Takedowns and two-pointers

How sports provide a backdrop for ministry for two California churches

Eli Espericueta, head club wrestling coach who also attends Shafter MB Church, visits with a young wrestler during a club practice at the church in December 2017. For a decade, Shafter MB Church has hosted wrestling camps for community children. Photo: SMBC

While ministry outreach and evangelism may look different across the Mennonite Brethren family, it begins with establishing relationships. For two California MB churches, sports have provided ways to get to know local families and point them to Jesus.

Wrestling for relationships

Shafter MB has used wrestling as an outreach for ministry the past nine years.

Senior pastor Pat Coyle wrestled collegiately at Biola University and has served in coaching roles at various levels off and on since 1983. He currently works with Shafter Spartan Wrestling Club, a local club for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Coyle says it has been his dream to use the sport in ministry. For him, that begins with relationships.

“How do we cultivate relationships with non-Christians?” he asks. “How do we plant truth in their lives and then pray for a harvest? That all comes down to relationship, so you find ways to connect with them over common interests, and for me, it’s been sports for many, many years.”

Thanks to the addition of a fellowship hall in 2005, Shafter MB has a gym that provides space for outreach. Since 2009, the church has hosted a summer wrestling camp for incoming first through sixth graders. Average attendance is 25 to 30 but has been as high as 50.

Campers “come and hear”

Camp includes deliberate Bible teaching and is what Coyle calls a “come and hear” event, where people hear God’s Word and learn about Jesus. The church sends information about its children’s ministries home with kids.

“I tell people it’s kind of like a wrestling vacation Bible school,” Coyle says. “We have daily lessons and at the end of the week, a little exhibition match.”

Two years ago, Coyle and head club wrestling coach Eli Espericueta, who also attends Shafter MB, decided to host a wrestling tournament at church.

Hosted the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the takedown tournament is in round robin format and is ideal for beginning wrestlers. Ten to 15 church volunteers help with the event in addition to club parents. An average of 56 children have attended.

“Wrestling is a big sport around here, so to be able to fill a niche for a fun tournament for beginner kids that’s fairly quick on a Saturday morning seems to work real well,” Coyle says. “We’ve had a good response, so we’re hoping to do it for many, many years.”

The church puts Fellowship of Christian Athletes Bibles geared specifically for wrestlers on a table in the entryway, and Coyle says they’ve given out about 50 in two years.

Families “come and see”

The tournament is what Coyle calls a “come and see” event, where people can come to church and see what Christians do. For Coyle, it’s just another way to cultivate relationships.

“When it comes to evangelism and reaching people for the gospel, to me it always travels through relationships,” he says. “So how do you reach out to non-Christian people? You have to get to know them, and the only way to get to know them is figure out a way to spend some time with them.

“As a pastor, I have encouraged our congregation, ‘When you think about outreach, let’s not make this hard. Think about the things you enjoy and how (God) might want to use that.’”

Twenty volunteers with Dinuba MB Church organized a basketball camp in early January 2018, that was popular in the community. Photo: DMBC

Dinuba basketball camp builds on needs, interests

One of the things Brian Smith, of Dinuba MB Church, enjoys is basketball and that interest prompted Smith to put together a team of 20 adult and youth volunteers to host DMBC Basketball Camp Jan. 2-4, 2018.

“As one of the elders of our church, I have been encouraging our elder team and new ministry teams to use the needs and interests of our community to reach out and connect with the people of our area,” Smith says.

“Since I have triplet 12-year-old children who play sports in our city recreation league, I knew that kids would need to be developing their basketball skills at this time; the season was beginning the first week of January,” Smith says. “Since I have loved basketball since a young age and played in high school, this idea fit me like a glove.”

An average of 56 children in first through sixth grade attended camp from 9-11:30 a.m. each day. After stretching exercises and warm-ups, campers rotated between four, 15-minute stations, each focusing on a specific drill: shooting, passing, ballhandling and defense.

Each morning concluded with a motivational chat related to the camp’s theme of “Press On,” based on Phil. 3:14. Topics included persevering in life by focusing on Jesus, making wise decisions and trusting God, and choosing Jesus as one’s goal and prize.

Establishing connections, sharing Jesus

The purpose of the event, Smith says, was about more than developing basketball skills. It was intended to build connections with families and share the gospel.

“I believe the key is finding that sport, or any interest for that matter, that resides in the community, and then linking it with the skills, gifts and resources within the church body,” Smith says. “Timing for me was an important key as well. When a need arises within the community, that is the right time for the church to move into action.”

The event was well-received, Smith says, with opportunities to converse with parents who stayed to watch their children play. At the end of camp, seven children made first-time decisions to follow Jesus. The church is following up with phone calls, an invitation to church and a gift of a new Bible.

Smith says Dinuba MB plans to host the basketball camp again next year and hopes it becomes an annual event.


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