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Soccer team 'not about winning'
August 16th, 2011
10:20 AM ET

Christian pro soccer team: ‘Scoring souls, not goals’

By Elizabeth Johnson, CNN

Charlotte, North Carolina (CNN) - With 12 minutes left in the game, the Charlotte Eagles are losing 2-0. The North Carolina humidity hangs thick in the evening air. The home crowd becomes restless as the opposing team's goalie blocks kick after kick.

But the team gets a big break in the 78th minute and scores twice in two minutes against the Rochester Rhinos. This men’s soccer match ends in a tie.

Did God bless the Eagles with those goals?

“I don’t think God cares if we win or lose,” Eagles captain Josh Rife says, shrugging.

Coach Mark Steffens agrees: “Our No. 1 goal is not winning games. Our goal is to bring glory to God.”

It’s an unusual stance for a sports team, but the Eagles aren’t just any soccer squad. Members of the United Soccer Leagues’ 12-team professional division, they’re the only ones who say they care more about Christian values than about winning.

The team was established in 1993 after a “sports junkie fell in love with God,” Eagles co-founder Brian Davidson says. But if he was going to continue being involved in soccer - where he saw players cheating and sneaking fouls past referees - he needed to find a way to live out his faith on the field.

He had two goals for his ministry. First, teach men to live for God on the field by playing fair. The second: Send team members into the community - both locally and “to the ends of the earth” - to teach impoverished children and refugees about soccer and to use the sport to attract people who wouldn’t normally visit church.

Like any high-level competition team, the Eagles have regular practices. They sweat in the scorching heat. They win games. They miss goals. They hear lectures.

But the organization also focuses on character by investing in the players and the community.

Steffens, Eagles coach for 15 years, uses what he calls an “in-reach” plan, mentoring and building personal relationships with the 26 athletes on his squad and setting up accountability groups within the team.

“My ministry is to grow 26 guys into men,” Steffens says. “Men who do the right thing.”

That goes for both on and off the field.

On the field, the men are expected to be above reproach. They know better than to tug on an opponent’s jersey, run out the clock or take a dive to fake a foul. As Christians, they say they hold themselves to a high standard. They challenge each other to work harder and play better.

But is that enough?

Some observers say Christianity and sports are a questionable mix.

Shirl Hoffman, author of “Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sport,” says Christianity teaches “peace, humility, putting others before yourself,” while athletes are often more willing to cheat, hurt their opponents or take credit for their accomplishments.

“Sports don’t develop character,” Hoffman says. “They teach you to be selfish.”

Rife, 31, an Eagles captain and a midfielder for nine years, disagrees. He says there is a common misconception that Christians should be meek or passive. There were times when Jesus displayed meekness in his ministry, he says, but other times when he was confrontational.

Rife argues that sports are the “greatest teacher for wrestling with one’s faith.” Learning to strive together for excellence and unity in a competitive, challenging environment can help players grow and deepen their beliefs, he says.

As for whether God cares if a team wins or loses, he says that “isn’t a biblical view.” He cites the book of Job, in which God let a righteous man lose his family, livestock and health. God cares more about the bigger picture - the response of a man’s heart, as he did with Job - than he does about making sure they look good, Rife says.

Eagles co-founder Davidson says he realizes there may be few examples of godliness in professional sports. But like Rife, he says there are opportunities in a game when “we as Christians can live out our faith” - such as responding with grace to a ref’s bad call.

And when an Eagles player reacts to such a call with anger? Davidson knows it will be a learning moment and an opportunity for the player’s faith to grow. There’s a lot of grace and forgiveness in the Eagles’ locker room.

“We’re OK with failure,” Davidson says. “We just want to grow from it.”

Bob Schindler is a former pastor and current vice president of church mobilization for Church Sports Outreach, an organization that helps churches use sports as a tool for spreading the gospel. He believes the sports realm has strayed from God’s intended purpose, but that the problem is limited to selfishly motivated individuals. Competition itself is not the problem, he says.

A key question from the Christian perspective, Schindler says, is whether there was competition in the Garden of Eden.

If the answer is no, then sports are a result of sin, and Christians should not partake in competitive activities.

