Discipleship Through Sports:

A Case Study in How Sports Leagues Matter for Ministry

For Christians, discipleship is our core spiritual training. As we become disciples of Christ, we grow in grace to become ever more Christ-like. Through discipleship training, we develop the character and virtue of obedient and loving witnesses. But discipleship is more than just a matter of personal training and growth; discipleship is fundamentally about fostering relationships.

In Matthew 28:19, when Jesus commands his disciples to “go out and make disciples of all nations,” our Lord reveals how the discipleship path requires that we make disciples of others. Good disciples, following in Christ’s footsteps, will have a 360-degree impact on those around them. The grace that God gives isn’t something we can keep to ourselves! When we commit to the path of discipleship, we commit to love on those around us and build up disciples in our friends, families and neighbors.

At Upward Sports, we believe that sports leagues are an excellent discipleship training ground for people of all ages and from all walks of life. Through sports, we can foster the lasting friendships and close mentorships that spread the impact of God’s action in the church. In our work, we partner with churches to help them make sports a component of their discipleship ministry. We recently asked two of our church partners to tell us the impact that our sports leagues have had. Thomas Frey of Bailey Christian Church in Bailey, Michigan, and Mark Files of Woods Chapel Church in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, both related how they’ve used our sports leagues to shape their discipleship ministry. Here’s what they had to say:

  1. Forming Intergenerational Church Families

    Sports have always had the power to get the whole community involved. Our church partners have used this power to build intergenerational families. Through sports, these churches get experienced pastors to disciple new and younger coaches. And as the newer coaches gain experience, they can then disciple more junior coaches and referees in turn. At the same time, pastors and coaches of all ages can work together to model discipleship to young kids and players too. In this way, our church partners use sports leagues to build an intergenerational family, a family that nourishes spiritual growth across the whole community.

    From Bailey Christian Church, Thomas Frey described how life-giving friendships have stemmed from the sports ministry family. On and off the court, kids are bonding with the older and the more experienced through jokes, banter and play. Bailey Christian Church recruits kids as young as third grade to help referee games, giving them the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the adults they’ve bonded with through volunteering. Such mentorship has worked wonders for their discipleship ministry, as watching how mature Christians live a Christ-like life has provided an abundance of role models to the kids as they learn to walk in Christ’s footsteps themselves.

    Similarly, Mark Files of Woods Chapel Church related the special joy he has seen blossom in families as grandparents and grandchildren and college kids with their younger siblings all gather together to share the sports experience. This joy ripples throughout the community, adding life and vitality to the fundamental discipleship message that we are all one in Christ.
  1. Mentorship and Investment in Others

    Disciples have to be leaders, and sports leagues can raise up leaders through one-on-one mentorship. We do not know what we are really capable of until someone steps in and mentors us. Our church partners tell us how sports mentorship teaches growth, responsibility, humility and care for others, not to mention physical and mental discipline. Through sports mentorship, these partners are raising up the next generation of discipleship leaders.

    At Bailey Christian Church, this mentorship has taken on a lot of different forms. Thomas Frey relates how his family has seen their five children grow in confidence and compassion through sports. Their kids, who were, at first, timid about jumping in to play, help out and even coach, have since developed strong leadership personalities. In another example he gave, Thomas relates how he himself has grown by volunteering as an assistant coach in his sports leagues, as he felt his heart and mind open up toward his community.

    Woods Chapel Church highlighted for us the crucial role that coach/player relationships possess in mentorship. Mark shows how these mentoring relationships have transformed sports players into youth volunteers who lead through simple service such as concession stand staff.

    It doesn’t matter how small the leadership contribution is. The important point is that kids are taking on leadership opportunities as their sports mentors teach them that they can and should.
  1. Discipleship Character

    Building sound moral character through shared principles of faith is a key component of discipleship. We all know that sports leagues can be competitive. However, competition isn’t simply about winning; it can also be about working together toward excellence with Christ-like love. Such excellence can be found in our church partners.

    Both Bailey Christian Church and Woods Chapel Church report how they’ve witnessed young players learn the Christian values of mutual respect and prayerful compassion. Without being heavy-handed, both churches have used their sports leagues to help kids build their identity in Christ. As these kids grow in this identity through prayer led by coaches or just through good mentorship from older Christians, the kids become more compassionate on the sports field, gracious in both victory and defeat, and confident in the value and importance of their faith life. Both churches relate how a lot of these young players, having grown up as kids playing in Upward Sports leagues, have started leading their teams in prayer before games even at the high school level. It’s amazing to see such a bold declaration of faith from our kids.

Conclusion: Our church partners have shown how sports leagues can play a critical role in discipleship ministry. Through thoughtful mentorship and bonding over the shared love of sports, our church partners show how sports leagues can be a great addition to any church’s ministry.