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Social, yes; media no: MLS player makes his faith, relationships personal

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (BP) – Cal Jennings may be among the rarest of professional athletes.

He’s 24. He lives in southern California. He’s a forward for LAFC, the city’s newer Major League Soccer club alongside the LA Galaxy. At this point in life, Jennings should be building his brand through social media. After all, he’s a member of Generation Z, the first to be digital natives and who literally can’t remember a time when technology at today’s level didn’t exist.

In his final Instagram post May 1, 2019, Jennings cited his desire to grow in his relationship with Christ and others for leaving social media. Photo from Instagram

But in May 2019, his “focus” became less about photos and more about relationships. Until that point, Jennings had checked all the stereotypical Gen Z boxes when it came to technology. But since then, one box has remained blank due to his decision to step away from social media.

For 28 months now, Jennings, who grew up at First Baptist Church in Roswell, Ga., hasn’t posted a single tweet or snap. He hasn’t shared one picture of his lunch on Instagram and, since Facebook is out as well, is clueless as to what he would look like as a Disney prince.

And yet, somehow, he carries on.

Jennings said in an interview with Baptist Press that this wasn’t a stunt for attention. He had already made that clear in a May 1, 2019 Instagram post.

“Over the past few years, I’ve taken notice at just how much social media and technology have consumed my time and my life,” he wrote. “I feel like as humans we are trending towards being the consumed rather than the consumer when it comes to technology. With the time I get back from getting off social media I plan to invest it more in my friends & family, my beautiful girlfriend, my faith and relationship with Jesus, and experiencing the beauty that this world has to offer.”

The benefits he has experienced are worth considering, he said, even if others don’t take it to his level.

Earlier this year, Jennings returned to First Baptist Church in Roswell, Ga., to co-lead a Bible study for students. Photo courtesy of First Baptist Roswell

“You can get caught up in this online world and it can be overwhelming,” he said. “It can foster comparisons with others and bring anxiety and depression. You start to wonder why someone else’s life is going so well and yours isn’t.

“There are positives to social media, but it was good for me [to stop] and could be very good for others, even if they just limit their time on it. You can use the platforms, but we need to also consider if they’re taking up too much in our lives.”

Jennings’ comments echo those of researchers finding a greater level of anxiety among his peers. For all of its connectivity, Gen Z is also considered the loneliest generation. Only 45 percent of them classify their mental health as good or very good.

His parents provided a Christian home that accompanied Jennings’ involvement at First Roswell as his soccer prowess grew. He played for Roswell High during his freshman and junior years, but was also active with his club team and received an invitation to play for Georgia United, an academy team affiliated with the MLS’ Atlanta United that featured top young talent.

Those experiences built him as a player and propelled him to the pitch at the University of Central Florida. In Orlando, though, he was also challenged deeper in his faith by a representative of Athletes in Action (AIA), Jeremy Reddy, who would become a spiritual mentor.

Jennings was a decent kid in high school, “but I don’t think I fully grasped what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus,” he said. “I went to youth group and Sunday School, but wasn’t making much of an effort to invest in my relationship with Christ outside of that.”

At UCF, he and Reddy split time leading Bible studies in the locker room, where close to a third of his teammates would join. Jennings’ leadership also became more apparent on the field. After scoring one goal his freshman season and seven during his sophomore year, the forward exploded in 2018 with 20 goals while starting all 18 matches, ending his junior season as the NCAA Division I top scorer.

His senior year, Jennings scored 18 goals in 20 matches. He would go on to receive several individual honors and be named a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, awarded to the country’s top men’s and women’s soccer players.

Selected as the 17th overall pick by FC Dallas in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft, Jennings would later that year join Memphis 901 in the USL Championship league, which is one level lower than MLS. He caught fire late in the season, earning his first hat trick Oct. 3 (video below) during a run of four straight games with at least one goal and eight in all during the streak.

On Dec. 4, 2020, Jennings joined another USL Championship club, Indy Eleven, but wouldn’t play a match for them as months later LAFC traded a 3rd round selection in the 2022 SuperDraft to FC Dallas for Jennings’ college rights.

At UCF he also became involved in AIA camps, working with students to develop not only their soccer skills but also their faith in Christ. Not long after joining LAFC he was visiting his parents in Roswell and took the opportunity to co-lead a Bible study for teenagers alongside Robert Turnbull, First Baptist’s minister to students.

Leaving social media has been beneficial in itself, but the act has also become a conversation starter that leads into discussions about his faith.

“A lot of my reasoning was to invest more in my relationship with Christ but also to share the Gospel more with others,” he said. “It’s led me to ‘get out there’ and be able to do things like lead the Bible study at my home church. It was pretty awesome to see students grow and help high schoolers face challenges that I faced in high school. I really enjoyed that opportunity to encourage them to start growing early in their faith.”

Jennings still has a smartphone. He texts and makes calls. Around other people, though, he’s not looking down at a screen. He’s making eye contact and speaking face to face.

“Communicating online has gotten so convenient that it’s become tougher for us to talk to others in person,” he said. “I’m really trying to focus on being present with whoever I’m around. Whether that’s my girlfriend, teammates or family members – I want to be intentional in those relationships.”