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Running the Good Race: Reaching Athletes on Campus
Scripture presents a clear pattern when it comes to evangelism: the disciples of Jesus go out of their way to take the gospel to places, and to people, who may not be easy to reach.
In global missions, this might take the form of a missionary trekking deep into a foreign country to establish a relationship with an isolated people group. In local missions, this might mean starting a Bible study in a neighborhood where most of the residents don’t attend church.
In InterVarsity’s context of the university campus, this looks like creating ministry paradigms and programs—what we call Strategic Ministries—that will reach every student and faculty group on campus, not just most. Groups like Latinos, graduate students, Pilipino students—and athletes.
Athletes InterVarsity, one of our Strategic Ministries, sees and addresses the unique challenges of ministry to college athletes that other ministry models often don’t have the capacity to adapt to.
One of these challenges is an athlete’s schedule. “A Division I student athlete will [typically] have two to three classes until mid-afternoon, lunch on their way to practice and weight lifting, dinner, then a night class or mandatory team study hall,” said Maghan Perez, national director of Athletes InterVarsity. “It’s very hard for athletes to find free time [to come to or lead a Bible study], or give up the one or two free hours they might have.”
Another challenge is the public nature of an athlete’s life. “Athletes are highly visible on campus,” Maghan said. “Their accomplishments are the focus of newspaper articles and Internet highlights, but their personal lives are also scrutinized. So what develops is a tendency to have a life that is media-friendly, but also a place to escape that life. How do we peel back the façade they’ve been conditioned to present?”
In the face of these challenges, it would be easy to ignore the needs of athletes and focus on reaching those students who are more easily served and who have more time to give. But Athletes InterVarsity recognizes that these students have unique gifts to be harnessed for the renewal of the campus.
According to Maghan, “Athletes know what it’s like to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They know that to pursue something great, it takes sacrifice, risk, and commitment.” In addition, because athletes spend so much time with their teammates, they have deep relationships with non-Christians, making their lives natural mission fields. Athletes also often possess many leadership traits, and their bent toward action means that they are comfortable taking risks. They thrive on pushing their boundaries to advance God’s kingdom.
Currently, there are over 50 campuses in the U.S. that have either an Athletes InterVarsity chapter or Bible studies dedicated specifically to athletes. God is using these groups to reach athletes with the gospel and disciple them into a deeper, more vibrant spiritual life.
Danny is an InterVarsity small group leader and former football player at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). A new Christian when he enrolled at FIT, he quickly found himself struggling to leave his old lifestyle. After connecting with InterVarsity, however, Danny discovered a passion for studying God’s Word. He left his former ways behind and began dreaming of reaching out to others. He explained:
We started to plan for a new small group on the football team. I was talking to one of my teammates about Jesus and music. Another teammate overheard us and started to ask me questions about the Bible and Jesus. The next thing I heard was Colton, a 6'5", 320-pound offensive lineman, saying, “I need God.” I looked up and saw close to 30 of my teammates listening to me speak.
The Lord used that Bible study to bring transformation to our team. We saw many guys studying the Bible for the first time and making commitments to follow Jesus. Not only did many teammates surrender their lives to Christ, but one of the coaches did too! It was truly the hand of God at work on our team.
Kaylee is a senior basketball player at the University of New Hampshire who came to faith through an Athletes InterVarsity service trip. God used the chapter to transform her life. She shared:
I’ve always considered myself a good person. [But then] a friend of mine challenged me by asking what I thought it meant to be “good.” Being a member of Athletes InterVarsity opened doors for me to ask the tough questions that ultimately led me to give my life to Christ. Before, it was like I was only being a small fraction of what I could be. Now, the more I learn about who God is, the more of that potential I realize.
I could talk for days about what God has done in my life in this year alone. One major stepping stone on my journey was joining Athletes InterVarsity. The chance it gave me to meet and know God has completely changed my life, for which I will always be eternally grateful.
Over 460,000 student-athletes like Danny and Kaylee participate in collegiate athletics every year. Each one of them is an opportunity for God to display his love and mercy—and Athletes InterVarsity is committed to reaching as many of them as possible.