8: Overtime Squads
In light of the potential barriers to discipleship, how can it happen in the life of a student athlete? The number of ways this can be done is as vast as the number of student athletes who need discipleship. There should never be an individual or a ministry that claims their way as the only way to foster the type of biblical Christianity that has been described in these pages. The most important thing is that steps are taken to begin to turn the tide for those few Christian student athletes who desire a genuine faith. Just as there were few who truly desired to know Jesus Christ when He lived on earth, there will be few who are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to experience discipleship. This is a crucial point because discipleship is not an easy road; it takes a level of time, energy, and commitment that few are willing to reach. However, when student athletes are introduced to this type of discipleship, they will quickly recognize that the effort required in the task reflects its importance. Athletes see as clearly as any group the relationship between difficulty and significance. As a group of people who understand that anything worth doing does not come easily, student athletes intuitively grasp the idea of participating in something bigger than themselves. Many Christian student athletes simply do not yet understand that they have a role to play, that they are part of something much bigger than themselves, or that what they do actually matters.
The problem then becomes: how does someone who wishes to make an impact on student athletes through discipleship show them how important the process is? As adults, it is much easier to see the big picture. After walking through twenty, forty, or sixty years of trials and understanding God’s hand in the process, it is difficult to return to the mental understanding of a teenager. Even at age twenty-five or thirty, the thought of being a sophomore in high school is foreign. It is hard to remember a time when most of life was spent in a classroom and the “big picture” was a collection of goals the team set together for the upcoming season. In attempting to bring more Jesus to this group of student athletes, there will be a thousand different ways of connecting, speaking, teaching, learning, and growing.
For one particular group in one particular area with one particular set of leaders, Overtime Squads (OTS) is an example of something that is working. It is not necessarily the best way or the only way to bring the three traits of discipleship into reality in the life of student athletes, but it is an example. At the end of only its first year in existence, it will certainly undergo many changes through the years to better serve the population of student athletes involved. But perhaps by detailing the origins, mission, methods, and results of OTS, I will provide an example of one way discipleship can be encouraged and the three traits will become more tangible, attainable, and concrete.
In some ways OTS has been a testing ground for my research and the things that God has shown me. Though OTS cannot truly be considered an experiment, in large part the past year has been a process of trial and error, striving to find ways to connect the first Squad with biblical Christianity through a variety of methods. But more than anything, it has been an effort to hear from God directly and consistently about what direction the group needed to go. I cannot call OTS an “experiment” or purely “research” because every week was an opportunity for me and my fellow leaders to allow God to rule over our time and to interrupt us. My prayer every week was that if God did not show up, everything we tried to do would fail miserably. Without His presence, everything we do as individuals is eternally worthless. This chapter is a summary of that experience and one example of how Christians can reach student athletes with life-changing Christian discipleship.
Origins and Mission
In January of 2010, Jubilee Fellowship Church (JFC) in Lone Tree, Colorado embarked on a new venture. Spearheaded by the senior pastor’s wife, JFC began a sports ministry called Overtime. In preparation for the new ministry, JFC collected three lay leaders to form the leadership team. As a ministry, Overtime conducts monthly or quarterly meetings that involve a speaker and free lunch. The speakers are usually coaches ranging from the high school level to the professional level or athletes ranging from the college level to the professional level. These meetings met with a moderate level of success, generally attracting between twenty and fifty student athletes. However, after five months of these meetings, the three lay leaders, including myself, presented the pastoral leadership with a different method of reaching student athletes.
One member of the leadership team works as a local staff member for FCA, facilitating huddles of high school athletes in the area. He and his family happen to attend JFC, connecting him to the Overtime ministry. As part of FCA Colorado, he works under leadership that focuses much more on discipleship than the organization as a whole does nationwide. In his experience and through his training with FCA, he has discovered that small groups are much more effective than large ones. Smaller groups provide the opportunity to connect with students and do “life on life” with them. With this background, he was unsatisfied with the results of the speaker events and desired to do something more focused on discipleship.
