
Furthermore, they believe their church is to be a ministry site to engage the secular community, not a spiritual fortress to retreat to. In other words, they believe the church is a mission, not a “Christian Country Club.” It is an outpost to serve lost people, not a fellowship for found people. They believe the primary call of each Christian is to be actively attempting to share Christ with everyone within their sphere of influence. All of these beliefs are rooted in the traditional Biblical Theology of “incarnating the gospel.”
B. What Churches Know
1a. Regeneration precedes Transformation – A concept for the whole church
In general, churches know it is the gospel that transforms a person and thus they cannot expect someone to live a transformed life prior to coming to faith in Christ. They know regeneration is a prerequisite for a transformed life and it precedes Baptism. They know Baptism does not lead to a transformed life but rather is the first public evidence of a transformed life. So, churches that successfully reach secularized people know their church must understand, love and accept secular people as they are. They know non-believers can’t be expected to act, think or behave like Christ until they have personally accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior.
1b. Unregenerate Behavior is to be expected in Sports Outreach Activities
In specific, local church Sports Outreaches, know they need to develop a certain comfort level with unregenerate behavior in their Sports Outreaches. Foul language, negative attitudes and even fisticuffs can be expected and to some degree tolerated…as long as they aren’t coming from the Senior Pastor! They know such behavior will begin to change only when those they are reaching out to, experience a new birth in Christ, not before. Sports Outreaches know it is their call and privilege to lovingly encourage their teammates to consider committing their lives to Christ. Again, relationship with Christ comes first, changed behavior follows. This can be summarized by the “four B” philosophy of evangelism that local church Sports Outreach is based upon.
a. The “Four B” Philosophy
Local church Sports Outreaches know and operate on the “four B” philosophy of evangelism: Belong, Believe, Behave, Become. They know behavior follows belief and belief follows belonging. One cannot behave like Christ until he or she is a follower of Christ and a person is more likely to become a follower of Christ if they first belong to a community of Christ. For Sports Outreaches, belonging starts when a non-churched person joins the church’s softball team or basketball league. This is where they experience, observe and hear the gospel in comfortable, relevant settings.
Once a non-churched person belongs to a local church Sports Outreach community, they witness the Love of Jesus Christ as evidenced by Christians who live out their faith in various competitive venues. Somewhere in the midst of shared athletic activity, personal relationships develop and the non-churched person comes to a place where they understand their need to personally believe in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. After they commit their life to Christ, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and only then are they able to behave differently. As the indwelling Jesus Christ begins to empower them to change their thoughts, attitudes and actions they become a new creation, and their entire life is transformed. Churches that successfully reach those far from Christ know they must get the non-churched person to first belong and later believe rather than demanding they believe before they are allowed to belong to the fellowship.
2a. Incarnational Evangelism – In General
Additionally, churches know the gospel is most effectively communicated by followers of Christ through personal relationships, but they also know a chasm exists between church members and the non-churched. Sadly, this chasm greatly restricts any meaningful interaction between the two groups. Thus, churches know they must create relevant, missional programs which attract those far from God and which enable parishioners to develop long term relationships with those needing a relationship with God. Sport based outreaches are exceptional examples of such missional programs.
2b. Incarnational Evangelism – In Sports Outreach
Sports Outreach works. First, Sports Outreaches attract people who otherwise would not become associated with a church. Second, sporting activities enable long term interactions between the unchurched and the people of the church. Only long term interactions can provide what is needed for relationships and trust to develop. It is from this trust and from these relationships that secularized non-churched people accept invitations to attend a traditional church activity. This leads to the next level of things successful churches know.
3. Relevant Church Services
Successful churches know once a non-churched person accepts an invitation to go with a team mate to a Lord’s Day morning worship service, the worship experience must be attractive and welcoming. At the very least, traditional church activities such as worship services, music, preaching, prayer and praise should be easily explainable to the non-churched because in essence, the church is inviting secular people to join a sub-culture that is foreign to them. Their challenge is to make church activities welcoming to new comers while maintaining a relevance to long time members.
4. What the Non-Churched believe about Churches
Successful churches also know they need to adapt their outreach activities according to what research reveals about the fears and concerns non-churched people have about church. At best, secular people believe church services aren’t relevant to them, or their lives, and in addition express their fear the church will want them to give money. At worst, many report having had negative experiences with a church but a more common reason for not getting involved with a church is as basic as having never been invited by someone they knew! So churches that are effective in reaching secularized, non-churched people encourage and empower their parishioners to invite non-churched teammates to services they know to be relevant and welcoming.
