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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. Jeff

    There's the team I'd want to play if I mine was on a losing streak; it's a freebie like playing the Cubs.
    Sports should be better at promoting sportsmanship, but giant salaries and egos seem to play a bigger part. We make celebrites out of people that don't deserve it, and athletes are definately in that category. In this case I agree with these guys that sports needs humility.
    This ever growing trend towards mysticsm is bothering me, however. I was raised to believe that Americans were rational and practical people, and yet I see this failing on all sides.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  2. Joey Be Easy

    I don't understand how anyone can get upset about this. It's a group of Christian men trying to play soccer together. The end. It's their job, just like a banker, a construction worker, etc. They spend time off the pitch taking care of kids in uptown charlotte and other countries. They aren't pushing it on anybody during the game. It's $10.00 to get in and they play at a Christian High School 25 minutes from downtown. So you'll have to make it a point to see them – no billboards, no flyers, you wouldn't know they exist if you didn't look for them. I know everyone will bring up the Spanish Inquisition or a personal situation where they saw a Christian acting very un-Christian- like (which should be dismissed from being lumped in with actual Christianity as anyone can see it is not an accurate portrayal), but "We are long past talking about whether an unbeliever should be punished for being irreverent. It is now thought irreverent to be a believer."

    August 16, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • billp

      I'm sure you wouldn't mind if they started kicking non-Christians off the team and barred them from joining, as well. When they lose a game, clearly it is because the winning team must worship the Devil. What's wrong with a little bigotry so long as those practicing it are Christians?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Joey Be Easy

      I'm sure during the recruitment phase, the players are made aware of what the team is about. If someone were to change their stance on the team, I imagine they would want to be transferred, which I'm sure the Eagles would allow. And if you are actually saying that the team proposes the opponent "worships the devil", well... I'm not sure if I can have a logical discussion with you, sir.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  3. Ann the Atheist

    What a load of crap. Imma start an Atheist team, where our only goal is to teach secularism rather than win. psh. Losers are just using god as a crutch for being losers.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • J.W

      That is ok, if you do work to help out the community too.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Joey Be Easy

      They are actually a pretty good team... Anyway, your devout hatred for other people's personal views is disturbing.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  4. flower12

    All of you people who criticize are worthless morons. It is soooooo stupid that these people are trying to be good role models and help kidsl

    August 16, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  5. Valgal

    That is exactly how I feel. I play my best regardless of the outcome. I never know the score when the game is over and I never pray beforehand that I win... what makes Christians "different" is how we react when things don't go well, not about life going the way we want it to.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:34 am |
  6. Jimmy

    Its called freedom of religious expression. If you are gay or atheist fine,but don't deny me the right to talk about Jesus.We are going to keep proclaiming the WORD and if you don't like it don't listen.Just like all the gay garbage being pushed on the major networks.I don't watch or listen to it and you don't have to watch a Christian soccer team.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Mel

      Amen, brother!

      August 16, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • masonjar

      "Gay garbage" – how Christlike of you.. same old song and dance.. how do they not go deaf from the cognative dissonance??

      August 16, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Observer

      You certainly have the right to your opinions, but you don't have the right to deny others equal rights.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Ann the Atheist

      Thats cool, I'll be proclaiming the anti-word. I'll be sure to undo whatever damage I can that you have caused and are causing the young people of this world. See you on the battlefield!

      August 16, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Joey Be Easy

      Man Ann... you really hate Christianity don't you? haha... Attack-mode 100%.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Kevin

      Jimmy, we need people to speak up for tolerance; your reference to "gay garbage" reflects intolerance. You CAN do better.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Joey Be Easy

      Yeah, I liked this comment all the way up until "gay garbage". haha... That's pretty rough friendo.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  7. Matt

    Seriously, this is the crap CNN is putting up as the main story on their home page?

    August 16, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  8. biglio

    Reading news from the US lately is like reading medioeval history in europe, and that was not a good period.....
    what happened to this country? instead of going forward its going backward......I'm just waiting for the inquisition and the stakes to reappear....so sad.....

    August 16, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • TheThinker

      A soccer team embracing sportsmanship and Christianity is a step backwards for the country? What are YOU smoking?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Ann the Atheist

      Christianity = Main cause of death, destruction, depression and wars for the last 2k years. Sportsmanship is another animal.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Jared

      I know! Dang Christians teaching kids to play soccer, feeding the hungry, and helping communities! It is the dark ages all over!

