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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. Tony Montana

    Child porkers.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Mr wilson aka im white

      I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  2. boka

    wow, bunch of losers. stop praying to an invisible man in the sky and do something for yourselves.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Flappy Bob

      I wonder if it is more effective to pray or to practice?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Tommy

      Practicing, acting, is the strongest form of prayer that God has given humanity.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  3. Prle

    These people are willing to kill one another to please their imaginary friend.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Tommy

      They are? Have you met them? You know they are murderers for God?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  4. demetri

    Ok. Using sports as a means to recruit and spread their belief. Now can all religions do this or just Christians? What is their ultimate goal, so to speak?

    August 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • SmartPotato

      Wait until the all-Muslim team joins the league.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Jesus Has Arisen and He Mows My Lawn ! !

      I bet that the All-Atheist team stomps them into the stone age! Okay, their thinking is already in the stone age, so it's just the rest of them that gets stomped.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • stickyd

      They aren't preaching or forcing their views on other teams or fans. They just provide a team for fellow Christians to be a part of while playing a game they love. Idiots like you are what's destroying our country. You don't care about values, morals, ethics, and everything else that is required to make family and society fit to even be on this earth. Liberals and atheist are garbage!

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

      @stickyd

      Re: "Liberals and atheist are garbage!" Until I read this, and I've read most of the comments, I wasn't going to bother saying anything. If a team owner wants to mix religion and sports, what do I care... just one dumb decision following another (to believe) but that's his problem. But I do want to thank you for so vividly reminding me why I hate religion, and for providing such a perfect example of a hypocritical christian. Too bad you couldn't follow the lead of the soccer team. But again, thanks, as your example may be more effective at driving people away from religion and christianity than me politely stating that "There are no gods, not event just one."

      August 16, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Frogist

      @stickyd: It might interest you to re-read the article. They are not "just" providing a place for Christians to play the game. They are also using it as a means to proselytize which I'm sure doesn't bother you because it's your faith. I just hope you would feel the same if it was a muslim team or an atheist one... Oh but I see by your last sentence that, of course, that would bother you. Do you understand the hypocrisy of your post now?

      August 16, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  5. Ivan

    what a horrible thing to read when I woke up this morning to read the news.

    I feel annoyed now,
    thanks cnn..

    August 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Julio

      what exactly makes this horrible? the part where they say that they won't cheat and they will play fair? or the one where they are growing to be good men of service to society?

      August 16, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  6. rr

    Our church has sports teams like this one. They play games so families can have something to do besides sit in front of the television. Sometimes they visit our church on Sunday. It's all about families having a good time and if they come to church and learn about God then so be it. Good for these guys.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  7. Cultural

    "God" is a now soccer player?
    LMAO
    Christians never cease to amaze.
    The lies and deception they are willing to accept....

    August 16, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Tommy

      Where in the world did it say God was a soccer player?

      August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • stickyd

      Wow, that's what you got from this story? If you don't believe in God, you're pretty much the enemy of all Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc......Are you going to stand up to Muslims and bash their beliefs like you openly do to Christians?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Julio

      you need to go back to grammar school... English is not my first language, but I didn't read that in the story...

      August 16, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Omar the Octopoidal Cat Murderer

      Of course God is a soccer player - his given name is Lionel Messi.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Mort Gordy

      Of Course Jesus played soccer. He was a goal keeper. Haven't you ever heard the term "Jesus saves"

      August 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  8. kd

    why not bring glory to god by doing charity and helping the poor and less fortunate. You know, the things jesus told everyone to do in the bible. Not much of that going on in the US these days.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • rr

      I agree.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • AviRaider

      Hello? Read the article, they do, do service work and they spread the gospel by using soccer as their medium. And if they support their church, which they should be doing, then they are helping the poor and less fortunate.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Julio

      It doesn't say they don't do that as well, the focus of the story is about the soccer team... by the way , when was the last time that YOU helped the needy and fed the poor?

      August 16, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Frogist

      @AviRaider: Actually it doesn't say they participate in any feeding of the hungry or clothing the poor or aiding the sick. It just says they go out into poor communities to recruit for their religion. There is a big difference there.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  9. RKW

    When I'm ready for your interpretation of the glory of God, I will pick up the bible and only read just parts of it and ignore the other parts. Instead I have read the bible. All of it. And understand what it really represents.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Jesus Has Arisen and He Mows My Lawn ! !

      And what the Bible really represents is a bunch of crazy ignorant bronze age Middle Eastern morons who had no clue what they were talking about but did it anyway.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  10. myweightinwords

    It irks me when people of any faith feel the need to "spread the word"...I am no longer Christian, but I brought something out of my days as a Christian that is still a part of me. My greatest testimony to what I believe is my life, not my words.