5. Men and Church
There is one other rather controversial thing they know. Almost without exception, every church which is successfully growing and reaching the secular community is headed by a man. I’m sure this is offensive to some who read this, but please understand I’m not saying how things should be, only how things are. The reality, as difficult as it may be to accept is, men don’t follow women and growing churches are led by men. Let me illustrate…
“The dude was right”
A few years ago, my son and I attended a church in Arizona. We joined over ten thousand regulars who worship there each week. During the service the pastor stated the church intentionally focused on being relevant to 25-55 year old men! He said there were lots of great churches in the area and people could choose to attend any other church, but attending this church meant participating in services designed to attract young and middle aged men.
That week I attended two “neighborhood groups” sponsored by this church. Both averaged fifteen people at these weekly gatherings. I asked each woman present how they responded to the pastor’s declaration. To a person, each woman affirmed the focus of the church! Comments like: “my husband has never been a better husband, father, provider, worker, citizen” were part of each woman’s answer. When I asked about the church meeting the needs of women and children, they were equally affirming, stating “oh there’s lots of stuff for us and the kids.” They were adamant: “if focusing on men is what it takes to get the change I’ve seen in my guy since joining the church…then I’m all for it!”
When I asked the pastor: “why the focus on the specific age group of men and not all men” he communicated a clear rationale. He believed the best way to get the whole family is to attract men with families. Younger men will still be able to relate to the focus and older men will stay once they’ve been reached. The pastor believed men have the best chance to change their families by bringing them to church and through their families the best chance to change society.
Two weeks later my son and I spent some time in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. We attended a Lord’s Day morning service at a mainline church. Half way through the service, my son elbowed me and said: “that dude in Arizona was right! Look around.” That afternoon as we scaled the top of the “high peaks” my son explained. “Dad, the church service was led by nothing but women. The pastor was a woman, the worship leader was a woman, and those who prayed, read scriptures and gave announcements were all women. There were no men up front in any leadership position and surprise…I was the only man between the ages of 10 and 55. I’m telling you dad, the dude was right.” Again, I’m not saying what the church should be; I’m simply relating my experiences and passing on the reality: churches that are experiencing great growth and are effectively reaching secular people are almost always led by men.
For churches desiring to effectively reach secular people, my experience suggests the following. Hire a gifted and spiritually faithful Lead Pastor whose desire is to reach the community. This person should be a man. The next step is to hire qualified people for the two most important church staff positions for evangelism and church growth: the Sports Outreach Minister and the Children’s Minister. In light of the previous discussion it is interesting to note the most effective and successful Children’s Ministries are led by women. It’s not that all ministers are to be male; it’s more about finding the right mix of men and women in leadership positions.
C. What Churches Do
1. Define and Research their Community
In general what churches do to reach secular people begins with defining their community both geographically & demographically. After identifying who they are positioned, and called, to reach they are then able to research their community. What emerges from the research is what their community needs, wants, and does. The third step is to develop a strategy to serve the community’s needs and wants. A most important key to determine this strategy is to involve both clergy and laity in each step of the discussion. A strategy will only be relevant and embraced by those who jointly envision it. Once the strategy is in place, church leadership will need to train, mobilize, enable and encourage the laity to ensure success.
2. Change to “What Needs to be Done”
Successful congregations are able to move away from the “way we’ve always done it” to the “what needs to be done” way of thinking and operating. In addition, they often join with other churches and/or ministries to do co-operative ministries. They also watch and research others to learn from their successes and failures. What is really revolutionary is they’re not bound by denominational or parochial boundaries. They realize to be successful their outreach will be a continuous endeavor, not a onetime event. They also commit the majority of their budget to outreach compared to the national average of 1-2% for non-growing churches. While strategies could include meeting educational or vocational needs, my experience indicates the greatest success comes from creating relevant, attractive sporting and recreational outreaches.