      Come on, are you so hard hearted and blinded that you can't see the good in something you don't agree with?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • biglio

      thinker, i wonder if a muslim or a buddhist wants to join the team......even if it's Maradona they won't let him in, this is exclusive, not inclusive and ultimately not christian.....too bad so many people don't see that wearing your religion on your sleeve is just wrong, it's the same as saying i'm white or i'm black or I'm whatever......the sad thing is that you don't see it and as you most of Americans don't lately, religion is a private thing, when it becomes public it's always trouble, we in europe have fought for centuries over it, as late as the last Bosnia war......believe me when i say this is leading to no good and sectarianism, history is full of examples.

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

      Jared, the good is indisputable, but it can be done anyway without having to be publicized as done by Christians, do you think Jesus Christ was going around advertising his deeds? Or did he ever done any overt proselytizing? deeds speak louder than words, and by the way i'm a Catholic not an atheist, just hate the marketing of religion and this is marketing and again doesn't lead to any good.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • gin

      Thinker–it's about embracing religion which is taking steps backwards in time. Why can't these players just be honourable and decent without having to envoke Christianity into the mix. I am a atheist and I think I'm pretty moralistic, but then perhaps you might tell me I'm not because I don't believe?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Joey Be Easy

      Ann – You have disregarded all of the death caused in the name of godlessness. i.e. The Holocaust,

      Jared – There should be a like button on CNN just for your comment.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • gin

      Okay, so how about everytime I go out and do something good in the community I announce to everyone that I'm doing it because I'm a good atheist? People are doing great things all the time but it seems all the religious fanatics have to tell the world it's BECAUSE they are "believers"!

      August 16, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Ann the Atheist

      Joey, that was one crazy man, who was using religious sybols and pagan ideas, all still part of some type of 'religion'

      August 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Jake

      Joey Be Easy – Hitler was NOT, I repeat, NOT an atheist. He was raised Catholic, and spoke of God often in Mein Kampf. There is zero evidence that he abandoned theism, and any honest assesment of Nazism as a political and social movement reveals that it contained – and made use of – theistic and religious components. Under Nazism, nationalism did not replace theism. Rather, the two were woven together in a sinester way (much like Republicans are trying to weave religion and nationalism together now). Your claim that the Holecaust was the result of godlessness is simply false.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • @Collin

      Jake: Believing in God doesn't make you a Christian. This article is about a group of men that are Christians. Hitler was a Theist, fine. The point still stands that 2k years has brought pain, suffering, death and violence on behalf of many, many different causes- not just Christianity as Ann has asserted.

      Biglio- The Eagles didn't write this article, you know. CNN did. They are the ones publicizing it.

      August 16, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  9. JiminTX

    Ancient beliefs in an an Invisible Man who lives in the Sky and grants wishes is not the basis for any modern belief system.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • flistr8

      Amen, brother.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Ann the Atheist

      *should not be

      August 16, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • @Collin

      JiminTX: Just because it's old, doesn't mean its wrong. And just because it's new, doesn't make it right.
      Like all things, modernity brings with it good and bad. Some we should keep and some we should not blindly accept.

      There are plenty of examples of "old" ideas that are either still in use or provide the groundwork for modern progress. The fact that something has stayed around so long should provide confidence in it, or at least enough interest to investigate it.

      August 16, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  10. Paul

    They're doing the right thing. There are many methods to win souls, as a wise one does. There is only one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ the risen one!!

    August 16, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  11. Zazoor

    Bless that team, and the positive influence they have on their community. Jesus was not a fairy tale, our state of society has been degraded day after day.....it is funny how those same people that show love and support to their pets!! cant show love and acceptance to their fellow humans who have different beliefs!

    August 16, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  12. rlucius

    Thanks for a well-written, unbiased article on a topic that obviously provokes interest across the lines of religion. As for the other negative comments, if it bothers you to hear of something positive that dozens of grown men are doing in their community, then check yourself. Why is that not OK? If I"'m Ok and you're Ok," then surely grown men trying to live a positive lifestyle within their chosen profession while giving back in realisitc ways to their community is certainly OK. Wait...I forgot. Tolerance is only a word people use when referirng to someone other than a Christian. Pardon me, I forgot!. How intolerant of me!

