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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. 831photography

    Awesome story, what a great testimony it is to the teams the play and to their community! I am encouraged to see men living out their faith and glorifying God in their ability to play soccer!

    August 21, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  2. Abby

    Great article and Go Eagles!

    August 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Martha L Shaw

      Great article. I see an amazing connection between faith and sports. Our Lord is all about teamwork. Paul's letters to Corinthians remind us of this. We are all (together) one body in Him! Read what Paul writes of Spiritual gifts. We must work together as a team whether it's to win ball games or to bring those in darkness into the Light of Christ!

      August 20, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  3. John

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_6PxnvaySw
    [

    August 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • ....

      Don't bother watching this junk it's spam, click the report abuse link to get rid of this troll.

      August 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  4. gtalum06

    All I can say is, wow! Soccer-playing, Christian men who ware involved in inner-city ministries... how many of them are single, and where can I find more like this? 🙂

    (fyi, I'm not objectifying them, I'm just pointing out that men like this are a rare find these days...)

    August 18, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  5. Tired of the crap in Kentucky

    It's amazing to me that every time there is a story that involves positive Christianity, people have to turn it into a political debate and all the Christian hate mongers crawl out from under their pathetic rocks. If you don't like Christianity, go someplace else. Why waste your time even reading these articles? Ichthus does positive things in the community and provides a forum for hurting people to find friendship and peace. You Christian hate mongers don't know that because you have never been and wouldn't take a fair look even if you did. You are the first to cry about intolerance of your views, but then have no tolerance for the right of Christians to practice their faith however they want. You are hypocrites and slugs.

    The Charlotte Eagles are comprised of some of the most quality human beings I have ever met. You could take their Christianity out of it and they still do amazing work that benefits the community. How many of you flaming liberals are moving into the projects so you can help young black and refugee kids grow to be decent human beings? Easy answer – NONE! You critics should take a look at what these guys are accomplishing before you open your fat traps. You have no idea what you are talking about.

    I say way to go Charlotte Eagles – you keep doing the work that no one else is doing. Continue making a positive contribution in the lives of kids around the world. Ignore the idiots who try to derail you. The work you do is amazing and will have a profound impact in the lives of the people who actually know you and your work.

    August 18, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Semper Fidelis

      Thank you for a truly great post. I couldn't have said it better.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  6. 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 than me. Get over yourself. I have never met an 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 5:45 pm |
    • Gmoney

      Derp...

      You have to look at where they are coming from. none of this is for themselves. all those things you just listed seem pretty great and i appreciate the fact that you help others, even rescued dogs! that's great! but this article is not to boast about anything they've done because they want the praise or recognition. they could care less! and show me where they said they are trying to prove their superiority to others? i don't see that anywhere. in fact i see a sense of humility. they are reaching out to kids and people that do not get attention. Society doesn't even help they just say that "they’ll go to jail, or won’t graduate, or will cause trouble.” so i hope you don't get the sense they're doing it for anyone else except to serve the Lord and His people. We as Christians are to resemble the life of Christ, which Mark 10:45 says, "For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve..." These men are helping for one reason only: God has gifted them with athletic ability to give them an avenue to preach the Gospel. And I know you say that all Christians are "delusional windbags" but i'm sure you've probably met someone who isn't a "delusional windbag" who may have been a Christian. They just didn't voice it. And i don't like when anyone uses the word "all" to speak about a certain kind of people group. That just seems ignorant. Have you met every single Christian? No. So that's just a harsh generalization.

      And I understand that you don't "announce" your beliefs to the world, and no one is forcing you to. But as Christians, we are called to announce their beliefs (Matthew 28:19-20). So please don't rip us for sharing what we belief because our beliefs say we should. Respect the fact that we believe different things, calling for different actions or a lack of action in your case (for certain things). And I honestly have a lot of respect for atheists because it takes more faith to believe in nothing than to believe in God. But thats my own personal opinion...

      August 18, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Semper Fidelis

      For someone who doesn't broadcast his good works, you just did a great PR job for yourself here!