But if the answer is yes - as he believes it to be - then Christians can take part in competition if they use it for the glory of God.

“The whole point of sports is to draw the best out of your teammates and opponents,” Schindler says. “I see that as very compassionate and grace-filled.”

The word “competition” is derived from the Latin “competere,” which means “strive together,” Schindler says. But he says athletes are indoctrinated with a self-glorifying mindset that has corrupted the word's original meaning.

Aware of the problem, Steffens, the Eagles' coach, regularly talks to his team about it.

“Guys, it’s not about you,” Steffens tells his players. “It’s about putting God first.”

During one pregame chapel service - a regular feature in the team's locker room - speaker Sam Blumenthal, a local businessman, reminds the team of this principle: It’s about “scoring souls, not scoring goals,” he tells them.

Through prayer - before and after each game - the team refocuses its attention on God.

“I think most high-level athletes pray to God for good individual performances and for their team to win,” Steffens says. “Our main prayer before games is for God to grant us strength and wisdom to play fair and Christ-like."

After the game, the team prays for its opponents and thanks God for the results, regardless of the outcome.

“We honor God whether we win, lose or draw,” Steffens says.

His players feel called by God to play for this team and want to “keep the main thing the main thing,” Steffens says. “And the main thing isn’t winning.”

“Priorities are well set and kept,” says goalie Eric Reed, 27. “It’s about living the gospel in a broken world - like in any job.”

The Eagles’ ministry can be seen in various ways around Charlotte, through weekly soccer camps, church involvement and inner-city ministry - as well as in their overseas tours.

This year, six players will travel to Trinidad to play soccer and do service work in the community. The team traveled to Jamaica last year, playing high-level opponents as well as spending time at an orphanage and a delinquent center.

Other recent destinations include Nigeria, Ethiopia, Colombia, Laos and Thailand. The team members who travel each raise a couple thousand dollars for the trips, believing they are preaching sermons through the way they play soccer overseas.

Locally, four players and two staffers have moved into four urban neighborhoods to lead the Urban Eagles, an outreach program directed at kids living in low-income housing.

“We’re a family,” Eagles forward and Urban Eagles volunteer Ben Page says. “The Lord has created this culture of love and acceptance, and the kids have responded.”

Page, 26, lives in Grier Heights in east Charlotte and has worked with the Urban Eagles since January 2010. Through this work, Page said he has realized that the unconditional love he is developing for the kids “is the love God has for me.”

In addition to soccer, the kids are taught basic manners and respect for one another. They learn how to struggle through difficult times and work hard.

“The world says they’re a statistic,” Page says, “that they’ll go to jail, or won’t graduate, or will cause trouble.” Urban Eagles teaches them that God has a plan and a purpose for their lives by pointing them to Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

“My goal isn’t to see their behavior change,” Page says, “but to see their heart change. And the fruit of a heart change is a behavior change.”

Page has played for the Eagles since 2008. He considers the team a training ground to learn how to care for others and find joy and purpose in investing in eternal things, such as sharing the gospel of Jesus with others.

“This environment where we’ve been coached by men who love the Lord - we’ve been cared about as people instead of just players,” Page says.

It’s an attitude that he hopes to pass along to the kids he works with off the field.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • North Carolina • Sports

soundoff (1,195 Responses)
  1. Phil

    Is this legal? Woudln't they be an EOE employer and thus prohibited from discriminating based on religion? What if a Jewish or Moslem player wanted to be on team, what would he be told?

    I wouldn't be surprised if they get a nice note from the feds.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  2. Hawa23

    Not a believer in religion or if there is some deity up in the clouds, so I say more power to em, although, if there is this great all powerful magical God in the sky, if he is so powerful, why would he need us puny humans to worship him or speak on his behalf? The whole belief thing is just not believeable to me at all & the funny thing is no one has any proof at all if there is one, or if any of the fairy tales which defy logic are true in the fairytale bible. It seems many bvelieve just cause they were told to. There is no proof. Good/bad thing willhappen to us in our life cause they are supposed to whether you pray once or a thousand times. Another thing, there should have been alot of killing over the years in the name of God, which is another reason, I just don't believe. God, can be anything you want him to be, yet no one has any proof he is here, other than some saying look at the sky, or trees, or animals, or humans, or natural disasters.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Bambam

