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. Jehovah


    August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  2. christianThinker

    This message is about love, compassion and the positive views of a group of athletes. They did not once mention that they are preaching to players on the field; they are merely practicing what they believe in. Something most of us don't even understand anymore. I hear and see a lot of "Christians are always pushing their beliefs on us" messages these days and the truth of the matter is Christians and Muslims in America are the only ones being attacked. Appreciate, if nothing more, the character of the people that this article is about.

    Oh yeah, Jesus loves you.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • jim

      Well, his love is unrequited!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  3. Andy

    Trying to pull controversy out of a team like this is a real stretch. These guys are using their skills, their time and their money to do good things. If people aren't into that, fine. But a lot of people are. I applaud what they're doing. After all the bad news that usually graces the pages of CNN, it's refreshing to know there are men out there trying to live by a higher standard.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  4. fearisenemy

    They why do they practice or have a coach at all? If god is in control of the results and they are not there to win?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • ralphinator

      They specifically say in the article that God doesn't care if they win or lose. Try reading it first clown. Don't come to expect much else from atheists though, they just want to complain and ridicule everything religious to compensate for their own pathetic lives.

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

      godless people like you make me sick!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      @ralphinator While I understand your frustration, where is the love of Jesus in your post? They will be judged for their life, so just leave them to God.They don't want any part of God so just leave them without Him.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • fearisenemy

      And people like you don't take any accountability for your own actions. I didn't have to read the whole thing to know what the article is about. By the way I don't "ridicule all things religious", I think there are many people in this world that need a omnipotent being to keep them in line. Religion can calm the masses just like it can initiate wars. Now you better go and confess your sinful hate to your crutch, I mean god.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  5. cmom

    Slow news day?????

    August 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  6. really ?

    At some point in history, some necessities became sports, like fishing. Was it considered, "unchristian", to deliver the most fish, to your village, before it became a sport ? Is it unchristian, to fish with a buddy, then give your catch to a neighbor ?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Les

      How can the appearance of good like public prayer is the problem they have. The Bible clearly says that you should never pray in public. It says that you should pray in private and not be like the Pharisees. This team chooses to ignore the scriptures. It's that simple. They are either betting on crowd acceptance with their public display of religion like the Pharisees or they are truly ignorant of what the bible teaches specifically regarding the forbidden use of public prayer.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Les

      BTW, the "sport" of hunting and fishing is, in fact, sinful if it does not result in food for the table. Barbless fishing and trophy hunting inflict unnecessary pain and suffering. This is a pathological disease. that in its extreme manifestation leads to serial kil-lers and other crimes against humanity. I hunt and fish but I never fail to eat the results of my actions. And, no, I don;t get a "thrill" out of it. Without this additional food source our family would be eating rather leanly. I hunt out of necessity and not often.

      August 18, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  7. BigNutz

    This is so stupid. How can seemingly intelligent people fall for this......stuff. Stupid.....

    August 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Joxer the Mighty

      And what proof do you have that there isn't a God?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Chris

      I think this post means that he/she can't understand how anyone could not believe in God and that this article is stupid for trying to obviously make Christians look like hypocrites.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • William Brown

      Why is this stupid. How can you say such a thing when you have not witnessed this team in action both on and off the field. I know many of these men and women (they have a women's team as well) personally and they all terrific human beings and christians. They are one of the longest running soccer organizations in the U.S. and I don;t think it's a fluke that they have been around as long as they have. I say continued success and keep up the good work...God Bless

      August 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • fearisenemy

      You don't have to be christian, or religious at all for that matter, to be terrific human beings.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  8. Eric C

    exactly! @GeorgeBos95, thank you for that post.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  9. Really?

    I have no problem with Christiananity at all. I do have a problem paying for a ticket only to hear that their number 1 goal is not winning. Last weeks game could be the last I see....

