Although the Church has used the vehicle of sport to reach non-believers for centuries, modern sports ministry has only been formalized in the West within the last sixty years. Today, the globalization of sports ministry is growing and the rest of the world is beginning to understand why it is important and how it can be used to share the gospel.
According to Steve Connor, a trainer and developer of resources for global sports ministry, “The need for global training with a rigorous strategic theological infusion will help the local church make a massive impact for Christ and his kingdom in the next sixty years. This year we will see three million people on six continents mobilise their villages and cities with sports ministry for children and youth.”
Connor is director of Sports Outreach International (SOI), a non-profit sports ministry based in Bloomington, Indiana, USA. The son of an atheist and an alcoholic, Connor was led to the Lord by his high school football coach. This lesson in personal evangelism planted the seeds for Connor’s vision to reach many with the gospel through sport. Today, SOI reaches millions of people around the world.
SOI exists to serve churches, develop leaders and encourage mission organisations globally. Its emphasis is on equipping Christians to reach their local community by providing help in three key areas: training, resources and support.
The Early Days of Steve Connor
Connor is a product of sports ministry. He was born into a nominal Catholic family in Chicago, Illinois, USA. His father, a world record holding sky diver, rejected God and the Church, suffered from alcoholism and was involved in the drug culture. His mother suffered from mental health problems. Their marriage did not survive. Connor poured himself into sport as an escape. As an atheist, sport became Connor’s god in high school and his football coach was his guru. Ironically, “Coach Rex,” as the coach was affectionately called by players, was a Christian who was passionate about evangelism. When the coach suggested to Connor that he attend a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) camp, Connor went, unaware that it would open his eyes to the Christian faith. Connor was struck by the personal nature of the athletes’ testimonies. He remembers that they spoke as though Jesus was alive today. Their stories demolished the stereotype he had constructed of Christians.
But the testimonies, by themselves, were not enough. Upon his return from camp, Coach Rex sat Connor down and went through Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Connor committed his life to Christ. He also began considering how to use sports to share his newly found faith.
Sports remained Connor’s passion throughout his teens and twenties. He reached National Football League (NFL) status, playing with the Chicago Bears in 1984 and the Los Angeles Rams in 1985. A series of serious knee injuries ended his playing career. He began coaching, but felt increasingly led into Christian ministry.
In 1989 Connor traveled to Oxford, England to research possibilities for using sports ministry as effective evangelism in Europe. He discovered an openness and a desire among student athletes for his message. This openness presented an opportunity to reach athletes who may have been opposed to evangelism in any other form.
Steve Conner and Sports Outreach International
In 1990 Connor and his wife Michelle were invited to join the newly established Christians in Sport UK, where they founded Sports Plus, a youth sports ministry. Connor remained there until 1998, when he moved to Scotland to develop an indigenous ministry.
In 2004 Connor moved back to the United States to become director of SOI. According to Connor, SOI focuses on building the Church and impacting communities through sport and associated events. SOI is part of the International Sports Coalition (ISC) network.
“The emphasis has been to train and mobilise volunteers and partner with many church and ministry organizations to strategically reach out to their local community,” Connor says. “Much of sports ministry is about fun, community-based events that bring together a partnership of many groups across a city, village, island or region. Sports and games, values, compassion, creativity, leadership, involvement and action are all key components of church outreach.”
Global sport ministry has grown exponentially. Events which include sport of all types have occurred in over one hundred countries. According to Connor, “This is already making a positive difference to the lives of tens of thousands of children through multi-day, multi-group, sport-focused, value-based, global initiatives inspired by Sports Outreach International.”
Connor is convinced of sports influence in evangelism: “On a communication level, sport can be used as an effective delivery mechanism for the gospel. Sport builds an amazing system for relationship building and trust. This powerful connection of relationship creates an opening to encourage the heart with the gospel message.
“Sport also can open the way for truth, education, love and respect for opponents, regardless of ethnic, cultural, religious or other differences. Its inclusive nature makes sport a good tool to increase knowledge, understanding and awareness of Jesus Christ and his teachings,” he said.
Connor knows that sport works in evangelism. After all, he came to Christ through sport and he now uses sport to bring others to Christ.