    Brings new meaning to OMG! I'm going to start a sports team that brings glory to The Big Bang. These religious zealots are no better than extremist Muslims. It's their way or the highway....or in the Christian way, imaginary Hell!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • ReadyourBibles

      how was anything like that portrayed in this article at all?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Bro

      I'll join your group when Big Bang takes the form of a man and dies for everything you've ever done wrong or ever will do. Christianity is not a "belief." It is a relationship. We sin. God judges and then pays the fine for us. Christians aren't gullible. they're grateful. Your welcome, too. That's the point.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  4. William

    How boring ... now get on with playing soccer ... enough with religion every where. How about some common sense, respect and decency?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • ReadyourBibles

      .. and this article didn't just cover that? what have you been reading?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Bro

      Hey, maybe God should have made us all robots. Then, there would be no problems because we'd all do just what He wants without question. Sorry, all men have a free will. Don't blame God for the way people treat each other.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  5. Buttons

    Nice story. To all the negative comments: If you didn't want to read something with religion hooked to it then why did you? Why make nasty comments? Just goes to show how ignorant some folks are.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • momomiester

      Cause CNN is partly owned by the Muslim Saudis and they love to bash Christianity. Of course we don't blow up children and innocent people on behalf of some convoluted interpretation of a religion. CNN isn't even American any more. It is a propaganda machine.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  6. edpeters101

    Christianity will go anyplace it can to get converts. Public events (like sports), seems to make everybody involved "Believe in God", maybe do to fear of openly being a non-believer? The added benefit is that it also encourages open obedience!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • RRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      English much?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Bambam

      There you have it....the mantra of every crazy religion..."obedience"! That "obedience" and fear of an imaginary God is what's wrong with this world!!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Bro

      Hey Bambam- seriously. If you really think He doesn't exist, have you ever looked for Him? Try "Evidence that Demands a Verdict" or "Case for Christ." Both written by former atheists who found Him when they looked for Him. Matt 7:7

      August 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  7. Eva

    Bless each one of them! They truely understand what being a Christian is all about. It's giving glory to God no matter what
    your vocation is in this life! Awesome story.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Christians are Dingbats

      Kicking a ball around is what Jesus was all about. Right.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • ReadyourBibles

      @ CAD.. and your point is?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  8. Arch Stanton

    WOW, I cannot believe that this made the news. The norm is for people like Matt Lauer to receive 17 million dollars a year to do nothing but talk about trivial nonsense.

    Go Charlotte Eagles! Go Mark Steffens! Let the Earth hear His voice....
    http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/t/o/togodbe.htm

    August 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  9. richunix

    @ Stan:

    Please don't make statements about athesim, as it is not a belief..but a lack of a belief in fanatsy:

    Stephen F Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

    Atheism is not a religion nor is it a belief.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • ThereIsNoGod

      I love that quote. I think I'm going to use it.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Neil

      Athiesm is a belief about a superior being just as are all religions. Your belief is that there is not one. Dictionary.com "Belief is confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof"

      Do you personnaly know who I am? No. However, it doesn't mean that I do not exist. More than likely, if you were to earnestly seek me out, you would eventually find me. Many have just stopped looking for God because they do not want to find him. Have a great day.

      August 16, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  10. jkn

    Wow! I am like, so saved now.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  11. Mr Hampskey

    As long as all the players agree to pray and put religion in their game then there is no problem. It's just in school, I remember the policy regarding praying and religious ceremonies at my High School, as long as the religious activities were performed by students only and not by professors or other staff members then it was ok.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  12. hiitskim

    1) WHO CARES?!
    2) yawn.
    3) get a job, cnn.com.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  13. ThereIsNoGod

    Soccer is the absolute perfect sport. Every four years the world comes together in peace to play this beautiful sport. No politics and specially no religion. Now these fanatics are going out to ruin it. If you don't care weather you win or lose...then why play?
    Save it for you Sunday school activities then.
    Please do not taint this perfect sport with your disgusting religion. Everything religion touches turns to crap.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Jesus Koresh

      Uh, the world doesn't exactly come together in peace over soccer. Haven't you ever heard of soccer riots?