    August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  10. Gen

    I hear a lot about how it's okay to have faith, but be sure to leave it out of, oh, politics, sports, school, the public eye, discussion, law...if your faith doesn't have an influence on who you are and what you do, then what good is it? So I say faith is part of all of those things as long as there are people who have faith. You CAN'T separate it out, otherwise you have a faith that sits on the shelf, waiting for what, I don't know. It's really okay. Really.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  11. mort

    can't think of any reason why anybody's god would care about a soccer game.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • popseal

      Excellent observation Mort. I've been a Bible studebt and teacher for 41 years. God is concerned about a man's character more than his ball score. If interested, Matthew 5-7 gives Jesus' Sermon on the Mount which presents the deepest ethical analysis of human behavior found anywhere. Most pop culture religious expressions are, in the Greek, fonei baalwny.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Les

      I agree. No god cares about who wins a sports match. It is typical of Xtians to ask their god for intervention in all types of silly endeavors that are laughable. If they win then their god is on their side. If they lose then Great Sky God must be angry. As a "professional" team, I wonder if their insistence on prayer is somehow in violation of civil rights law? Sports are nothing more than an extension into adulthood of juvenile culture. Get a life and grow up, sportsmen. Your particular flavor of God does not care a single iota about who wins or loses a game. And a win is not reason to blame it on the gods.

      Your bible clearly states in the NT that once you know Christ you are to put away childish things. It does not say to invite Him to join in the silliness of juvenile activities.. What a bunch of losers. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, visit those in prison are the adult activities you should be doing instead of running arouns a field like a bunch of kids.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  12. GeorgeBos95

    God makes it so I can win – he likes me better, because the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny put in a Good Word for me 🙂

    August 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • jsl123

      Yeah, I love those mascots

      August 16, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • cmom

      Hahaha, I am right there with you!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • sammy

      If you read the article, it said, "We know God doesn't care wheher we win." If you are going to comment, actually read the article.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  13. Eric C

    I just dont understand what GOD has to do with sports!? Like race car drivers thanking GOD for their Win? So GOD chose someone else to spin, hit the wall and car catch on fire huh?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Jared

      I don't think God cares so much about the sports, or the win/loss record, but rather the way in which we approach the game. I always gave God thanks for giving me the strength to do my best, win or lose. I find that there is always a reason to be thankful.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  14. dan

    Thanks for the story. Good concept. Instead of getting all streesed up to score points – relax and play the game. I bet you have better results and more fun but not under the gun to perform. Isn't this the point?

    August 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • jim

      If the point is just to have fun, why do they keep score?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  15. mhsbear22

    My problem is with the folks who say "Both sides pray to God to win, are you saying God answers one team and not the other?" As a Christian, you pray to God for safety for all and to play to the best of their ability....as a way of giving all glory to God. And if both play to the best of their abilities, someone still wins and someone loses. But if both sides played to the best of their abilities, God has answered the prayers of both sides. Try and think of it this way......if it seems exactly opposite of what we as humans usually think, you're on the right track.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  16. metaincog

    I really dun get the point. I am happy you are bringing change through sports that is played by all christan, muslims ....
    But to emphasize christ and convert people because you are helping is not right. This is what is happening all over the world. These people go to poor places ,help people and in turn expect them to become christains and the poor souls do not have a choice. No wonder the world is in a war. Just monstrous ,

    August 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Qularkono

      Muslims are told to convert and conquer. Christ has instructed Christians to offer a free gift, if the free gift is refused the individual is free to believe as he/she wishes ... but we will pray for them just the same.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • steelerguin

      You're missing the point. The Charlotte Eagles aren't forcing anyone to be Christians. They are playing and living with Christian values. If you ask them, they will tell you about their faith. I live in Charlotte and have never heard of one of their players beating someone over the head with a Bible.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  17. doctor

    CNN is pushing the atheistic , skeptic agenda...... AGAIN.... LOOSING

    August 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • LetsAllJumptToConclusions

      And I don't see a problem with pushing any sort of an agenda or opinion, especially in the Opinion section of CNN. The sooner you realize that everything has a bias, the sooner you can accept and read other people's ideas without frustration.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Jamie