      You spoilt it by saying you offered time and money to the local church but you REALLY believe they are "delusional windbags" So it's not charity is it. You're doing it so YOU feel superior! No merit for you in that.

      As for taking Little League for coaching – I wouldn't let you near my children with your foul mouth. I wish I could be as charitable as this other gentleman, but you attutude does you no credit.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  7. Old-Fashioned

    This is great, but exactly in line with the spirit of the British founders of soccer, who believed in sportsmanship and fair play. "Sportsmanship" is defined in Wikipedia to include "playing fair" without regard for winning or losing. I am delighted to see that the principle has been resurrected, after so many years when it was replaced by "win at all costs", but I am not sure where God comes into it – except as a facilitator!.

    August 17, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  8. JimC

    The requirement for a Christian league or team in order to do the right thing is completely unfounded. In golf the players call penalties on themselves and have done so for hundreds of years. There is not the slightest element of religion in the basis of that practice. There is only the respect for the game and the respect for the other players that motivates it. It is entirely possible to be good without god. It just takes some humanism to get it right.

    August 17, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • Semper Fidelis

      But it's THEIR choice, isn't it? Are they harming anyone – No Are they helping anyone -Yes. Why do you feel the need to undermine them? Strange.

      August 18, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  9. Meredith Moore

    We can get so caught up in trying to analyze whether Christians are setting good examples. A group of men trying to live as Christ would have them live speaks tremendously to their character. We all fall sort of the glory of God so I applaud their efforts.

    August 17, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • nerve9

      Come on! Everyone knows Jesus was a baseball player!

      August 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Sue

      We all fall short of the _gory_ of god. There, fixed your typo for you, Meredith. "Gory", not "glory":

      It would be pretty hard to be more gory than the Christian god, what with all the killing he is said to have done to whole peoples, and his demands for people to burn animals. Must have been a guy, to be that curel and violent, too.

      August 17, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • Sue

      cruel, not curel.

      August 17, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • HB

      Epic fail, Sue! Now that's classic! Slam someone for a typo and then make your own. Priceless!

      August 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm |
    • Les

      The fact that this team prays in PUBLIC in direct disobedience of the biblical command to pray in private clearly indicates this team is MOT Xtian. This clearly a case of "doing those things that seem good to a man" but are, in FACT, in direct opposition to the scriptures. These guys need to do public penance for the grave and atrocious sinof doing the opposite of what God has declared. The are NOT Xrian. They are the children of Lucifer the angel of light. "Go to the field and sin no more or rot in hell" is the clear message of God to these silly Pharisees..

      August 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  10. Willie

    Luke 7:33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil.
    Luke 7:34 The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!

    August 17, 2011 at 3:44 am |
  11. Faith

    Any human excellency must be dedicated to God and only Christians do it with pure motivation...

    August 17, 2011 at 12:42 am |
  12. Faith

    Christians run for God like Eric Liddell... God made them fast and they run for His glory and His pleasures...

    August 17, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  13. Colin

    As an atheist, I imagine this team to be pretty cool. I expect that they are regular guys playing sport, the type of person I like.

    I do think it is a shame that they have allowed religion to so control their lives. Let's face it, it is a simple man's answer of believing in supernatural things, like life after death and all-powerful sky-gods to cuddle and protect us. Come ned of the day, it's a little like drug addicts – as long as they only let it rule their lives, and not mine, what do I care?

    August 16, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Dave

      These guys put your needs above their own. OMG – what would the world be like if everyone was like that???

      Think about what C.S. Lewis said:

      “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

      August 17, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Sue

      Dave, tough for you but Christianity is false. It's only of importance because a lot of stupid people still believe its fictions.

      August 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • @Sue

      Your statement that Christianity is false (later post) is your opinion and you are very much ent-itled to it, but don't portray it as an absolute truth. Isn't that what you accuse Christians of doing? Perhaps after spending some time studying God's Word then you will understand what it is that you are claiming to be false. Your blanket statements are just blather at this point.

