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Evangelism through soccer the goal of SWBTS student

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–To many people, the world of sports inspires a godlike devotion — people spend billions of dollars to erect arenas and pay homage to the idols that run around in them.
Not too many seasons ago Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary student Rob Burns dreamed of being such an idol, running as fast through life as he did down midfield. By age 12, he had signed with a professional soccer club in England.
“I was a smart and worldly positive thinker,” said Rob. “I was my god, and soccer was all I knew. When I was little I slept with a soccer ball instead of a teddy bear. My dream was that of many little boys all over the world — to play in the World Cup.”
With crowds roaring, Rob recently donned uniform and shoes during 1998 World Cup action in France, not as an English soccer hero but as a member of Uncharted Waters, a ministry that uses sports to equip churches. He juggled soccer balls, tapped his feet to music performed by team members and watched drama enchant passers-by. Once a crowd gathered Rob preached on streets, under the Eiffel Tower and in churches. Uncharted Waters also teamed with Southern Baptist missionary Asa Greer and Algerian Baptists to hold soccer clinics near tenement buildings.
Rob has spent nearly10 years ministering with a soccer ball at his feet. Every time he stands as coach before young people, he speaks the gospel boldly.
Injury erased Rob’s dream of being a soccer star. God filled the void with a passion for lost souls. His goals shifted from attacking an open net to introducing sinners to Christ when a total stranger posed a simple but haunting question. He threw a party on his 23rd birthday — in honor of himself — for 250 people. She introduced herself as Jenny, a fellow student at Staffordshire University, thanked him for the invitation, then asked, “Are you a Christian?”
“Of course,” Rob said. “I was born in a Christian country.” Her response: “If you were born in McDonald’s would that make you a hamburger?”
Stunned at the sobering reality of his lostness, Rob tried to find Jenny again to talk more that night but couldn’t. “I was from a nice, friendly and honest family. We were good people but church wasn’t part of our life,” he said. “My father, a very positive thinker, told me to believe in God and I did.”
Rob spotted Jenny in the student center a month later, and he asked if she would meet with him to talk more about Christianity. At the meetings Rob would ask questions like “Who is Jesus?” and “What does He want from me?” He began attending church with Jenny. About six months later Rob received Christ after seeing a baptism.
“Humility flooded me as I watched 23 years’ sin play out before me as though on a reel of film,” said Rob. “I recognized myself as the guilty, selfish sinner and how wonderful God had been to save me.”
At the same time a severe groin injury eliminated any thought of a professional soccer career. Rob had always recovered from injuries, but this pain prevented him from daily practice. He lost the form he needed and his 23-year dream of playing in the World Cup.
“I was humbled and dejected. I knew I would be a preacher, but I didn’t want to. My perception was that preaching was uncool and provided no financial security,” Rob said. “With no church background I wondered why God chose me.”
The explanation never came — the proof did. During his first sermon, when he didn’t even know John 3:16, Rob shared his testimony and people received Christ. “I looked up and people were walking toward me. I didn’t know what to do,” he said.
After Rob graduated, he taught at a junior college. “I still couldn’t conceive of myself as a preacher, but this time a professor revealed a gift of communication. It’s not something I’m good at but a gift from God. He gets all the credit.”
A couple of years later Rob, who had eight years’ coaching experience, received repeated invitations to be director of coaching for 16 teams in Houston’s Internazionale Soccer Club. He went reluctantly, but when he entered the complex and gazed over 30 fields with hundreds of kids playing soccer and parents looking on, he understood God’s unfolding plan.
“God spoke to my conscience, `I want you to come here to share the gospel through soccer,'” Rob said. “I knew my soccer experience would attract the world and give me a platform from which to speak the truth of Jesus Christ.”
Rob moved to the United States in fall 1989 and founded Youth Soccer International in Houston in 1990. A year later he invited Jenny, then the administration director at a London recreation center, to Texas. She noticed a developing relationship with Rob. “Within a few days we realized that we had found in each other what we needed in our spouses.”
Three months later Jenny moved to Texas. “The Lord expressed the move as His desire, so through a rational decision I went. I didn’t know if I even loved the man.” She took a few weeks to sort through emotions and told Rob not to ask her to marry for six months. Time passed and Rob proposed. The couple married in England in January 1992.
“It is unique how the Lord put us together. We totally complement each other in ministry. My husband is my most treasured earthly possession. I find it totally fulfilling to be in service with him,” said Jenny, who Rob says uses her spiritual gift of administration to “clean up the messes of ministry.”
“We are a team. She sets up the ministry’s administration and I handle the soccer and evangelistic aspects,” said Rob. “She’s been supportive of my faith and ministry from day one when she introduced me to the Lord.”
Within five years, YSI became Houston’s largest professional soccer training organization, offering contracted professional coaches to teams and individuals. Later YSI partnered with churches, YMCAs, home school associations, and public and private schools and universities. “We targeted everyone from the very poor to the very wealthy,” said Rob. “Our goal was to bring a Christian message through high quality soccer training.”
The ministry added five full-time professional coaches and two full-time administrative staff the first five years. They planted two new soccer clubs in the Klein area of Houston and another in the Bear Creek area. They also began offering clinics, camps and skills sessions working with 27 teams, 350 children in skills training and 800 children at summer camps.
At the end of each session, Rob and his staff presented the gospel using either a skill learned that day or a soccer theme. “When YSI began I was reading the Bible for the first time. I shared in the evening with the players what I’d learned that morning. I had about three hours more knowledge than the children,” said Rob.