      This isn't atheistic, it's giving a platform to this team. If anything it is helping their cause. Yet you see "christian" on CNN and instead of reading with your God-given eyes, you ass-ume that you know something no one else does.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  18. Qularkono

    God teaches that we are to be "salt" within our culture ... helping to preserve and purify .... having a good witness to those around us. He didn't say to do that in only our homes and/or churches ... He said to do that in all areas of our lives ... including work, sports, home, church, driving on the road, school, politics, etc.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Les

      Perhaps but in the end the Bible tells its adherents to pray in private. No where does it encourage public prayer on any level. So the public prayer of this team and any supposed Xtian is in fact "sinful". Public prayer is abhorred by God. To rngage in conscious public prayer after your god has directly forbidden it is absolutely wrong and hell awaits its proponents. Read the Book and weep.

      August 16, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  19. JackBolly

    We need more Charlotte Eagles, in all sports at all levels. Thank you and good luck!

    August 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Hypochristianity

      How would you feel about some all-atheist teams, and some all-Muslim teams too. How about some married gay teams? I imagine your enthusiasm for this would suddenly change to anger at others shoving their ideologies down your throat.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • LetsAllJumptToConclusions

      @Hypochristianity Nobody has shoved anything down anyone's throat. I for one wouldn't mind hearing about an all-Muslim team or an all gay-married team (oddly specific??) because I enjoy learning about how other people view and interact in the world we live in. Instead of getting defensive, why don't you take some pride in what YOU believe in and take some interest in what defines others?

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

    "lacking a spiritual foundation in your own life that gives you you a sense of optimism, fulfillment, peace, fraternity and personal significance."

    Actually, we atheists have a sense of optimism, fulfillment, peace, fraternity and personal significance. We just do not need a magical sky fairy, a virgin mother, and son-god to find it.

    "So, you have the compelling nead to belittle those that do have this in their lives."

    Wrong again, we do it because it's funny.

    August 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Qularkono

      that is because you have kicked Christ to the side and decided to sit on the throne yourself. The problem becomes ... which atheist is doing the good and right thing? which one should we believe? and if they are all equally correct ... then who gets to say who is right and who is wrong? if each is right then the actions of men like Hitler and Stalin should have equal value to each action of each atheist.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • herp

      I agree with derp!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • steelerguin

      Derp, what are you doing to better those around you? Feeding them, housing them, clothing them, etc. Funny, but I have never heard of an atheist relief agencies, atheist homeless shelters, etc. I believe most atheists are too self centered to care.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • jim

      @Qularkono There is no christ and there is no throne! Grow up!!!

      August 16, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • jim

      @steelerguin You have not heard of atheist charities because atheists don't bond together to announce their good works to the world like christians seem to need to do.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • herp

      @steelerguin please google Secular Humanism for me. Actually do it for yourself.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Quarterback

      Typical comment from an Athiest, always has a need to comment on matters that don't pertain to them, always trying to change things that have been in exitance for decades and yet you say you have fulfillment, peace, fraternity and personal significance. You have no idea what your missing

      August 16, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • derp

      "Derp, what are you doing to better those around you? Feeding them, housing them, clothing them, etc. Funny, but I have never heard of an atheist relief agencies, atheist homeless shelters, etc. I believe most atheists are too self centered to care."

      You christians and your smug false sense of superiority amuses me. I have done everything from coaching little league to habitat for humanity. I have been active in my community, even contributed time and money to local church charity efforts even though I believe the followers are delusional windbags. They don't know I'm atheist so they gladly take my cash. I am currently sponsoring a young relative in his urban youth christian mission because he is a good kid, doing good things. Heck even my @#&*ing dog is rescue.

      I just don't announce my beliefs while I help others like some self righteous grandstanding douzchebag. Just because you believe in a bronze age myth does not make you better, more moral, or more chartiable thwan me. Get over yourself. I have never met a atheist dicknob, but I can't count on everyone I knows hands and feet how many jerkwad, self righteous christians I have met.

      August 17, 2011 at 5:44 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.