The second member was drawn to the ministry because of her love for youth. As someone who has mentored teenagers and volunteered in youth groups for several years, her strong suit is counseling and direct personal connections. A former high school athlete, her connection to Overtime came through a desire to mentor students in general. She believes that the best way to impact teenagers is through relationship and although athletics is not necessarily her passion in life, she is able to build relationships with student athletes because of her love for people.
As the third member of the team, I brought the strongest athletic background. A former college athlete, I recognized that big-name speakers had a very small impact on me as a high school athlete. Though I heard many speakers who were famous or especially engaging, none of them presented a message that I remember in adulthood. No speaker moved me to action, in spite of hearing great things through testimonies or topical messages. As a Christian high school student, I often connected with the speaker but still left relatively unchanged. This does not mean that others may not have been moved and changed by hearing athletes and coaches speak. But for me this was ineffective, perhaps surprising considering my commitment to church, leadership in my youth group, and the ongoing relationships I still have with former youth leaders.
Though all of our backgrounds and passions were different, our desire to impact student athletes for Christ through discipleship and mentorship was the unifying factor in our decision to present a different way of doing Overtime to the pastoral leadership. We created Overtime Squads, a mentorship program birthed out of Overtime for the purpose of engaging student athletes in personal mentorship to produce active and vibrant disciples of Christ. Our mission was to transform athletes into disciples who would effectively minister to others in sport culture. Though this mission was certainly larger than any of us who led this ministry, the past nine months were spent working to accomplish it by encouraging the three traits of discipleship in the lives of six student athletes.
OTS was based around the school year with optional meetings during the summer. Students and leaders met weekly on Sunday nights for two hours. Every student was expected to attend every Sunday. In the 2010-2011 year, the OTS leadership was not especially strict about unexcused absences but in the future this expectation will be enforced more closely. Sunday night meetings were held at a volunteer’s house for the first semester and then at my house for the second semester.
Because one of the goals of OTS was to foster one-to-one mentorship, each student was connected to a leader. Each leader was expected to communicate in some way with their assigned student athletes on a weekly basis. In reviewing the year, the OTS leadership has decided to format this aspect of OTS differently in 2011-2012, relying on group mentorship for the first year students and increasing the level of individual mentorship as the student ages and demonstrates more commitment. Because of the difficulty in connecting with each student weekly, it seems that it would be more productive to save this until the student has decided to be fully committed and has developed a relationship with the leaders, a process that can take several months or even years.
During the summer of 2010, I developed a curriculum for the school year with some input from the other leaders. The schedule for this original curriculum can be found in Appendix A[RZ1] . Originally, each meeting was going to be led by a different leader on a rotating basis. There were four leaders, the original three plus another who joined us as a mentor, so each leader would be responsible for a weekly meeting every fourth week. But as the year progressed, it became clear that I was going to be the primary leader for the weekly meetings. This became difficult at times because the curriculum was intended to involve four different perspectives and allow for a shared load. For a program of this kind, rotating who leads in a weekly meeting would be much more conducive to group mentorship.
In order to have discipleship in a small group setting, all members of the group must have some level of commitment. Because of this, OTS students were required to submit an application (Appendix B)[RZ2] in order to be a part of the group. The purpose was not to exclude students but to create a sense of commitment within the group from the beginning. No one who turned in an application was turned down, though the OTS leadership did reserve the right to reject an applicant if they deemed it necessary for the sake of the student or for the group. Applications were available at Overtime events as well as at two area FCA huddles. Because of the connection between FCA and Overtime through the FCA staff member, OTS can be considered a joint effort between FCA and JFC. The students who submitted applications were largely hand-picked, encouraged to complete the applications by the OTS leadership. Because of the commitment level required, OTS leadership provided several opportunities for students and their parents to learn about the plan for the year prior to committing to OTS.
