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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. Peace2All

    I can understand this soccer teams desire to use the medium of sports to work on and enhance their 'character.'

    What I don't understand is this incessant need to 'give glory to God' for developing those 'character traits' like "fairness," "kindness," etc... that are traits that anyone can work on, ' without ' having to give credit to a God or Deity...? Also, realizing that these 'character traits' didn't just pop into existence when Jesus allegedly walked the earth. People of antiquity, long before Jesus in society, strove to be better people... without a Deity or the Christian God version in particular.

    Add to it, apparently, this seems to be yet another 'marketing' tool to try and spread the 'word of God,' when in reality... it's just a bunch of guys using the medium of a sport to develop and express certain society-based 'honorable' and worth-while character traits and behaviors.

    No... God or Jesus is needed for one to work on one's self or to demonstrated these societally acceptable character qualities and traits.

    I just don't understand this, I mean more power to them to work on themselves, but 'no need' for a God to be involved to act in honorable ways. (IMHO).

    Peace...

    August 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  2. Haward Roark

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

    The first sentence is hilarious and any MLB, NHL, NBA or NFL coach who said that would be fired immediately .

    The second sentence makes ask...By Playing Soccer?

    This guy cracks me up.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Bogs

      The actual game is not the way they give glory to God.

      They are simply trying to get people talking about their beliefs. 645 comments later we can all already see the impact. f you dont want to all you have to do is walk away.

      Its a simple concept.

      Sarcasm is cool and all...but make sure you have your ducks in a row before using it.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Taryn

      Love that Roark.

      August 20, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  3. Bambam

    And you have not one bit of real proof there is such a God. Only a book that was written long after Jesus walked the earth. No doubt, many people would find no basis for morality in the absence of these blind beliefs, but myself...and billions of other people worldwide....seem to get by just fine without your fantasy!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Bogs

      And you have no proof their isnt a God. So whats your point?

      At least Christians have a book. lol

      August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Jim

      First the Bible was written before Jesus arrived, and then the second part after he left earth, so to say the Bible was written after he was here is not totally correct. I could use your logic then and say WW2 didnt happen either because all the books were written after it happened. second if you dont want to believe in God thats fine, but there are billions of people that do, not sure why that bothers non believers, guilty conscious ?

      August 16, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • MomOf3

      PSST, Jim....you do realize that the Old Testament isn't christian...it's Jewish!

      August 16, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  4. 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 12:34 pm |
  5. Arch Stanton

    Dear Charlotte Eagles,

    Such courage! In a world where men have learned to look only at themselves and offer nothing you take a great leap. THANKS.

    Read the negative comments for what they are: FEAR.

    SEMPER FI.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Haward Roark

      The only fear I have that there are people on this earth that actually think by this they are helping others.

      That is frightening indeed.

      Playing soccer to bring glory to god?

      How about serving food at a food kitchen to give help to your fellow neighbor?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • ralphinator

      Im at work on my lunch break.....you now sound like a fool, yet again.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Marc Boudreau

      Fear of what playa? Fear of death? or the unknown? it is funny you say this because it is exactly fear which is the root cause of why religion exists...a long time ago before you and I were born...people couldnt explain rain, or stars, or thunder or what happened when people died (still a mystery.) So, this people created religion and "heaven" to feel comfort that when someone dies, they get to go to a nice happy place and drink all the beer and have all the girls in the world...remember when lightning couldnt be explained...it was zeus, the god of thunder who was responsible...nowadays, we can explain thunder and lightning so zeus is now a figure of greek mythology...how long before christianity becomes mythology?

      August 16, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Jim

      @ howard Roark you may want to read the entire article again, you know the sections where they talk about how they serve the community when they are not playing soccer. Soccer is a means for them to bond, and who knows maybe there are some young people that are struggling to belong and see this tema and it inspires them, is that a bad thing. Its funny how people that dont believe in God are so offended by those that do. Im not offended by you not believing.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  6. Taryn

    Why is this front page news CNN? We don't live in a theocracy (yet).... please keep the front page dedicated to actual news.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Jason B.

      Personally, I think that a good number of people like seeing an uplifting, positive story on the front page. Quite a nice change from all the crud going on in the world. For all the bad going on, here's something good.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Jim

      Just because it isnt news to you doesnt mean it isnt to someone else. Yet Im curious, you dont like it on the fron page yet you took enough time to comment on it, must have interested you a little bit

      August 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  7. ralphinator

    I see all the hateful atheists are out attacking again today, what a surprise. How about this; instead of coming to these message boards and bashing religion for all the terrible things it's done, go out and volunteer and do something positive.

    Atheists are the biggest hypocrites of all!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • DerpDiggler

      Yet you come to these boards and reply against athiests, instead of being out and doing something productive yourself.

      Talk about hypocritcy! 😀 You definitely take the crown there!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Joe Shmid

      I'm not an atheist, but I think this sort of thing is lame. We have freedom of religion, but once you start tying religion into things like sports teams, it becomes something different.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Marc Boudreau

      Athiests do volunteer you tard, we just dont force our religion on the poor while we do it

      August 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  8. vocare

    This is awesome! What true champions they are!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  9. LetsAllJumptToConclusions

    Anybody who claims anything is an absolute has already lost credibility as a true thinker.

