Feature

The Beautiful Game

Playing for keeps in the 10/40

By

Leo Messi. If he isn’t familiar to you but you want to win the nations for Jesus, here’s a hint: Leo has more global name recognition than U.S. football greats Peyton Manning and Tom Brady combined, touted as one of the best in his game. He’s at the top of the world’s sport—soccer.

So, what do Leo and soccer have to do with world missions? “According to London’s Guardian newspaper,“ says Andrew Schaeffer, Alliance field director for Burkina Faso, “Liverpool’s 3–1 soccer defeat of Manchester United [U.K.] in October 2011 attracted an estimated 500 million viewers worldwide, whereas the Super Bowl is watched by 20 million viewers outside of the United States. Soccer is the world’s sports language, which is why soccer ministries work the world over!”

‘Something to Believe In!’

Ministry reports from several continents confirm Andrew’s claim; especially passionate are accounts from the 10/40 Window, the geographical region with the highest concentration of unreached people. The area is often called the “Resistant Belt,” where choosing to follow Jesus can mean losing one’s family, inheritance or very life. According to Alliance workers in several West African nations in this grid, soccer outreach is one of the best ways to extend the Kingdom.

“Soccer ministries here have been more effective than friend-ship evangelism, prison ministries or mobile medical out-reaches,” says Bob·, a marketplace ministries worker in Africa, where more than 100 million have died as a result of wars, famine, malnutrition and preventable diseases in the past 30 years.1

Among West Africans, soccer—what some fans call the “Beautiful Game”—is a religion that trumps the region’s majority faith, Bob claims. “I had an epiphany during a national [soccer] match recently, witnessing a suffering, impoverished people finding collective redemption in the whoosh of leather striking net—something to believe in!

“If you understand this, then you begin to understand the impact of this game upon the young West African mind!”

Providential Game Plan

Ed Bonvillain gets it. An administrator at the C&MA’s Koutiala Hospital for Women and Children in Mali, Ed initiated a local soccer league four years ago. “Every street comer here has a pick-up game in the late afternoon. Most kids in the West have so many distractions—video games, movies, the mall, technology and a variety of sports. Here there is only soccer. Soccer is an easy door to open into [kids’] lives here, and like most kids, they tend to be more open to the gospel.”

Research shows that evangelism is most effective among youth (for example, in the United States, more than two thirds of people who come to Christ do so by age 18).2 Factor this into stats that indicate up to nearly half the population is younger than 15 in the West African countries in which Alliance-sponsored soccer ministries are present, and it’s fair to say that the world’s sports language offers a providential game plan for strategic evangelism in the region.

“Picture what can happen with a whole bag of soccer balls or goal nets or jerseys, or when a team from overseas comes to play friendly matches or run clinics,” says Brian Davis, who is engaged in soccer outreach in Senegal. “Now, what can we do with that!? Or better yet, what can God do with that?”

10/40 Returns

Bob knows. He has hosted soccer camps for the last two years and is expanding the outreach to several weeks of residential camps this year. “Bouba came the last week of camp and said, ’I am ready to put my life into the hands of Isa (Jesus). I have seen what the coach has . . . peace, justice, truth . . . and I want that!’ Bouba was ready to leave family, inheritance and land to follow Christ.”

Six young men—all followers of the majority religion—attended those camps and made commitments to Christ. “Today,” he says, “four of these players (two have moved to other towns) meet faithfully for prayer, study and fellowship.”

Soccer camps have taken hold in Burkina as well. Last summer the Bobo-Dioulasso team hosted their fourth, this one led by several soccer coaches and players on a short-term outreach team from Glenview/Valley View (Pa.). “At our two boys’ camps, and our very first girls’ camp,” Andrew reports, “more than 80 youth learned about soccer and about God, thanks to the witness of that team!”

In this deeply impoverished region, children suffer the brunt of poverty’s grip, as they do in every corner of the world. “Money and time are not really invested in youth in general,” says Ed, “so anyone who comes in and takes a genuine interest in them has an opportunity to speak into their lives.”

The Commoners’ Sport

Still, many Westerners remain puzzled that a low-scoring game, which involves kicking a ball around, can have such an impassioned following.

“It is truly the commoner’s game,” says Bob. “This simple sport bridges religions, tribes and nationalities; it transcends race and socioeconomic status. It is the game that stopped a war in Ivory Coast for 48 hours when troops declared a truce so a 90-minute match could be played between nations!”