      Then again, a good riot would really liven up some other sports. How about a nice polo riot?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • ThereIsNoGod

      A riot is a long way from the Inquisition or the Crusades or the Taliban stoning and beheadings. All in the name of religion.

      I don't think there's ever been a riot at a World Cup...maybe some local games in England and Holland attributed to hooligans, or perhaps some barra bravas in Argentina.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Jim970

      Absolutely Thereisnogod, soccer is the "perfect", peaceful game. Ignore the Latin American Soccer War. Ignore the violence that frequently follows soccer matches. Ignore "football hooliganism". I enjoy soccer too but to say it is the perfect example of peace and tranquility is ignoring an awful lot.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Dave

      Occasionally you will see the hand of god in soccer. He used to root for Argentina's Maradona. And didn't god also help Uruguay beat Ghana in the 2010 World Cup?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jim

      They did not say that they didn't care about winning-you made that up. They said that it is not their primary objective. In other words they will not judge their success as individuals or as a team soley based upon the scores to the games or their record at the end of the season.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  14. SavySurfer

    Talk about taking "THE LORD'S name in vain". Like GOD could really care who wins a frickin sports contest. Like GOD would be on anyside of a conflict that kills and maims women and children as well as soldiers. What happened to "THE PRINCE OF PEACE"? When judgement comes I think this GOD will say. All religions are true. Your test was to recognize and respect this and just GET along.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Bob

      Well done aritcle. But I had to laugh at the question about whether sports was pre or post "Eden". What a stupid theological question. And as far as your comment, If you read the article the dudes stated, God don't care who wins or the sport itself, but its about the people and about being a good example of a Christian while playin the sport. And this is America so if this story offends you, you can move on.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  15. Religion Sucks.

    Why is this garbage on the front page of CNN?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Taryn

      agreed.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  16. ENice

    LOL! Suckers!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  17. mangus

    uh, pretty sure any GAWD would not want to be worshipped, it would want us to be kind to each other, but quit all this worship nonsense, it's sick and wrong, and sorry Joseph, there was nothing immaculate about that conception, someone hit that.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Bogs

      I will never understand why people who dont believe in God get so offended by people who do.

      You dont believe in God? That is your decision. It doesn't effect me one bit. I wish you did, but that is your right.

      But ANY time a religious article is posted the people who dont believe are sure to show up and tell us how silly we are. You better hope you are right.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  18. Chuck

    Oh give us a break! This is a story for the front page of CNN? Why is it that religion is so intertwined into sports and politics rp anything else for that matter other than a church. Religion is a choice. And if it's your choice so be it, but please stop throwing it into everybody's face every chance one gets and trying to tie it to everything. If these beliefs and prayers worked so well there wouldn't be hunger, draughts or wars just to mention a few of the things that make life on earth so difficult for so many people.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  19. jb

    This is utterly ridiculous. How can the objective NOT be to win games? Why is it soccer? Why not simply go to church and sit and pray all day? Or, if that's too far, why not use this time and energy working for a soup kitchen.

    Honestly, the stupidity of the pious is amazing.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Cob

      If you knew you were going to lose a game of poker with your buddies... would you play anyway? Of course you would.. it's so you can do something with your pals... same thing applies here.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Jim

      Direct quote from the article:

      Our No. 1 goal is not winning games. Our goal is to bring glory to God.”

      They NEVER said that they didn't care if they won or lost. They never said they weren't trying to win. You have made that part up in your head. They said that winning is not their number 1 goal.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  20. Joelle

    This is truly amazing! Glory to GOD!! This is a true inspiration, I want to share this story with all believers to show them that glory can be brought to God in the most unlikely of situation! "Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." 1 Cor 10:31

    August 16, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Toby

      Yes indeed- glory to our God Zeus! It is He who has made all things possible and who loves us for who we are and what we are. Thank you Joelle!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Dave

      "And thou shalt eat it as barley cakes, and thou shalt bake it with dung that cometh out of man." Ezekiel 4:12

      August 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • The Truth

      LMFAO!!!!!!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.