    August 16, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • jlsppw

      My God somebody gets it!

      August 16, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Kevin

      Nicely written.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Krreagan

      A religious individual claiming religions are tolerant. Blinds from the inside is almost always self inflicted.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  13. jlsppw

    It amazes me that there are people out in this society that actually make money off of these trash publications; Shirl Hoffman has no clue weather she's coming or going. I'll give Rife some credit but fact is, Christians should be meek & meek has nothing to do with passive. If you have a concordance, look up the Greek definition of meek (as in the meek shall inherit the earth). It means "Power under perfect control" not the socially driven belief that meek means lowly. Jesus is the perfect definition of "meek" someone who could do whatever he wanted, however he wanted but DOES what is right.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • TheThinker

      Woh, slow down. This is CNN, stop offering meaningful insight!
      😉
      Srsly, that's good info on the Greek definition. Thx.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:37 am |
  14. This is news

    I hope they lose every game, go broke as a team and cant compete in the league anymore. Seriously, this is one of the dumbest things ive ever read.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Kevin

      So are you blaming CNN or the team? This is a country with religious freedom and I don't see how any of this interferes with your rights. If you don't like this article, don't read or watch CNN. If you don't like the idea of a soccer team praying, you don't have to pray or buy a ticket. The rest of your comment shows what a little, insecure person you are...to have to wish bad things on good people who don't wish the same for you.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • TheThinker

      So why are you intollerant of Christians?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Child of God

      I will certainly pray for you – so sad that your reaction to a beautiful story is one of anger and negativity. Has someone hurt you deeply? Unforgiveness will only hurt you and I hope you can let go of that and find some peace.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Diane

      Be very careful what you wish for.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  15. Terre

    I have always thought it to be ridiculous when an athlete invokes god, starts praying or crosses himself.. Seriously. Yes the imaginary god is a keen watcher of sport and will add a helping and and score a goal.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Kevin

      I suspect that you would find it ridiculous. But a lot of people find your reaction ridiculous and have not lashed out at you. You need to try a little anger management and more tolerance in your life. I wish you well. Moreover, I wish you happiness because you seem like quite an unhappy person and would love life if you were happy...but it starts with yourself.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • TheThinker

      I suspect you're actually questioning the athlete's sincerity. For all we know the athlete might live a selfish hedonistic lifestyle, but only invoke God when needed during a game.
      On the other hand, maybe the athlete is completely sincere and invokes God in all matters of his life.
      Or, the athlete is the world's biggest sinner except for during the game, and maybe God still wants to be invoked.
      It's really difficult to guess the motivation or whether God wants to be invoked, so I don't see how a person could judge a religious display and not come across as intollerant.

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

      Kevin, did you read is post? there is no anger in it, more like exasperation at the idiocy involved.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • @Collin

      Terre: the article discusses the point you raised. The Eagles don't do what you're taking issue with.

      August 16, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
  16. dave

    I love it when CNN runs stories like this....it gives the atheists a chance to bash others, and how often does that chance happen?

    August 16, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • LouAz

      Bash christians ? Good sport ! Too many christians . . . too few lions.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Krreagan

      No where near as often as we are assaulted by the idiocy of the believers.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  17. Cruzader

    The Creator of the Universe is biting His nails waiting for the results!

    August 16, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  18. Tom Lancaster

    The issue is not the world nor the things of the world. We still go on living in this world and using the things of this world, but we cannot build a future with them. The issue is man applying his wisdom as the supreme and final answer to all that is in him and the world. When through revelation; not doctrine, we realize the things of this world as well as the things of our flesh are all terminal and why they are going to end in death then we will begin to understand spiritually. Me, you and all others will die...no argument there also the things of this world will follow suit.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  19. saddened

    I cannot believe the backlash this group is taking. The comments below simply show the close-mindedness and division that we have in this country. We finally find a group of professional athletes that can serve as role models (religion aside) and people go out of their way to bash them. Where does all this hate come from? What is wrong with some people in this country...

    August 16, 2011 at 11:29 am |
  20. GvilleT

    Individual Christians on lets say a pro football or basketball team, feel the same way. The only difference here is it's team wide. While individual pro athletes work in their communities and are looked at as role models the same as this entire team, this team has more support (professional and personal) from each other, their coaches and their fans. That is the big difference. This additional support definately an advantage on and off the field. I think it's great.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:29 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.