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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. pithyMcgee

    You folks who act like god wouldn't be interested in sports need to read your bible ahain. Don't you remember how God made that bet with Satan about Job? And what about when he came sooooooooo close to making Abraham sacrifice his son before showing up and going, "WHOOOAAA, MAN!! I wasw just KIDDING!! SHEESH!! Look at this guy over here, he was gonna kill his son for me!! BWAHAHAHAHAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAHAHAHAHAAA!!" That sounds like the type of dude who enjoys acting like a jock.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  2. Mel

    I think it is great. When you have a skill you should always use it in this world and for his glory. In everything you do, as a Christian you should do it as unto the Lord, in other words, to the best of your ability. When they play, they aren't trying to win for their own glory – their aim is to please God by giving it 110%. 2 Timothy 2:15 "Do your best to present yourselves as one approved, a workman who need not be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth." TO GOD BE THE GLORY! And for those skeptics, all current Christians used to be in your shoes at one time in their life. I used to be a skeptic too, but I opened my mind and heart and God changed me. Try it – you might be surprised.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      the opiate of the masses, never been a truer turn of the tongue.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  3. Urban Possum

    Dear Jesus, please save me from your followers.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  4. Louis Lorentz

    Regarding religion in general; I find it quite ironic that those who formed this nation did so in part to escape the religious persecution in Europe. Now most nations in Europe have moved passed the dogma and divisiveness of religion while this country insists on moving towards a theocracy. Also, I don't have to fear an unknown all powerful being to force me to be a moral, updstanding role model.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Julio

      Louis... being Christian is not about being a better person (that could be a good side effect) but is about being saved from the wrath to come, the day in which God will judge all of us for our sins and trespasses. I am not being arrogant, the bible says this... God is holy and he has to deal with unholiness by destroying it, but He is also loving and he has provided a way to escape his wrath trough the death of His perfect son Jesus Christ... Isaiah 53: 5 says But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. I know that there are Christians that are annoying and obnoxious, but please see pass that and understand that this is something very personal between you and God (even if you believe he doesn't exist that doesn't change the fact that he does)

      August 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  5. CMW

    How wonderful! Let us all pray that more and more athletic teams follow suit with this. God Bless these fine men and help them to reach those who need them most.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  6. Answer_to_Peace

    Christians, like Muslims, have never been able to live peacefully. That's why all the anti-religious rhetoric. Even some of our fore-fathers believed bible to be a lot of made up voodoo. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin appreciated the moral direction, but both knew what was really up.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  7. BriSoFla

    This is so STUPID. God could care less about their soccer team. Get real people, you are an embarassment to the rest of our first world nation of THINKERS!

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

      Thank you for enlightening us on what God cares about.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  8. Oh Yeah....

    I've read nearly all the comments posted here and read the article. What I think and this is my own personal opinion of course, and one I've carried for a long time is that God wants soliders in heaven. Not necessarily the big and strong type but peole that hold firm in their beliefs through HIS word. Sports is all about teamwork, playing as hard as you can within the rules. It's your talent vs the talent of the other team. At the end of the game, you come away with things the team needs to work on to get better in certain aspects of the event. Some teams adapt quicker/respond faster and prepare better than others but son what? Yeah, those teams may have a losing record overall but at the end of the day you can honestly say you gave it the very best you had, worked diligently and played fair then you're a winner. This give the true meaning to "it's not whther you win or lose but how you play the game". I played collegiate baseball on the DI level and pitched and coach on the JUCO level now for a very successful team. I have followed this motto and am happy with how my sporting life and the sporting life of my children has been. 3 of my children currently play DI sports. They are Christian, work hard at their sport and the life lessons are fantastic.

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

      Never understood Tennis. Thanks for explaining that stuff about TEAMWORK. But one small question remains . . . why doesn't tennis have CHEERLEADERS ? Yea TEAM !

      August 16, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      so wait, we're going to fight in heaven?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  9. rtallb

    Yeah god cares about idiots kicking a ball around a field – get over yourself Christians.

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

      Soccer is god's prefered sport ! It is that Satanic Darwin that pointed out that humans developed the opposed thumb and wonderful HANDS so that real creatures could play games like Beesball, Tennis, Rugby, Volleyball, Ping Pong, all kinds of games where you USE YOUR DARWIN GIVEN HANDS. It is only the christian god and his soccer game and his followers that have not progressed much beyond the primeordal (sp?) ooze.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  10. 1nd3p3nd3nt

    god said unto cain and abel:
    'both of your sacrifices are great. It was the thought that counts. You guys really shouldn't have.'

    August 16, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  11. Mark

    There isn't any god. sorry to disappoint everyone but if you are praying you are blowing in the wind.

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

      I think your statement should say "Based on the evidence I've been given, I choose to believe there isn't a god." Your statement is too 'matter of fact' for something you can't prove.

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

      Exactly!

      August 16, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Julio

      can you prove that the God of the bible does not exist? I am seriously waiting for your academic explanation...

      August 16, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  12. stonedwhitetrash

    Don't think God is much of a soccer fan and Jesus would have trouble kicking that ball wearing sandals

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

      The Romans supposedly invented the game, using skulls of the vanquished. as the "ball". They wore sandals.

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

      @ Tony: The Romans had air-filled balls for the game of harpatsum which was somewhere between soccer and rugby. They played barefoot by the way.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  13. Tony

    Hosana in the highest.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  14. Jake

    These guys are free to say pretty much whatever they want. However, their soccer evangelizing is pretty pointless. God/gods/whatever don't care about your soccer team. They won't help you win games, and winning games won't win converts. This story is just another case of some Christian group wanting a pat on the head for being self righteous. Wow, amazing.

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

      Someone clearly didn't read the article.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Julio

      How would you know that God doesn't care? Have you talked to Him recently?