Eight students from two high schools submitted applications and of that group, seven began the year as part of OTS. A few key demographics of the group are as follows: five female and two male; four students attended Legend High School and three students attended Chaparral High School; two students played soccer, two students cheered, two students played volleyball, one student played tennis, and one student wrestled, with one student playing two sports; all seven students’ primary connection to OTS was through FCA but only three regularly attend; two students attended JFC; all seven students regularly attend at a church and three are involved in a church youth group. Of these seven students, six finished the year as a part of OTS, with one dropping out within the first two months due to some personal and family problems.
OTS is structured to purposefully break down the barriers so often introduced by the four competing cultures of a student athlete. Some of these barriers cannot be overcome in a night, a semester, or even a year but one of the goals of OTS was to make strides towards this type of victory for biblical Christianity. Since one of the struggles of a student athlete is the lack of time, OTS purposefully took time at every meeting to engage with God. Some weeks that involved an extended time of corporate prayer and worship. Other weeks that involved attending a worship night at JFC. Still other weeks, the group would engage in an extended quiet time with the purpose of hearing God speak. Since every Christian is different and hears from God in different ways, it was very important to frequently change the environment we created to help the student athletes engage with God. It is impossible to force a student to hear from God; the only thing that can be done is to develop environments where this is possible, hopefully drawing the students to crave His words.
To overcome the barrier created by emphasizing lifestyle over life, OTS students were encouraged to meet with God regularly. Part of the curriculum in the first few weeks of the fall semester provided ideas for reading the Bible creatively and engaging with God consistently. God was regularly likened to a friend they could talk with, cry with, hang out with, and grow closer with. As part of the students’ commitment, they agreed to spending time in the scriptures daily. Though I am confident that many did not follow through on this, every student understood that connection with God daily is vital to having a thriving relationship. Of course, having a daily quiet time with God can disintegrate into a checklist without much life, but the majority of our students had no concept of daily life with God before they began OTS.
Because the Bible is one of the primary ways that God speaks to His people, the first thing OTS students learned was how to read their Bible. We learned through FCA and other interactions with Christian student athletes that very few of them have any training in basic methods of understanding the scriptures. During the majority of the first semester, we taught the students how to read by observation, interpretation and application. By learning how to read the Bible, we laid a foundation for them to begin gleaning much more from God’s Word than they ever had before. Structure is not everything and structure can always be used to drain the life out of the scriptures, but providing a method of reading the Bible proved very worthwhile. Of all the things we did throughout the year in OTS, learning about reading the Bible has produced more fruit in the lives of the students and leadership than any other singular factor. The ability to read and understand the scriptures better has caused the students to read their Bibles more often because they gain much more insight. Learning one method of reading opened their eyes to see how much they were missing in their understanding of God, the world, and themselves. This helped the students to realize that the Bible is not focused on individuals but on God and addressed this issue as well, since it is one of the other common barriers to hearing God’s voice.
At the beginning of the year, this area was not one where I thought we would have to spend inordinate amounts of time. But as the year progressed, we realized that our Christian student athletes knew very little about the truth. From the original curriculum, the plan for the year was to learn how to read the Bible using 2 Timothy, read Colossians individually over Christmas break, and then move to reading Romans. It was a bit like trial by fire to progress to reading such a difficult letter after the students cut their teeth on 2 Timothy and Colossians, but from the beginning I believed that a quick read through Romans would clear up a certain amount of theological ignorance. In retrospect it was foolish to think we could quickly read through Romans. We had underestimated the complete lack of biblical knowledge of our students.