    To SOME OF the nay-sayers of the team, everybody has a different form of beliefs, and whether you believe in a God as a system or simply in the objective universe or something else altogether, we must all conclude that what we believe or don't believe dictates our actions and perception of reality. Who's to say that their beliefs are any more valid or invalid than our own?

    To SOME OF the proponents, it's wonderful that you can celebrate something where people share your values, but taking this we vs. you mentality makes you look close minded and ignorant.

    To the rest, your willingness to hear the other side and be open to an intellectual discussion is greatly appreciated.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • pdough

      @LetsAllJumptToConclusions- Excellent commentary!. Finally, someone who has given a reasoned perspective rather than a vociferous outburst based on negative emotion.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  10. TheyNotHim

    "to teach impoverished children and refugees about soccer and to use the sport to attract people who wouldn’t normally visit church."

    Exactly, because impoverished children and refugees seeking food and shelter are the easiest to brainwash with your fairy tales...good work guys, keep up the sham!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jason B.

      It's not really so much about preaching religion as it's about a living a positive life and helping those around you.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  11. Richard Wilson

    I am sick to tears of the injecting of Christianity into public life. I wonder how long this coach will give us non Christians to leave the country? It is even more frightening when a Presidential candidate takes this position.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jason B.

      I don't believe they are trying to convert anyone. It's more about "playing fair", living a positive life, helping others, etc. Really a basic lesson we all need to be reminded of once in a while.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  12. Bill

    As the world crumbles around us, 'the christians' decide to take up Jesus Ball?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • ralphinator

      and what have you done to make this world a better place? other than bashing ppl just to bash them....that's what i thought.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Steve

      Actually, the team was established in 1993. Also, there's nothing wrong with using sports to build self discipline, confidence, and teamwork in economic hard times. They seem to have a service-focused approach, which seems like exactly the type of behavior that is appropriate in hard times. The game is not the main focus.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  13. Hmmmm?

    Guy scores a goal. Guy raises his hand to "God." Guy blows a penalty kick. Guy screams "God D-it!" into his fist over and over.

    Guy hits a home run. Guy praises "God." Guy strikes out. Guy curses "God" until his next at bat.

    Guy scores a touchdown. Guy waves to "God" in heaven. Guy fumbles. Guy goes home and does some blow or beats his wife.

    Same old, same old.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Bogs

      Is this always the case or are you using selective analysis?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Not always....

      Actually, when this team lost to the Charleston Battery in a shootout (D3 Pro-League Championship c. 1996) there was no cursing of God or such. Because really, as both the captain and coach pointed out in the above article, God didn't care if they won. There was disappointment and frustration, yes, for the shot that missed the open goal and lost the game, but the kicker was immediately surrounded by supportive teammates and fans. The Eagles demonstrated good sportsmanship when congratulating the Battery and encouraging their own players. Before leaving the field the Eagles huddled up and prayed, as always. In years since the team has gone on to win several championships.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  14. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Sorry, but in America not caring about winning is considered anti-American, communist, treasonous, liberal deafeatism. That also explains our rather militaristic interpretation of the Bible with a total disregard for Jesus' call for charity and compassion.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jim

      The article did not say they didn't care about winning. You made that up. It said that winning was not the ultimate goal.

      They probably believe that winning is a byproduct of a number of factors. The point is that for you to say the guys don't care about winning is not fair. They never said that.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  15. Bogs

    My last post made no sense. lol

    I was asking...if you dont believe in God....why does it seem to offend so many of you that we do?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • a slozomby

      it doesnt offend me that you believe in god. it offends me when people try to ram their god down my throat. it offends me that use old testament commandments as a basis for their views yet cherry pick which of the 613 commandments to follow. it offends me when people use god to take advantage of others.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Bogs

      Fair enough and I see your point.

      Only thing....no one is ramming this story down your throat. You made a decison to click and read it. Which is really all I was talking about.

      Anytime you see an article about God you can guarantee people who dont believe will mock and tell them how silly they are.

      I'm asking, why?

      The rest of your post I agree with.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  16. Bogs

    If you dont beleive in God that is your right. I'm not sure why it seems to offend some of you that dont?

    If we are silly...let us be silly.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  17. Christa

    What a wonderfulstory and it is nice to see stories about Christianity then all of the other stuff that is on "news" channels. I for one think religion and sports are a good idea, look at Troy Polamalou from the Steelers.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  18. ShakingHisHead

    Funny thing, I have NO problem with them being a christian team. If that's what brings them together, fine.
    Other than that, it's all about soccer (or whatever sport we're talking about). Leave your overt messages out, celebrate with your group, your church, etc, but on the field it's sports, that's good enough for me.
    A golfer who wins one tournament and praises the Lord-y, should realize that god didn't care about him all the other previous tournaments, and instead favored other golfers. Or: if this all sounds ludicrous, well, good.
    Maybe god has Nothing to do with sports, it's just your imagination. Just as god might be just that: imagination.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  19. crushgroove

    laaaaame

    August 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Jimbo

    The sport of irritating gullible christains is pretty fun.

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

      @Jimbo – I would guess that you find disparaging Christians and their beliefs fun because you are probably lacking a spiritual foundation in your own life that gives you you a sense of optimism, fulfillment, peace, fraternity and personal significance. So, you have the compelling nead to belittle those that do have this in their lives.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • Marc Boudreau

      hahahahaah yes

      August 16, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
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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.