Do you know how the late R. C. Sproul came to faith in Christ? Through a football player.
In his obituary on Sproul, Justin Taylor recaps the story:
R. C. was reborn in September of 1957 during the first weekend of his first semester at Westminster College, a progressive Presbyterian school an hour north of Pittsburgh. Following freshman orientation, R. C. and his roommate (whom he had played baseball with in school) wanted to leave their dry campus to go to a neighboring town to drink. When they got to the parking lot, R. C. reached his hand in his pocket and realized he was all out of Lucky Strike cigarettes. They returned to the dorm, which housed a cigarette machine.
As he started to put his quarters in the machine, the school’s football star invited them to sit down at a table. He began asking them questions. They ended up talking for over an hour about the wisdom of God. What struck R. C. was that for the first time in his life, he was listening to someone who sounded like he knew Jesus personally. The football player quoted Ecclesiastes 11:3 (“Where the tree falls in the forest, there it lies”) and R. C. saw himself as that: dead, corrupt, and rotting. He returned to his dorm that night and prayed to God for forgiveness. He would later remark that he was probably the only person in church history to be converted through that particular verse.
Matt Chandler was also converted to Christ through his high-school football team. “I’m going to tell you about Jesus,” Matt’s football teammate told him. “When do you want to do it?”
God uses ordinary athletes to bring glory to his name. This shouldn’t surprise us, since Christian athletes have a unique opportunity.
I played football for six years. I had dreams of going pro (what kid doesn’t?), but the Lord had other plans. Instead of going pro, something better happened: I became team co-chaplain at my undergraduate school. And although it was for a short period of life, I reflect on those days with sweet joy.
Something like a mini-revival happened. When the chaplaincy program was created, most athletes showed little to no interest in spiritual matters—there were many years of sowing seed with little fruit. Before my senior year, however, one of the coaches died. Suddenly, the frail nature of life confronted us all. We went from scant fruit to more than 50-plus guys attending post-game devotionals and pre-game chapel. Several were converted to Christ. One is now a pastor. I could go on and on. The Lord loves to use ordinary athletes to lead others to Christ.
Having been around athletes much of my life, here are a few reasons I believe Christian athletes have unique gospel opportunities.
1. Close proximity.
When you’re an athlete, you’re constantly around teammates. You work out, watch film, practice, and play together. You’re always rubbing shoulders with someone else. Because of the constant closeness, you have repeated opportunities to share Christ. If you succumb to fear one day and don’t share the gospel, you can make up for it another day. You see each other often.
2. Close brotherhood or sisterhood.
There’s a unique familial feel that develops between athletes. You feel like you’re going to war together, like you’d die for a teammate in a heartbeat. In light of this brotherhood or sisterhood, you develop rapport quickly, which can overflow into gospel conversations.
3. You’re exposed.
You can’t fake it on a team. Your true self comes out. If you claim Christ but you’re a hypocrite, you’ll put a bad taste in others’ mouths. If you claim Christ and your actions and words align, however, you may not have to summon the courage to initiate every gospel conversation; people will likely come to you.
4. Your words carry weight.
God has gifted some with tremendous athletic ability. If you’re one of the starters on the team, don’t waste your influence. If you’re the star player, people will look up to you, follow you, and hang on every word you say. This comes with pressure, to be sure. But Jesus can provide the boldness you need.
5. Identity crisis.
Many athletes are still trying answer the question, “Who am I?” Many, if not all, will find their identity in their athletic performance. During this vulnerable time period, seize the opportunity to point others to Christ, encouraging them to let him shape their identity.
How to Do It
But how do you start these conversations? And what do you say? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be bold. Athletes love boldness. Unlike many other environments, you’re not walking on eggshells when you’re on a team. You can be yourself. So, like Chandler’s friend, be bold and strike up conversations. But what exactly do you say? Don’t overthink it. Put yourself out there and see what God will do.
- Use the Bible in your conversations. The Spirit works through God’s Word. Remember Sproul’s testimony, how the Spirit used a remarkably obscure passage. He sovereignly moves when and where he wills.
- Get organized. When I served as co-chaplain, we had post-practice devotionals, pre-game chapels, Bible studies, and more. You may not be able to do all that, but being organized goes a long way. Consider starting a weekly Bible study. Scheduling things creates a safe and secure environment for athletes to attend, as opposed to putting all the pressure on spontaneous, informal gospel conversations.
- Say “sorry” when you mess up. You’re going to make mistakes. Perhaps you’ll say something inappropriate or frustrate someone on your team. When this happens, remember the grace that is yours in Christ, and own your mistake: “My bad. That was my fault. I’m really sorry.” Your teammates don’t expect you to be perfect, and you don’t have to be. But if you say you’re a Christian, know that others will be watching you closely, even if they pretend not to notice. So be real about your imperfections. This will help them to respect you.
- Share your testimony. Once you gain some rapport, share your conversion story. This can lead into a gospel conversation.
At the end of the day, the pressure is not on you. The Lord will gather his elect to himself. But if you’re a Christian athlete, you have many unique opportunities to share Christ in ways others do not.
Don’t waste your opportunities; instead, do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5).