      August 16, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  15. TheWiz

    Here's every single Belief Blog comment page using the 3 dominant voices we always read, over and over again.
    Atheists: God doesn't exist and theists are stupid & conservative.
    Real Christians, Jews, Muslims: God does exist, faith does have a role in society, and science and religion have two different purposes, and do not contradict each other
    Fundamentalists: God exists, atheists are stupid, science is bunk, and moderate people of faith are traitors.
    I'm tired of all of it. Extremists on either end (religious fundamentalists and ardent atheists) are birds of a feather.Science and religion are not contradictory, but complementary. My last words. And, I'm done with this page altogether. Period.

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

      shalom

      August 16, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Fred Flintstone

      Gosh, you are really going to be missed.

      By the way, where do self-righteous dingbats like you go next?

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

      Way to make sweeping generalizations about the people making sweeping generalizations. You lose.

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

      So you drop your poop and run off. Good, since you sound like an idiot anyway. You must be that rare True Christian® since you sound so self rightious.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      ahhh, i see, the REAL religious folks believe that science and religion are not mutually exclusive. I suppose that's why science is mentioned in the Bible alot. Or cars. or computers. or how math can be used to figure things out.

      I suppose that's why the muslims burned the great library of alexandria, or why the christians thought the earth was the center of the universe, or that orbits had to be circular? those must have been the fanatics then, and not the REAL religions.

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

      Science: We evolved over the course of 300 million years, and continue to evolve today.

      Religion: 8 thousand years ago, god created the heavens and the Earth, and made man in his image.

      How are those complementary?

      August 16, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • o.k.

      1nd3p3nd3nt – First of all, "alot" is not a word–next time try "a lot." (I'm hope your not one of those people who say that Christians are idiots–that would be wrong "alot.") Your effort to criticize the Bible because it doesn't mention cars or computers is beyond reason: If I were an atheist, I'd literally be embarrassed by your tirade. Finally, your comment that "christians thought the earth was the center of the universe, or that orbits had to be circular?" is absurd–this has never been part of Biblical doctrine–any belief that that the earth was the center of the universe, etc. stems from early history's lack of technology and education–not from Biblical beliefs. Your ad hominen attack fails miserably.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • o.k.

      Oops–sorry for the typo–"you're"

      August 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  16. jpw2010

    God is about as real as Zeus and Odin.

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

      Zeus and Odin sure as hell are real. I've seen them. They look like Liam Neeson and Anthony Hopkins!

      RELEASE THE KRAKEN!

      August 16, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • jpw20nothing

      What if you're wrong? No big deal for a Christian, you just lived a good life and were good to others. You on the other hand would have a lot more to worry about if you are wrong.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  17. Chuck

    "As Christians, they say they hold themselves to a high standard."

    If they think "not cheating" and "playing fair" is somehow evidence of their "high standard" then that says a lot about the inherent nature of Christians.

    I'm an atheist and for me "not cheating" and "playing fair" is just standard. Baseline. I don't need some mythical sky-fairy to pressure me into not being a miserable and selfish human being.

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

      “Our main prayer before games is for God to grant us strength and wisdom to play fair and Christ-like."

      Again... they need help with this? They need an all-powerful deity to grant them the strength and wisdom to not cheat, to not get mad at bad calls, and to just play as best and fair as possible?

      They don't need god. They need a kindergarten teacher.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • jpw20nothing

      Good one Chuck, where do you think we get all that stuff from? The government? Obama? It seems like you are pretty upset by something in your life, maybe that is why you have a problem with God. Why else would you get on here to make several negative comments and proclaim how smart you think you are.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Christopher Lirette

      Let me get this straight you are calling these people out for trying to be better people. Not everyone in this world is so enlightened to do the right thing all the time like yourself. At least these people admit that cheating, fouling, etc. are very real temptations for them.

      So now only do you call them out on wanting to be better people. But, you also call them out on realizing that they are bad people in need of help.

      As for your kindergarten teacher comment, that's idiotic. I have a kid who ignores what I say all of the time. Not everyone is perfect, everyone is tempted, and all fall short of being perfect.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • don

      You got it!

      August 16, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • JT

      It's frightening that a lot of Christians I talk to think that the only thing that keeps them from murdering, r@ping, etc. is their faith. I always tell them that I hope they never lose their faith if this is how they think. They, as the two posters above, think that Jesus invented love and kindness.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • MomOf3

      Yes Chuck, christians have a hard time realizing that civilizations existed thousands of years before the monotheistic religions of judaism and christianity. They were just waiting around for god to make them all decent human beings....

      August 16, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • MomOf3

      I realize now that my last comment may have sounded sarcastic... I wasn't being sarcastic to Chuck, I was agreeing with him! 🙂

      August 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  18. svatoid

    As born again christians they will all spend eternity in hell. That is the price you pay for worshipping false gods

    August 16, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  19. John

    Oh yeah . . . . God is sitting there with his son next to him, sharing a bowl of popcorn and rooting for the winner of a damn soccer game. Tell me something, are all christians born with their head up their rear end or is it acquired through social development? There is a persistent and significant lack of insight, steeped in intellectual immaturity and departure from reality demonstrated by the christian faith. It is also evident that virtually all christians only possess an IQ level of average or below average, sometimes even developmentally challenged.

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

      I hope you can still enjoy your "enlightened" status when you come face to face with your Creator.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Julio

      2 Corinthians 4: 3 – 7

      And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

      August 16, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  20. nate

    Way to go!!

    I hope they maintain their values for others to emulate.

    August 16, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Anomic Office Drone

      I hope people learn that the ability to kick, throw or catch a ball doesn't make them someone worth emulating off the field.

      August 16, 2011 at 11:54 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.