Each week, the group was assigned a chapter of Romans to read and study based on the methods we learned at the beginning of the year. The weekly meetings would usually revolve around the assigned chapter, though this could take many different forms. Sometimes the meeting would take more of a lecture format, as we did while reading through Romans 9, 10, and 11. For these chapters I took the lead on explaining about the Jewish people, their role in history, and their role in God’s calendar. But more often the group would discuss the chapter at hand. The leaders would ask questions about the reading and spur discussion about the various theological concepts presented through the text. We purposely did not focus on athletic metaphors, terms, or language used in any of the books we read. Instead of speaking about theology in terms of sport, we spent much more time discussing sport in terms of theology. This style was decidedly different than most sports ministries that use sport as a lens for God rather than using God as a lens for sport. Though only time will tell if this was an effective tool for changing the mindset of our students, at least one has already indicated that she has noticed a difference in how she competes.
One of the major things I noticed after Christmas break was how all of our students had very weak foundations in what they believed. Though the entire ministry was focused on providing foundational biblical truth for the students, the reality of how little they knew about biblical truth began to be apparent as we entered the second semester. This spurred the first deliberate departure in our curriculum for the year and caused me to seek new methods of helping the students encounter truth. The first new method was through a series of debates. The idea behind the debates was to push our students to explain their beliefs in a convincing way and to combat the statements of the opposition. The students were placed on one team and two leaders on the other. A topic like sexual boundaries or the nature of the Bible was introduced and the students were tasked to defend a particular view. For the first three debates, the students were given the Church’s traditional position to defend but for the last two debates, there was no such position. This provided a change for the students and the opportunity to truly think through what they believe and why.
In conjunction with the debates, the students spent one meeting watching and listening to Dr. David Platt, an intense preacher from Alabama and author of the book Radical. Dr. Platt presented a message on the content of the gospel and its importance in the life of a believer, using the chapter in Romans we had studied the week prior. This meeting met with such success that OTS purchased MP3 players so that we could provide a weekly teaching by Dr. Platt or another teacher in addition to our weekly meetings. These messages became part of the weekly homework along with the assigned readings. One student even requested to have all the messages from the series put onto his MP3 player because he felt it had been so impactful for him. These teachings gave the students another opportunity to hear truth from a different perspective than we leaders were able to provide.
The weeks that we spent in discussions were perhaps some of the best for the students. Though they enjoyed the lectures, debates, and messages, the discussions provided them with an opportunity to ask questions. It was through the discussions that we were able to get to the heart of what they really believed or cared about. But it must be noted that this type of discussion did not develop until we had been meeting weekly as an intimate group for six months. It took weeks of meeting, talking, and spending time together as a group for everyone to feel comfortable being genuine with each other in discussion. Once this closeness had been established, we were able to hear each student’s real thoughts and address weaknesses in their foundations directly. This opportunity was invaluable for strengthening the students’ relationship with Christ. Even though they learned many things through the other methods we utilized, having the opportunity to have their questions about truth, God, salvation, Jesus, end times, the law, faith, and a hundred other topics answered was something most of them had never experienced. They had never had the ability to ask whatever question they had about Christianity, in spite of the fact that all but one had been raised in a decidedly Christian home. One of the most important aspects about conveying truth to student athletes who live in the convergence of four competing cultures is giving them the opportunity to ask questions in a safe and loving environment. It is impossible to know which area is particularly weak for an individual without finding a way to ask them, usually without actually asking.
Action is the trait that was probably most difficult to foster during our time together. Although we started the year with plans to make this an integral part of our schedule, doing something new turned out to require much more time than we anticipated. Originally service was going to be a key component, with two major service projects planned during the year. We were only able to complete one project, but it turned out to be a significant endeavor. In December, the OTS students set the goal of raising over 2,000 dollars in less than a month. By the end of the event, they had raised over 3,000 dollars. This money was used to support Friends for Youth, an organization that serves at-risk youth in the Denver area by providing caring adult mentors. The students were able to use 2,000 dollars to purchase Christmas presents for girls who lived in one of Friends for Youth’s girls’ homes. The rest of the money, over 1,000 dollars, was given to the organization in the form of requested sports equipment and general funds. All but one of the students was able to come with us to the girls’ home to present the gifts and have dinner with them. This was a great time of fellowship and although it was awkward at times for our students to interact with the girls who had different backgrounds and situations, the experience was overall very positive. It was very important to the leadership that the students physically go to the home receiving the gifts so that they could see the fruit of their service. The Christmas Project was extraordinarily successful and a great opportunity for the students to see their faith in action.