Over time Rob has learned numerous ways to share Christ using aspects of soccer and sports. Different Bible personalities match position descriptions, such as Jesus the sweeper Who keeps His sheep safe, or Peter the forward who often misses but keeps going. After a player is asked to demonstrate foot turns, Rob says, “There’s one turn we haven’t looked at — turning to Jesus … .” He uses inspirational acrostics, such as T.E.A.M. — trust, excellence, acceptance and mercy. Camp themes offer week-long lessons, like this year’s theme “Which Way `98.”
“For three days we look at ways that will not lead to Heaven — the sinful, the selfish and the striving, or religious. On day four we examine the Savior’s way. On day five we learn how we stay in the way that Jesus modeled,” he said.
Rob estimates over 20,000 people have been touched by YSI and similar ministries, and over 1,500 have received Jesus. The ministry includes close involvement with local churches. Six months before Rob’s team arrives for a clinic or camp, the church assigns members administrative jobs, including providing refreshments, media coverage and fliers, and developing a prayer team. When the camp or clinic begins, Rob and his staff pair one coach with three church members.
“Church members love and care for the kids and friendships develop. After a child receives Christ he will see `Joey’ from the local church, who has been at camp all week, knocking on his door Saturday morning,” said Rob. These friendships earn churches entrance into homes and audiences with parents who might refuse otherwise. Discipleship might include distribution of Survival Kits or involvement in Practice Ministries, a group that trains Christian fathers to disciple their children.
At times, YSI was asked to sign contracts containing clauses disallowing the mention of God or Christ. “We’ve handed contracts back unsigned knowing that if we didn’t take them we’d be headed back to England. We’ve had to take some real stands for the Lord.”
In February 1995, the Klein Soccer Club banned YSI from using a city park where YSI held games and conducted devotions. “We weren’t doing anything we hadn’t done before,” said Rob. “We were just getting too big. With our banners everywhere and our consistent presence they felt we were taking over the park.” The ban attracted media coverage. One official finally admitted, “You preach that Jesus is the only way — that’s our problem.”
When Rob and YSI staff sought God’s direction, God told Rob, “Walk.” “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Rob, who lost all of his coaching staff but two. Recognizing his call to be not only soccer coach but also gospel minister, Rob enrolled at Southwestern to pursue a master of divinity. YSI became SportsQuest, continuing under the leadership of Jim Spence and Matt Miller, both of whom became Christians through YSI.
At seminary Rob met Roy Fish, distinguished professor of evangelism, who invited Rob to minister with him during evangelistic outreach efforts to youth and children. Rob also found encouragement from the mentorship program.
“Through my mentoring relationship with pastor Al Meredith (of Wedgwood Baptist in Fort Worth) my ministry call has been clarified and encouraged. He has confirmed the validity of sports ministry. As I observe his honest understanding of the world and his transparent life, as we talk in regular language, I look at him and say, `Yeah, I can be a minister after all.'”
Soon after arriving in Fort Worth, Rob received an invitation from Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas to start a soccer program. In two months the Highlander Football Club had 100 children and after 18 months 200 are in the program weekly and over 300 have received Christ. Rob set up teams, skills training and camps throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He also served as soccer consultant at the 1997 Dallas Cup Tournament.
“Sports evangelism fulfills the Great Commission, which was `Go tell,’ not `Come hear,'” added Rob. “Literally millions used to go to church. Now on Sundays the same amount worship golf balls and bodies in the gym and boats on the lake. I don’t see interest in sports waning.”
Church attendance is, however, Jenny said, citing that 56 percent of Americans and 90 percent of Europeans don’t attend church. “People worldwide are gathering on sports fields, though. It’s a great place to go out and offer camps, skills instruction, life skills and ultimately the gospel,” she said.
Jenny herself knows the value of such evangelism. At 13, she received Christ at a World Evangelical Crusade summer camp. WEC was started by C.T. Studd, a famous 19th century cricketer from an aristocratic English family who denounced his fortune and became a missionary to China, India and Africa. “I met Christ through the work begun by a great athlete,” said Jenny. “I find it interesting that God is now using me in sports ministry.”
She stresses one does not have to be a professional athlete to be a sports evangelist. “Though a national sailor and swimmer for my home country, I had never been involved with soccer until I married a soccer man,” she said. Jenny teaches water aerobics at the YMCA, where through a comment, Scripture or prayer she might touch a life eternally.
“Sports ministry can be as simple as taking four or five kids from church downtown to the inner city and getting together a basketball game. Bring a ball and you’ll immediately have an audience. Then build relationships and tell people about the Lord,” said Jenny. “The Super Bowl, with its parties and barbecues, is a social time. What a great chance to tell people about the Lord.”
“Rob and Jenny possess an understanding of evangelism within the context of the church that few in the work have given witness to,” said Larry Sanders, pastor of Trinity Hills Baptist, Benbrook, Texas. “They know what it takes to get an event out in the community, but also what it takes to get those lives claimed in Christ into the local church. They have hearts to see evangelism and discipleship fit together.”
The Burns expect to continue kicking soccer balls around while telling of God’s love. Their heart is burdened for Western Europe, where they are currently considering ministry with the International Mission Board.
“Soccer is a global game and Jesus wants us to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth,” Rob said.
Regardless of where they serve, sports will be integral and their lives will reflect this verse penned by Studd, a fellow athlete-turned-missionary:
Some wish to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell;
I want to run a Rescue Shop
Within a yard of hell.

    About the Author

  • Cindy Kerr