3. Two Helpful concepts
In specific, local church Sports Outreach use two helpful concepts to reach the non-churched: a) You and Who; and b) Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light.
a. You and Who
Most successful local church Sports Outreaches use some variation of the “you and who” philosophy. The “you” is a church member. The “who” is the non-churched friend of the “you.” Most Sport Outreaches encourage a church member (a “you”) to invite a friend or co-worker (a “who”) to join a team or league. Some even require their members to invite a “who” as a pre-requisite for the “you” to participate in the league.
In order for a church to be successful in reaching non-churched people, it takes the joint efforts of the overall church and individual parishioners. The church must organize attractive and relevant outreach opportunities their members can confidently invite their non-churched friends and associates to.
b. Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light
The “Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light” concept is a most effective way to communicate the content and purpose of all church functions. It suggests to church members if and when it is suitable to bring a “who” to a church activity. “Red Light” events are designed for mature believers and/or designate church business will be featured. “Yellow Light” events suggest participants should at least be comfortable with a Bible reading, prayers and possibly an invitation for people to make a commitment to Christ. “Green Light” events are suitable for everyone, even those far from Christ. “Green Lights” include very little that might be perceived as religious and are highly attractive to churched and non-churched alike. In other words, a “Green Light” communicates the function will be warmly received by a “who.” Yellow Light activities signal church “you’s” should use caution in bringing a “who” along and all Red Light activities are generally not suitable for any “who.”
Do you wish your church could grow? Do you pastor a church that is stagnant? Are you frustrated because your personal evangelistic efforts seem to lack energy and are not producing the fruit you pray for? Perhaps it’s time you and your church joined those who are growing and reaching the secularized, non-churched, nonbeliever. Does your church share a commonality with what growing churches believe, know and do? If not, your church is probably not growing. Growth is great but true evangelistic growth is preferable as the following story illustrates…
Another denominational story – church growth or sheep stealing
Three years before this was written, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America made a theological shift. It collectively decided to ordain practicing homosexuals. Regardless of what you might think of the theology of that decision, it proved to be a death knell for many local congregations. In my community a rapid succession of ELCA parishes closed their doors due to a loss of members and resources. Interestingly enough, one Lutheran parish in my community tripled in size during that same three year period. It was the only local congregation of a different Lutheran denomination: the Missouri Synod which retained the traditional belief concerning homosexual activity. I rejoice in the growth of that particular local church but I grieve the reason they grew. To grow at the expense of another church or denomination is not evangelism – it is sheep stealing. I would much prefer a church to triple in size due to strategic outreaches geared towards meeting the perceived needs of those not associated with any church rather than taking in disaffected members from other churches.
The lessons are two-fold. First “sheep stealing” is not evangelism. Churches grow in one of three ways: a) transfer growth (think: adding disaffected members from other churches or benefitting from an overall community-wide population increase); b) biological growth (think: new babies being born or adopted into church families); and c) evangelistic growth (think: new believers in Christ). My hope and goal is to help churches grow primarily through evangelistic growth. It’s not that churches shouldn’t open their arms to anyone seeking to join the church; rather it’s about focusing on reaching those who aren’t involved with any church.
Second, local churches that are growing are almost always either non-denominational or are part of denominations that hold to the traditional orthodox Christian theology. Again, I’m not saying what some may want to hear, but I am saying what reality is. If your church wants to grow, both numerically and spiritually, it will believe, know and do what growing churches believe, know and do. It will strive for true evangelistic growth, not a “sheep stealing” philosophy.
 Much of this section reflects the thinking and writing of Dr. George Hunter. I took part in CSRM’s academic symposium with Dr. Hunter where many of these concepts were discussed. I acknowledge him and his writings for informing and shaping my thinking. Many of these specific points stem from our discussions and his writings.
 Matthew 28.16-20
 Matthew 4.19
 John 3.16
 A great book to help understand this mentality is: “Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow.
 I do not know who originated the “you and who” philosophy but it has long been a standard for local church Sports Outreach. I do not claim any credit for its origin.
 I thank my good friend John Bussell of Exmouth, England for sharing the Red Light, Yellow Light, Green Light concept with me. His church, Diss Community Church, found this simple concept quite helpful in communicating with their parishioners the philosophies shared here.
 I do not blame the church that grew. In some ways they were rewarded for remaining faithful but I fear their growth at the expense of other parishes will cripple their intentional evangelistic efforts because they will be lulled into a sense of complacency by their windfall growth. They will be so consumed with assimilating transfer growth they will fail to engage in true evangelistic activity.