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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. Ben

    Some of you people have issues... seriously. Look how bent out of shape you get about something that has no effect on you and you wouldnt even know about except cnn decided to do yet another christian bashing article.

    I mean really.. why do you care? Why does it really bother you so much that you feel the need to lash out?

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

      Ben, usually when insecurity is involved there usually will be a back lash.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  2. CNNN

    I cannot stomach evangelical types. They are utterly obnoxious.

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

      And your different how?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Patrick

      @ Mr. Hanson: it's "you're" as in YOU ARE! DO you get the difference? DO you have a grasp upon the English language? Is that so flipping difficult? Here, let me put a sentence together using both words: Your dogmatic belief in the Christian god proves you're a moron!

      August 16, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • @Patrick

      Patrick, do you need a hug? It sounds like you do.

      August 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  3. michaelwade

    What a buch of dip heads and whimpy losers. Geez, they expect God to do everything for them.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  4. Russ

    Sounds like a reason for a bunch of guys to get together and do their thing? Without wives and gfs. Either way, I have never seen God intervene in any sporting event. It is always the better team that day that wins. Not the one that does the most praying. All you religious freaks need to start taking responsibility for yourselves and quit blaming all your fortunes and most of all misfortunes on it being Gods will. No, it's your mistakes, your misfortune. Get off your lazy duffs and do whatever it takes to change your life. Quit waiting for the magic man in the sky to help you.

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

      Just read the head line huh...not the entire article. ...

      August 16, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  5. Jen

    I think it's great. If their greatest priority in life is glorifying God in all they do, then why shouldn't that be evident in their passions in life (including soccer). These guys are really living out what they believe. Whether you believe in God or not, that kind of character is admirable.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • cheeses of nazerath (gouda be praised)

      "These guys are really living out what they believe. Whether you believe in God or not, that kind of character is admirable."

      I dunno, the guys who flew the planes into the towers were living out what they believed too. And without doubt (for they themselves had none, assuredly) they were glorifying god in everything they did. And there are countless examples of christians as well throughout history committing mass murder and atrocities while living out what they believed.

      Living out what you believe does not make one's character admirable, and especially so, if history is any guide, if it is done for the glory of god.

      You need to better define what makes for an admirable character, but I suspect you are going to need better critical thinking skills.

      August 16, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  6. Scott

    They're on a Crusade....historically we know what that means ahnd how it turns out

    August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  7. Nick

    If your #1 goal is not winning games then you should not be playing professional sports

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

      Obviously winning is a goal, it's just not more important than their moral and ethical values.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • TheyNotHim

      @skytag

      And what is moral or ethical about condemning most of the world to a fiery pain filled end if they don't believe as you do? Or depriving your fellow citizens of basic human rights because of a misinterpretation of a book written 2000 years ago?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  8. SpotOn

    Maybe the reason they always lose is because they are praying to the wrong god(s). My suggestion is to shop around the hundreds of options until they find a winner. And when they start losing again they can just shop for another god. I've heard that Zeus has done wonders for a number of past sports teams. There are a whole slew of native American gods to choose from too – the Cherokee Kanati (lucky hunter) would surely bless the team's strikers hunting for goals.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  9. HAHA oh wow

    It's KICKING A BALL.
    Do you really need divine intervention to KICK A BALL?
    Oh GOD must've blessed them with those goals.
    Maybe god should bless the other team with better goalies.
    Maybe SATAN is too busy controlling the other team.

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

      Why don't you read the article, it has nothing with divine intervention.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  10. stevie68a

    Christianity is the belief that a cosmic jewish zombie, who was his own father, can make you live forever, if you symbolically eat
    his flesh and drink his blood, and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity, because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.... makes
    perfect sense.
    I think it's time for "christians" to question what was force fed to them as children. We are in a New Age, and this folklore is just
    plain silly. Teach ethics instead.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Marc Boudreau

      exaaactly, im sick of people saying that oh its the christian way to do this, we are doing things that god would want us to do because of our love for god and god's love for us....how about you just shut up and be a good person and do the right thing, not because some god (that never has ever materialized or spoken to any human being) wants you to.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  11. Colin

    For every athletic 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 10:59 am |
    • Habe

      It's wonderful reasoning.
      I won, therefore God is rewarding my hard work and dedication.
      I lost, therefore God must be challenging me to work harder.

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

      Did you ever stop and think that maybe its not about winning? Maybe its about having the ability to be there in the first place and thanking god for that? You give thanks for having the skill and talent and determination to be "in the ring" or on the field in the first place.. not for "scoring the most goals" or hitting that home run.. you guys miss the entire point because you are so consumed with prejudice and bias against an idea. Its obvious that 99% of the people posting didn't even read the article.. just the headline and maybe skimmed through a couple lines. Obviously didn't get to the point where they talk about how they give thanks win lose or draw and the out reach they do to under privileged children, etc.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  12. Saam

    Great... these guys are adding to the perception that Charlotte is just some bible Christian town when in fact it is fast becoming a fast cosmopolitan city... Can we trade these guys to different teams and get a winning mentality back? If sports are not about winning then what is it about? To quote former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, "Hello? You play to win the game! You don't play to just play!"

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

      No one said they weren't playing to win. They are just going to do their best to glorify God in the process by rising above the cheating that is rampant in the game. You can play to win and still be a person of faith and integrity.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  13. us1776

    Religion = Mass delusion !!

    .

    August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  14. rhodesma

    puke.

    August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  15. Habe

    My satanic soccer team is scheduled to play these guys on Friday the 13th.
    But seriously, doesn't this sort of thing brutally trivialize Christianity? Are some believers really so desperate for acceptance and validation that they have to so loudly proclaim their piety during every possible activity, no matter how banal?

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

      Not Really, but thanks for thinking about those of us of whom are Christians..We are thinking about you. Glad you responded, scoffers are not new to Christians and it is no problem. Dr. D.W.J PhD, in PhIlosophy, M.A. Philosophy, B.A. History and Religion. Impressive,,NO! But our God is, and so are you, Habe.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Habe

      I have no problem with the faithful whatsoever. I'm afraid that your religion is becoming terribly watered-down, though, but I'm certainly no theologist.
      Do what you do for whatever reason you choose – no one way is better than any other in the end.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:09 am |
    • Talgrath

      For the far-right Christians, injecting religion into everything is the goal and this is merely another example of it. What the far right doesn't realize is exactly this sort of trivializing is what causes so many to turn away from religion who might otherwise be interested.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  16. bv

    then mat, become a christian

    August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  17. Prle

    Their church steeple has lightning rod on top, its shows lack of confidence.

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

      that's funny...

      August 16, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  18. tallulah13

    And I thought soccer was boring before....

    August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  19. Bob Rock

    Why are people so dumb?

    August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  20. THThite

    The thing that worries me most isn't that this embarassment of a team depends on a goal of saving lives.

    It's that it's now the year 2011 and we still have people believing souls are real, as well as god. I was hoping we'd be far past this by now. A lifetime without evidence and we are still running with this story like it's legit.

    sigh america. real sigh.

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

      Actually, it's still something like 80% in the U.S. And the future potential president Perry is praying for rain in Texas!

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

      Yes, and virtually every major newspaper still carries an astrology column and there is a museum in Cincinatti dedicated to creation science. It shows children riding dinosours.

      Dear god, why did you make us so dumb?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:03 am |
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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.