Economics do factor heavily into the game’s draw in Africa, Ed observes. In Mali, where the average family lives on less than $1 a day, “soccer offers a way to escape poverty.”

Brian, who is partnering with local believers to build a vocational training center for street boys in Senegal, agrees. “The incredible zeal of boys and young men pursuing soccer training, the relentless requests I receive to help local clubs and players, the perception that I may be starting a soccer academy … is [all] driven by the hope of seizing the great opportunity of playing soccer in Europe.”

A pure love of the sport is also a reason for its magnetism, Brian adds. “Part of the excitement this game generates is its simplicity; yet it always remains a challenge. With almost any object you can start a game; it doesn’t even need to be round. A rolled up T-shirt, a ball of newspaper, an old tennis ball, a leaky kickball, even a tied plastic bag with a pocket of air in it can serve as the ball in a match.”

A Cost of Discipleship

In Koutiala, Mali, an inter-church soccer league was started among five C&MA congregations four years ago. Run by Malian Christians, the club now includes a girls’ and boys’ team as well as a young men’s team.

Since the Malian government oversees three official soccer divisions, “last year we decided to apply to the government to make our club official, [in order] to build a select soccer team,” Ed explains. That first-rate group of young men—the Ambassadors—moved into the second division last year; it was recently recognized in the regional soccer report as the team exhibiting the most “fair play” in the league.

Not incidentally, most Ambassador players are adherents of the country’s majority religion. “This was God’s plan,” Ed continues. “We felt He was leading us to minister to these kids. So, now we have people in town who come to us wanting us to train their kids.”

Of the two team members who have chosen to follow Jesus, one was forced by his parents to move to a neighboring country; the second, says Ed, was apparently kicked out of his home because of his new faith and is now living with a local Christian family. It is a reminder of the high cost of faith in a region, and on a continent, where Jesus is desperately needed.

“I began a soccer club with a round piece of cowhide on a dirty village street, among barefooted boys with passion oozing from their pores,” Bob observes. “This is the field I’ve found that finds lost souls. It is a place where the Great Lover prods lessons of grace and forgiveness in a beautiful sport that mirrors new life and hope—the hope found only in Jesus Christ, the answer to all of Africa’s problems!”

*name changed.

1 David Taylor, “Africa in Crisis: Finding Hope in the Midst of Tragedy,” Missions Frontiers, November/December 2011, http:/www.missionfrontiers.org/issue/images/alife/article/africa-in-crisis.

2 ’The Barna Group, “Evangelism Is Most Effective among Kids; October 11, 2004, http:/www.barna.org/barna-update/articie/5-barna-update/196-evangelism-is-most-effective-among-kids.

FUTBOL!

Soccer-or “futbol,” as it’s called in Latin America—is surely the most popular game in the world. Nearly every child in Latin America begins to learn foot skills and ball control early in life. When there is no ball, twisted rags or a woven wicker ball can be substituted.

Several years ago Awana International developed High Power® Soccer, a five-day summer outreach for kids involving three-hour daily sessions to teach soccer skills and share the Word of God through Bible lessons, skits and songs. In the first year of this outreach, a group from Renton, Washington, traveled to Ecuador to assist two churches (one a C&MA congregation) in Portoviejo that wanted to reach local children with the gospel. One of the communities was San Jose de Picoasa, a high-crime neighborhood steeped in witchcraft, drugs, violence and child abuse.

Each day, church leaders drove a truck and an old Land Rover into surrounding neighborhoods, returning when the vehicles were fully loaded with kids who wanted to attend the camp. A bond developed between the children and the U.S. team; even though they did not speak the same language, love took over and friendships developed. Soccer brought 150 children together to hear God’s Word, and 70 made decisions to follow Christ that year. Fifty of the new believers were from San Jose de Picoasa.

In 2011, the same team returned to work with those two churches. Nearly 270 children attended the camp, and more than 80 decisions were recorded. Today, more than 100 children meet weekly in an Awana club in San Jose, and three new cell groups have been formed among parents. A new church will soon be planted because God reaches families through children’s soccer ministries!

_—Randy Newburn, Alliance international worker in Ecuador and area director, Latin America and the Caribbean, Awana International _

Past Alliance Life Issues

Share

Get Involved...

Pray.

We cannot “Live the Call Together” unless prayer is central to all we do.
Pray with us »

Serve.

Is God calling you to service? We’re here to help you connect your passion with God’s purpose.
Serve with The Alliance »

Give.

Help build Christ’s Church by supporting the ministry and workers of The Alliance.
Give today »