LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The players gasp for breath. After playing almost an hour of indoor soccer, the exhausted seminary students of the “SBTS Crew” struggle for their second, third and fourth wind.
The Crew’s Feb. 10 game versus a U.S. Army team from Fort Knox, Ky., is tied with little more than five minutes to play. The battle to win intensifies, but these weary warriors have a greater goal than just scoring goals.
As part of the Mockingbird Valley Soccer Club, 10 students from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., have purposed to proclaim Christ while playing in the community indoor soccer league — winning souls while winning games.
In the game with Fort Knox, the Crew fell short of the second objective. After the Crew took the lead with two minutes remaining, the more experienced and better-conditioned Army squad tied the contest for good with a heartbreaking goal with only 25 seconds left.
But the Crew left satisfied, knowing steps had been taken toward scoring their primary goal — evangelism.
“We get to do the two things we love the most — share Jesus with other people and play soccer,” said Barry Lagg, a master of divinity student from Vicksburg, Miss.
The idea of combining these two was first tossed in by Lagg, who had played soccer in college and is part of a mission’s soccer team that travels around the world.
When several Southern students began playing regularly at the seminary, Lagg suggested they employ their soccer talents to open doors for gospel proclamation with a community that is sometimes hostile to Christianity.
The Crew’s evangelism strategy focuses on praying with the other team before the game and getting to know the other players over the course of the season.
The prayer before the Crew’s contest with Fort Knox definitely made an impact on many of that team’s supporters in attendance.
“I have never ever seen this before,” one military spouse was overheard saying. “This is weird. They’ve never prayed together before.”
Sharing Christ in the soccer subculture has proved challenging to the members of the Crew. Consumption of alcohol — which is sold at the club — and drugs are not uncommon among some of the players.
“Soccer players are kind of known for a particular subculture,” Lagg said. “After the first game [on Jan. 27], there were a few of them who were possibly intoxicated.”
In fact, the only player who prayed with the Crew before that first game had a smell of liquor on his breath. Yet, while mouthy and confident before the prayer, the player seemed to alter his actions following it.
“After we prayed with him, his entire demeanor changed,” Lagg said. “He was very fun-loving during the game. The prayer really sets the stage and sets the tone for the game.”
With the Crew’s identification with Christianity comes the necessity of a consistent Christian witness on the field.
“Our praying before lets them know who we are, so we have to back it up,” explained Stoney Douthitt, a master of divinity student from Paducah, Ky. “We can’t afford to act inconsistently.”
The Crew hopes its on-the-field witness will “at least call their attention to the things of God,” Douthitt added.
But in the heat of the moment in a sometimes-violent sport, composure can be difficult to maintain — especially, Douthitt said, “when they score on you in the last 25 seconds.”
“You’re sometimes brought to your best in sports, but you’re also sometimes brought to your worst,” he added. “You can be challenged in very intense ways.
“You can be a very strong witness to your opponents, to your teammates and to spectators when you emerge from those challenges and maintain a Christ-centeredness in your life.”
Its high level of play has also bolstered the Crew’s witness. The team’s record is 1-1-1.
“One of our fears is that we would get into the league and wouldn’t be any good at all,” Douthitt said, “and they would just laugh at these preacher boys that had this idea of playing soccer.”
But after the recent game with Fort Knox, one soldier expressed his surprise at the Crew’s competitiveness.
“One guy asked me, ‘Are you sure you’re a religious group?'” Douthitt recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, why?’ And he said, ‘Because you guys are kind of violent.’
“I take what he meant by that is that he was surprised that people that would go by the name of Christian would not be weak people. … We have developed a respect among the teams.”
Following the games, Southern’s players attempt to capitalize on this respect by developing relationships with some of the players. After the last game, students Philemon Yong and Alfred Tofibam — both from Cameroon — exchanged phone numbers with one of the Fort Knox players from Sierra Leone.
Crew supporters have also joined in the witnessing efforts. Spouses, friends and kids have an opportunity to interact with the opposing team’s supporters before and during the game.
“The people who come to support us have direct contact with people in the stands,” Douthitt said. “I noticed that last week there was some fraternization between spouses and girlfriends.”
The Crew’s successes in both their evangelism and athletic efforts have come as a surprise.
“We’re just a group of guys who have been thrown here together at this time for such a time as this,” Douthitt said. “It’s almost amazing that we can play together the way we do.”