The other way we had planned for the students to use their faith in practical ways was to serve the body of Christ by teaching. As they learned throughout the year, they were going to have the opportunity to lead their fellow students. Unfortunately we encountered too many topics and did not allow enough time to facilitate this on a large scale. In the 2011-2012 OTS year, we plan on making this a much bigger priority for our returning students. In spite of this lack of time, two students did have the opportunity to teach at the end of the year and both greatly enjoyed being able to serve their friends in this way. There is nothing quite as humbling and exciting being taught by your students.
There are a thousand ways to view the results of a year-long ministry like OTS. Because the students were from different teams, different sports, and different schools, it would be hard to measure the results of this year in terms of culture changes on their individual sports teams. OTS surely has not changed the culture of sports in the last nine months with six student athletes. However, we can look at the individual lives of the students and leaders to get a better grasp on what type of impact a ministry like OTS has had over the past year. Of the six students who continued throughout the entire year, all but one reported that they read their Bible more often at the end of the year than they did at the beginning. Though this in and of itself is not the definition of success, biblical Christianity is based on reading the Bible. It is impossible to live a life dedicated to God through Jesus Christ without having a biblical foundation found through reading the Bible. There is no substitute for receiving God’s revelation through His Word. The students also reported that they prayed more often than they did at the start of the year, another indicator of their spiritual growth through the past nine months. In addition to these gauges of spiritual growth, each student wanted to continue meeting throughout the summer and return for a second year in 2011-2012. Though there could be many factors that contribute to this desire, almost all of them have said that they want to continue to learn new things over the summer as well as doing fun activities.
More important than all of these factors on their own is the fruit we can see in their lives. Fruit can take a very long time to be seen and sometimes it can only been seen by looking back after years of waiting. In our group, I have been able to see three students in particular who are already producing more fruit in their lives than they did when I first met them. The first was a sophomore with much to learn but who has a heart that desires to know God more. Through all of the silliness and energy, a change is taking place within her that can already be seen. At the beginning of the year, she did not ask many questions or seem to be overly interested in spiritual things. But through the course of the year, it is evident that God is drawing her into a deeper understanding of Him and giving her a desire to learn more about Him.
Both the second and the third girls were juniors. One of them, like the sophomore, has really developed into someone who thinks much more deeply about the things of God. One of the more quiet girls in the beginning, she has grown into someone who I would trust to teach the group. Though she does not yet have the confidence to do so, I can already see that she will be a great leader who leads through her actions as much as through her words. The final girl shows an enormous amount of character. The only student with parents who are not Christians, she had a difficult year in her family and personal life. She was not always able to attend weekly meetings because her parents would not allow her to come. In spite of this, she has only grown in her love for Christ. Her love for Him is evident through her demeanor and her actions. It would be impossible to speak with this student without feeling the love of Christ radiating out of her. Her faith is contagious in a way that I have rarely encountered. Though she has experienced more trials than many of her peers, this has only served to draw her closer to God. The difference between the girl I met over a year ago and who she is today is astounding. All three of these girls’ lives are a testament to the grace of God in OTS.
Though OTS was not perfect and will surely go through many changes in the coming years, there is no doubt that this ministry was one example of what discipleship can look like in the lives of student athletes. There are numerous things we could have done differently and many methods we did not use that would be excellent in fostering discipleship. But OTS was not intended to be “the” example but simply one example. As long as the three traits of discipleship are being encouraged, there can be a different method for every athlete. As long as every method is glorifying to God and student athletes are being impacted, the Great Commission is being fulfilled. And as long as the Great Commission is being fulfilled, we are all participating in biblical discipleship.