Sports creatively and actively open doors to people otherwise unreached. Enjoyed by young and old, men and women, player and spectator, sport is a language spoken by billions around the world.
Whether through cheering on a favourite team or battling it out on the field, sports provide occasions for people to come together, test their limits and build relationships.
OM SportsLink recognises the opportunity sports present. In 2016, OM led sports ministries in 32 countries. Thousands of people attended these outreaches and, in addition to growing in athletic skills, they grew in knowledge of the Lord. Hundreds were trained to use sports to share the gospel in their own communities.
SportsLink reaches people in numerous ways, from starting football teams along the shores of Lake Tanganyika to leading sports camps across Europe to helping coaches in Pakistan to share their faith.
“With sports we can move into any community, speak any language, bridge any culture; the door is wide open to families,” said Chris Welman, director of SportsLink International. “Once we share the gospel and people gather on the sports field, why would we not be able to plant a church?”
“We do what we love, for the One we love.” And what Americans Troy and Michelle Pitney love to do is surf. Called to Portugal to start a church, surfing was the catalyst. “Surfing is a strategy to meet people where they are; it’s a tool, not the goal. We hold onto it loosely,” explained Michelle. When meeting people, the members of Surf Church describe themselves as “a bunch of believers who love Jesus and love to surf.”
At 14:00, the group gathers to surf, meet people and share the gospel. “Sports do more than connect people; they build accessible bridges into families beyond the sports grounds,” said Chris.
In late afternoon, Surf Church members head to the Pitney’s home for supper, often bringing people they just met. After fellowship and food, the group worships and studies the Word of God together. Some nights they don’t finish until well past midnight.
“People were immediately interested [when Surf Church first started],” Michelle remembered. “We quickly became a core group of 30, and now, 15 months later, a core group of 70-80.”
Dennis came to Surf Church with a knowledge of the Bible and has since devoted his life to Jesus. He brought his best friend, Filipe, a self-proclaimed atheist; after about seven months, Filipe began acting differently. He brought his girlfriend one week, telling her he had discovered the best thing in life.
“When we asked who he thought Jesus was, the words of Jesus Himself were ringing in my ears: ‘But who do you say that I am?’” said Michelle. “‘Peter says, ‘You are the Son of God.’ Filipe’s response was the same: ‘He is my Saviour.’” Filipe and his girlfriend were baptised in spring 2016.
Many in Africa anticipated the opportunities the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa would bring. Christopher Kasale, with SportsLink, heard interviews with business owners preparing for the event. When a group of pastors were interviewed, however, none had plans to seize the opportunity.
“So we started to mobilise the church,” Christopher said. In Kabwe, Zambia, Christopher and a group of missionaries and students began preparing for the World Cup. Five locations where selected to show the matches on big screens; one was Makwati.
On the edge of Kabwe, most of Makwati’s inhabitants are squatters. Known as a spiritually dark place, the name Makwati literally means nothing, or useless.
A tent for 200 people was erected, and the community was invited to watch the games. During breaks, the team preached and shared testimonies with the crowd. “That’s 30 days of football—thirty days of encouraging people,” said Christopher. “People started becoming Christians.”
When the tournament ended, people didn’t want the new community to end. Because the tent was rented, and the land borrowed, the new believers met in the open air until a shelter of wood and tarps was made. Makwati Community Church was born.
“(FIFA) lent us the platform to minister on a much bigger scale than a local event would have done,” said Chris. “By bringing the excitement of the event to the people, in their community and language, it builds something of the Body of Christ in unity.”
The church has brought hope: Once filled with crumbling houses and garbage, the area has been cleaned up and a road built. Next door to the church, OM-run Makwati Community School provides Christ-centred education for children.
From surf towns in Portugal to small communities in Zambia, God uses sports to break down barriers and bring people together in fellowship with Him. “Our vision is to see Christ-centred disciples developed on every sports field around the world,” said Chris. “We want to see athletes, coaches, local churches and communities make the most of the sports through sharing the gospel in relevant ways."
Rebecca Rempel is a photojournalist from Canada. Serving on the Africa Area communications team, she travels around Africa capturing the work God is doing around the continent with her camera and pen.