Sports Team vs. Church Family: Which One Do Your Youth Choose?

English youth worker, Rich Atkinson, divulges the secret to reaching out to youth: Leverage their interest in sports.

I have done outreach and discipleship amongst youth and young adults here in Sheffield in the UK for 11 years now. One of the biggest distractions I have seen for young people is sports. I’ve spoken to so many youth workers who are tearing their hair out because they keep losing their young people. Sports commitments seem to come ahead of church.

It seems like our young people find the hope of sporting success to be more exciting than church. Of course, sports aren’t bad in and of themselves. In fact, I love sports!

The problem is that young people often end up finding their place of belonging, family and adventure much more strongly in sports teams than they do in our church services. This is a situation which makes most churches draw battle lines to try and wrestle young people away from their sports and back into their programs. In our minds, we think we’re taking up arms against the idol of sports.

The problem is: We often lose.

We discovered a very different way of doing youth ministry which actually utilized this love of sports to our advantage rather than seeing it as a disadvantage. I think it taps into an ancient missional strategy which the church used hundreds of years ago when they were reaching our little island, the UK.

If you travel around the UK to some of the oldest churches, you will discover that they are often built on the site of an ancient pagan worship place. The missionaries of that day simply found the rhythms and places of worship which the people of a place were already engaging in, and turned them into way of worshiping Jesus. 

This meant that, following their conversion, the pagan English could still continue to go to the same places, at the same times, but they would go and worship Jesus instead of their pagan idols.

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Our journey of using young people’s obsession with sports as a missional strategy rather than a missional headache began five years ago.

I had begun the Forge Network with the vision to reach out to the young people in the city of Sheffield and beyond. Our strategy was to plant missional communities throughout Sheffield, and our main focus was on reaching certain neighbourhoods. However, we had a few young people gathered together at the centre of the church who we still weren’t quite sure what to do with.

One of our volunteer youth workers, Chris, got chatting to three of them who turned out to share his passion for football (soccer). They decided to get together with Chris and another leader on the local park and have a kick around and talk about Jesus there.  

Since they all loved football, they invited some friends to have a kick around with them and our first football missional community was born. Very quickly they grew to 10 young people, and so they were able to have a five aside match against each other every week and continue to be discipled by the leaders.

The growth was so quick and easy that we decided that this was a good area to invest some time and money. We hired a local football pitch so that they could have a better quality game, and called some more adults into this area of breakthrough.

If we fastforward from that fledgling sports ministry to today, we now have over 150 young people on five football teams getting together every week to have a game of football and be discipled by their coach, who is one of our youth leaders. We have an official league called SCYL (Sheffield Christian Youth League), which is endorsed by the Football governing body of the UK. We have yearly awards nights where the gospel is always preached by some ex-pro or one of our coaches. We have young people giving their lives to Jesus all the time and being discipled in the life of following Jesus.

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We realized that we’ll always struggle to wrestle young people away from sports, but the fact that they like sports doesn’t mean that they don’t want Jesus. We just have to be a little more creative and use this sports obsession as a great missional opportunity!

How have you reached out to students through their own passions (even obsessions!) to share Jesus and begin discipleship relationships

Rich Atkinson
Rich leads Forge, a network of youth, kids, and families ministry that is committed to reaching the 125,000 young people of Sheffield, England. Currently, Forge works with more than 1,200 young people a week. Forge operates out of St. Thomas Church Philadelphia, and it is committed to seeing churches equipped to reach a lost generation for Jesus. Rich has worked as a youth worker in Sheffield for nearly 10 years, and he is on the senior leadership team of St. Thomas, leading the university students and young adult ministry.