As a former football player at Bowling Green State University, I have a passion to see student athletes transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. While there is a ton of leadership potential and influence in this group, it also has its fair share of brokenness.
At BGSU we use a simple ministry strategy and a strategic partnership between our church and The Fellowship of Christian Athletes to reach student athletes. As a result, we are engaging 12 out of 17 varsity athletic teams with the gospel on a weekly basis.
Whether you are actively trying to engage student athletes through your ministry or are just curious, here are three simple concepts from my last six years of engaging athletes at BGSU.
1. Don’t invite an athlete to your bible study, start one on their team.
Observation: Athletes aren’t looking for a community because they already have one.
This is one of the biggest differences between the student athlete population and the general student body. Many of our ministry strategies aim at creating community for college students. This is a solid strategy for the typical student who is longing to belong somewhere. But this is not the case with a student athlete. They already have all of the friends, activities, and purpose they can handle within their mandatory team schedules. While it is right to hope for them to join our community, community will not likely be their first on-ramp towards Jesus. The first step in engaging a student athlete with the gospel is entering into their community, not inviting them to yours.
2. Reach one and develop them as the spiritual leader of their team.
Observation: Student athletes are better spiritual leaders for their team than your experienced staff members.
This has been the emphasis of our strategy at Bowling Green. We focus in on one key athlete and disciple them to engage their teammates. Therefore, the “win” isn’t to start a bible study on a team, the “win” is to equip a student athlete to start a bible study on their team. A non-athlete should only lead a bible study for a team with the goal of replacing themselves with a student athlete as soon as possible.
Having a student athlete on the inside of a team gives you two huge advantages:
Contextualized content: Every athletic team has a different culture, so the way you present the content of the gospel needs to speak to the heart of that team. A great example of this is the difference between the men’s football team and the men’s golf team. Football is a sport predicated on aggression, exertion, and effort. Golf is a sport where those qualities can sabotage your game. Because of these differences, it is ideal that you can present the gospel and biblical truth to each team uniquely and specifically. A student athlete leader knows their team best and has the best shot at doing this.
A constant presence: The apostle Paul makes it clear in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 that we are to share both the gospel message and our actual lives with people. In the same way, engaging with student athletes requires a constant presence on the team. The best opportunities for ministry to happen with student athletes occur during the daily grind of practice and competition, this is when their identity and worldview is being challenged the most and where they are most ripe to hear how the gospel applies to their situation. There is no better way to have a constant presence on a team than to have a student athlete leader ready to speak the gospel to their teammates after the tough loss or before the nerve-racking conditioning session.
3. Celebrate engagement, not attendance.
Observation: Impact on an athletic team doesn’t always correlate with attendance numbers at ministry events.
It can be difficult to get consistent, high attendance at ministry events from student athletes for a variety of reasons. They have a lot of people asking for their time and their travel schedules make them a moving target. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t have a tremendous impact on their lives! At BGSU we celebrate engagement over attendance numbers.
We measure engagement by how well our leaders are sharing the gospel and their lives. Our primary way to measure this is through getting our leaders together and sharing stories. We celebrate conversations about the gospel that happen in the cold tub or the bus home from the game, even if they don’t show up at bible study or the church service. We celebrate having a student athlete take ownership as the spiritual leader for their teammates and praying with them before practice. We celebrate student athlete leaders who go out after the game with their teammates, but point them to Jesus when they say no to immorality. By celebrating stories of gospel conversation and presence, your leaders will be encouraged to keep on engaging, inviting, praying and sharing.
What are your key concepts for reaching student athletes?