      August 17, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  14. Evan

    I think its great that they put this article on their main page. Great article CNN. I'm sorry about all of the negative comments. If this any other religion I think people wouldn't be so disrespectful and intolerant

    August 16, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • derp

      " If this any other religion I think people wouldn't be so disrespectful and intolerant"

      Yeah, sure, if this was about an Muslim soccer team there would certainly be jokes about bombs, burqua's, or terrorism. Christian paranoia and self pity is getting old.

      August 18, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Sylvia

      Well said Evan.... interesting that any other group being positive role models and helping at-risk kids in inner city areas would be commended but Christians are criticized for having an impact on their world by living out their faith and values?!

      August 18, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  15. Paul

    A refreshing article! Great way to preach the good news to the wider world through a common language which is the gift of football (soccer). A team that plays with integrity for God will be noticed for this by the opponents and fans.

    August 16, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  16. EyesOpen

    Great focus for sports, I wish all teams were like this.
    "The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning." – Proverbs 14:6

    August 16, 2011 at 9:01 pm |
  17. BlackJack45

    It's about time we see a team with true integrity. Great Article!

    August 16, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  18. nathan

    Thank you CNN for this refreshing article. I aprreciate it. It's nice to hear about a team doing something good.

    August 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  19. Reality

    As we "thu-mp" along with rational thinking, conclusions and reiteration to counter the millennia of false and flawed religious history and theology!!!------––

    Some 21st century reality for all global citizens to include this brainwashed soccer team:

    Mark 3:20-21

    "20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

    Jesus actually was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?

    August 16, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
  20. albert

    Are true Christians actually supposed to believe that God "Calls" them to play soccer?!? Please site scriptures where God called on his people in such a way. Also, if these soccer players are so humble and unselfish, then why do they sign autograph? Where is the humility in that? Isn't that placing importance on yourself? Even the Angels weren't so arrogant. They allowed no one to bow down before them.

    August 16, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Pekkar Lipschitz

      Allow me to quote from the Bible: "Yea, heed my call! Thou shalt go out and kicketh a ball around in front of small crowds of people who could not afford to watch reall ball-kickers and had to come see you instead. Thou shalt make sure that thou praise me at every opportunity, before every kick and play, and again after, and then some more, for I just cannot hear enough about myself. Fail to praise me and I shall smite thee just like Willy Mays used to smite the baseball out of the stadium, except I shall do it again and again. And I tell you truly, when I calleth you to kick balls, I mean the ones that say "Spaulding" on them, not the ones that dangleth between mens' legs – unless they dangleth beneath a non-believer, those you may kicketh repeatedly in Christian love in My Holy Name." Beckham 13:452-23

      August 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
    • Evan

      It doesn't say anything specifically about soccer. They are just using soccer as a way to minister to other people and to share their faith

      August 16, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • J

      1 peter 4:10 talks about using the gifts God has given to administer his grace in it's various forms. From that angle, any kind of gift or ability that believers have are to be used to minister grace. That doesn't mean that they are to be used to bring about conversions, but offer grace to everyone regardless of their beliefs or responses. Does that make sense? I feel like too often we believers think that in exercising our gifts we only do so to add to the number of Christians. But having been involved in community sports work for years and reading the Bible for years, I see that we are trying to extend the same kind of grace that we have experienced ourselves, regardless of whether or not the person we minister to becomes a Christian.
      As for signing autographs, it's great for kids to have role models to look up to and signing an autograph is a great way to encourage kids to keep trying to reach their goals. Certainly you can do that in a prideful way, but you can cut your grass, cook your dinner, and tie your shoe in a prideful way as well...so I think.

      Respectfully,

      J

      August 17, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Kurt

      I have written rather extensively on the topic of being a Christian athlete at my new blog Compete4Christ (www.compete4christ.blogspot.com). I believe that the Son of God served as the ultimate sacrifice for my sins and the sins of all believers therefore I will strive to honor Him by being excellent in the areas He has gifted me.
      For much, much more visit my blog. Looking forward to hearing your feedback.

      August 17, 2011 at 9:14 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.