Thomas Merchant and Joshua Snyder
While Christians in East Central Europe and the former Soviet Union traditionally have frowned on athletic activity as a distraction or waste of time, a growing number are now using sports as a means of evangelistic outreach. In Kazan, Russia, Sergei Khitev and the Social Union "Alpha" teach the Bible during karate lessons. In Poland, former professional soccer player Zbigniew Masewicz, of Athletes in Action International, uses connections with the Polish Olympics Committee to share the Gospel with professional athletes. In Chisinau, Moldova, Boris Tcacenco of New Life meets with schoolchildren to play basketball and witness for Christ.
Defining Sports Ministry
A variety of methods turn sports or athletic events into platforms for Gospel presentations to athletes and spectators alike. Perhaps most often this happens informally: relationships built over games of volleyball or Frisbee provide opportunities for conversation about deeper matters, including religious convictions. More formally, organizations have been founded with the singular goal of ministry through sporting events. Christian Sports Outreach International (CSOI), for example, sends Christian athletic teams into Ukraine and the Czech Republic "as a platform to build relationships to share one-on-one." CSOI athletes present testimonies to spectators and cooperate with local churches to minister in orphanages, hospitals, and prisons. Hockey Ministries International is even more specific in its mission to "the hockey world." Others, such as the International Bible Society (IBS), use sports as just one small segment of a much larger ministry. IBS, which focuses on scripture distribution, prints and distributes Christian literature of special interest to athletes.
Those Doing Sports Ministry
The most visible sports ministries in the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe are those with Western roots or Western funding. Athletes in Action (AIA), founded in the U.S. in 1967, is quite active in a number of former Soviet bloc countries, reaching out to professional as well as amateur athletes and spectators. Carl Dambman, of AIA-Moscow points out that "bringing top athletes opens doors even to government officials." AIA-Moscow also hosts visiting teams, such as the Chicago or Charlotte Eagles Football [Soccer] Clubs, which play local teams. In Slovakia and Hungary, the athletic program Good Sports seeks "to allow every child the opportunity to learn baseball," regardless of gender, finances, or physical liabilities. According to director Terry Slobodian, "Sports itself cannot save a nation's children. But our athletic program does provide the vehicle to do something that truly does make a difference: to empower children toward a better self-image through physical, emotional, and spiritual nourishment."
As well as structured international organizations, less visible, yet perhaps equally effective, ministries are springing up through local churches and Christians. As mentioned above, Sergei Khitev intersperses Bible teaching with karate lessons in Kazan, Russia. Vladislav Gomonovich, in the Krasnodar Region of Russia, offers daily wrestling and basketball for youth, in addition to Bible study groups, summer camps, and rock music outreaches. The Tae-kwon-do Federation of Moldova started as a sports club, but when director Ion Keptene became a Christian through a Bible study, his club became a Christian mission. The federation now has 60 Christian karate clubs and has seen more than 60 people accept Christ.
In Omsk, Siberia, Viktor Ekimov, a former professional athlete, shares his testimony with rinkball and hockey teams from across the country: "I meet athletes, since I used to be one, and introduce myself as a Christian," he notes. "I tell my testimony and give out booklets and New Testaments with the church address. I invite questions. Then I ask for permission to visit teams to share. They receive me because they know me."
An even more common variation of athletics ministry involves camping, which has a much more traditional role in churches in former Soviet bloc countries. Under communism, children and youth spent summers at Communist Pioneer Camps, and rests at "sanatoria" in forests, mountains, or beaches were common benefits at many places of employment. With communist camps closed and employers withholding even salary, not to mention benefits, churches are stepping in to provide camping opportunities as evangelistic outreaches. Renate Kurz, director of Little Lambs Ministry, Carol Stream, IL, began a summer camp ministry to orphans in Kyiv, Ukraine. "God has opened my eyes to see the big need for the orphans." Partnering with churches in the United States and Ukraine, her goal is to provide "the opportunity for orphans in Ukraine to accept Christ, to grow in their faith, and become self-sufficient and contributing members of society." Christian Camping International (CCI)-Russia, founded by Kingdom Venture in Canada, provides 12-day seminars, training hundreds of Christians in the former Soviet Union in camping ministry. It estimates that 4,000 Christian camping staff have used its materials and methods.
Why Sports Ministry?
A question may be raised regarding the value of sports ministry when seemingly much more urgent needs are pressing. Churches lack buildings, pastors are unpaid, theological training is in its beginning stages, basic medicine and health care are lacking. So why invest in sports? Four reasons stand out. 1) Camps successfully teach and train large numbers of children. 2) Tours by visiting Christian teams encourage local churches and start or rejuvenate existing ministries. 3) Sports matches demonstrate quality Christian commitment and build camaraderie, friendship, and respect. 4) Finally, the expense involved can be minimal. While large evangelistic campaigns are difficult undertakings for many national Christians, soccer games or karate lessons can be organized with relatively modest funding, even if Western support were to become unavailable. As expressed by Annette Miskevitch of the International Church of St. Petersburg, athletic ministries "serve the church and Christian ministries by developing community, passion, and discipleship through the unique avenue of sport."
Thomas Merchant, of the Chicago Eagles Soccer Club (Missionary Athletes International), is on loan to Athletes in Action, Moscow, Russia. Joshua Snyder works with the Institute of Chinese Studies, Colorado Springs, CO.
Thomas Merchant and Joshua Snyder, "Sports Ministries in the Post-Soviet Era," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Fall 1999), 5-6.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report