    If I live in such a way that what I believe shines through me, and someone is seeking, they will respond to that and ask me questions. I should never have a need to "proclaim" my faith to unwilling ears.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • AviRaider

      Why does that irk you? Christains are commanded, in the Bible, to go and spread the word. You're right in that your actions should do the majority of the talking but evangelism must still take place. We can't rightly spread the gospel if we aren't living in His word daily.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Steve Skeete

      You have spread the "wrd" your word. What you did was tell us what you believe. You just proclaimed your "faith"or belief in what you hold dear,loud and clear. So, let others proclaim their faith in God the way they want to, and "proclaim the things that they hold dear. I can see nothing at all wrong with that.

      The next time someone comes to you to proclaimig anything you do not ant to hear, know or identify with, just say "no thank you." That should, usually, suffice.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Steve Skeete: The difference is this is a blog used for comments. That is a football pitch. One is for talking about ideas, and beliefs, the other is for playing football. Some Christians don't see the difference and think every place is just fine for pushing their religion. It's not.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  11. Callmeishmael

    I wonder whose glory it'll be when a couple of these guys are caught "off sides."

    August 16, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Julio

      you don't understand the game at all... offside is not cheating... offside is a strategy played by the defense to keep you from scoring too easily ... my goodness! people are so finicky!

      August 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  12. CandyLand

    I would like to submit that anyone who posts bigoted comments whether you on the "Christian" or "Anti-Christian" side of the debate are doing absolutely NOTHING to uphold your views. You only make yourself out to look like a narrow minded idiot.

    The "Christian" is definitely not walking in the loving footsteps of Christ and the "Anti-Christian" takes up the role of the Roman styled (and in other parts of History) misguided "Christian Warrior" Persecutor.

    Grow up people and learn to allow people to live their own lives so long as it does not adversely affect the masses (i.e., Holy Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, Colonial America Witch Hunts, Holocaust, Ethnic Cleansing, etc.)

    August 16, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • SmartPotato

      Didn't you just contradict yourself by citing a whole history of Christian-based genocide? Jes' sayin'.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  13. Bear1979

    I'm starting a beer club centered around Christianity. While we will all get hammered at our meetings, the main point is to bask in the glory of our lord, Jesus Christ.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • SmartPotato

      I'll run a tab.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • CandyLand

      Dear, why don't you at least learn about who you're mocking.....

      August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • derp

      Praise the lord!!!!!!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • glyder

      maybe cnn's purpose is to bring out the hate mongers.success.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Julio

      Luke 23:34 Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing

      August 16, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  14. SmartPotato

    Bah! "Not about winning"... ask the boys that. Adults are so stupid.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  15. Litmus

    What's up with CNN and all the god stuff? If you believe in their god then this is perfectly normal. If you don't believe then this has no place in sports. I'd much rather waste time worrying about religion and politics than religion and sports, but that's just me...

    August 16, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  16. Darwin

    SPORTS is all about lying, cheating, and doping. It's estimated that anti-doping agencies around the world have to spend well over 100 MILLION DOLLARS a YEAR to test and deter and catch cheaters. AND, most of these athletes in western countries ARE CHRISTIANS! So go figure???

    August 16, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • SmartPotato

      Ha ha ha!

      August 16, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Omar the Octopoidal Cat Murderer

      They don't have to. I for one would prefer everyone employed by WADA take a long walk on a short pier. And take the invisible sky-father people with them.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  17. mat

    So being a Christian is a requirement for being a member of this team? I don't think that a team that promotes religious discrimination should be playing in the USL.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  18. Matt

    Yes they are compatible. Eric Liddell ran for the glory of God. Athletes thank God after victories. Jason Terry credited his faith in God after Dallas beat Miami. There are too many instances to count.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Colin

      For every success attributed to god, there is an uncounted failure. Just watch two boxers bless themselves before a fight one must lose.

      Claiming [the Christian] god's influence in sporting events is as vacuous as praying for a four to come up on each of six-hundred times you roll a die, and then claiming that god answered your prayers “about a hundred times.”

      August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • twiddly

      There just as many losing instances. Do you credit god with those too?
      If you don't, then crediting the wins make no sense.
      If you do, then the outcome doesn't change whether you posit a god or not, so why bother?
      Religion is so ridiculous if you Stop And Think for just a teensy bit.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Tommy

      Thanking God is not crediting God. Thanking God is akin to recognizing God's influence in your life. Crediting God is akin to saying God came down, took over your body, and played for you. Most athletes do not credit God because that is incompetent and leads to things like Steve Johnson last year.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • derp

      Jesus made me fumble!!! He's a doosh!!!!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  19. G.G.

    Isn't there a section in the bible about pride being a bad thing and having humility? If not there should be.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Tommy

      Yes, the entire book of Proverbs echoes this thought.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  20. derp

    When they lose, it's because jesus likes the other team better.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • herp

      Not necessarily. It may mean that the losing team was not sincere enough in their faith and were out wished by the other team.

      August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
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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.