By Elizabeth Johnson, CNN
Charlotte, North Carolina (CNN) – With 12 minutes left in the game, the Charlotte Eagles are losing 2-0. The North Carolina humidity hangs thick in the evening air. The home crowd becomes restless as the opposing team’s goalie blocks kick after kick.
But the team gets a big break in the 78th minute and scores twice in two minutes against the Rochester Rhinos. This men’s soccer match ends in a tie.
Did God bless the Eagles with those goals?
“I don’t think God cares if we win or lose,” Eagles captain Josh Rife says, shrugging.
Coach Mark Steffens agrees: “Our No. 1 goal is not winning games. Our goal is to bring glory to God.”
It’s an unusual stance for a sports team, but the Eagles aren’t just any soccer squad. Members of the United Soccer Leagues’ 12-team professional division, they’re the only ones who say they care more about Christian values than about winning.
The team was established in 1993 after a “sports junkie fell in love with God,” Eagles co-founder Brian Davidson says. But if he was going to continue being involved in soccer – where he saw players cheating and sneaking fouls past referees – he needed to find a way to live out his faith on the field.
He had two goals for his ministry. First, teach men to live for God on the field by playing fair. The second: Send team members into the community – both locally and “to the ends of the earth” – to teach impoverished children and refugees about soccer and to use the sport to attract people who wouldn’t normally visit church.
Like any high-level competition team, the Eagles have regular practices. They sweat in the scorching heat. They win games. They miss goals. They hear lectures.
But the organization also focuses on character by investing in the players and the community.
Steffens, Eagles coach for 15 years, uses what he calls an “in-reach” plan, mentoring and building personal relationships with the 26 athletes on his squad and setting up accountability groups within the team.
“My ministry is to grow 26 guys into men,” Steffens says. “Men who do the right thing.”
That goes for both on and off the field.
On the field, the men are expected to be above reproach. They know better than to tug on an opponent’s jersey, run out the clock or take a dive to fake a foul. As Christians, they say they hold themselves to a high standard. They challenge each other to work harder and play better.
But is that enough?
Some observers say Christianity and sports are a questionable mix.
Shirl Hoffman, author of “Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sport,” says Christianity teaches “peace, humility, putting others before yourself,” while athletes are often more willing to cheat, hurt their opponents or take credit for their accomplishments.
“Sports don’t develop character,” Hoffman says. “They teach you to be selfish.”
Rife, 31, an Eagles captain and a midfielder for nine years, disagrees. He says there is a common misconception that Christians should be meek or passive. There were times when Jesus displayed meekness in his ministry, he says, but other times when he was confrontational.
Rife argues that sports are the “greatest teacher for wrestling with one’s faith.” Learning to strive together for excellence and unity in a competitive, challenging environment can help players grow and deepen their beliefs, he says.
As for whether God cares if a team wins or loses, he says that “isn’t a biblical view.” He cites the book of Job, in which God let a righteous man lose his family, livestock and health. God cares more about the bigger picture – the response of a man’s heart, as he did with Job – than he does about making sure they look good, Rife says.
Eagles co-founder Davidson says he realizes there may be few examples of godliness in professional sports. But like Rife, he says there are opportunities in a game when “we as Christians can live out our faith” – such as responding with grace to a ref’s bad call.
And when an Eagles player reacts to such a call with anger? Davidson knows it will be a learning moment and an opportunity for the player’s faith to grow. There’s a lot of grace and forgiveness in the Eagles’ locker room.
“We’re OK with failure,” Davidson says. “We just want to grow from it.”
Bob Schindler is a former pastor and current vice president of church mobilization for Church Sports Outreach, an organization that helps churches use sports as a tool for spreading the gospel. He believes the sports realm has strayed from God’s intended purpose, but that the problem is limited to selfishly motivated individuals. Competition itself is not the problem, he says.
A key question from the Christian perspective, Schindler says, is whether there was competition in the Garden of Eden.
If the answer is no, then sports are a result of sin, and Christians should not partake in competitive activities.
But if the answer is yes – as he believes it to be – then Christians can take part in competition if they use it for the glory of God.
“The whole point of sports is to draw the best out of your teammates and opponents,” Schindler says. “I see that as very compassionate and grace-filled.”
The word “competition” is derived from the Latin “competere,” which means “strive together,” Schindler says. But he says athletes are indoctrinated with a self-glorifying mindset that has corrupted the word’s original meaning.
Aware of the problem, Steffens, the Eagles’ coach, regularly talks to his team about it.
“Guys, it’s not about you,” Steffens tells his players. “It’s about putting God first.”
During one pregame chapel service – a regular feature in the team’s locker room – speaker Sam Blumenthal, a local businessman, reminds the team of this principle: It’s about “scoring souls, not scoring goals,” he tells them.
Through prayer – before and after each game – the team refocuses its attention on God.
“I think most high-level athletes pray to God for good individual performances and for their team to win,” Steffens says. “Our main prayer before games is for God to grant us strength and wisdom to play fair and Christ-like.”
After the game, the team prays for its opponents and thanks God for the results, regardless of the outcome.
“We honor God whether we win, lose or draw,” Steffens says.
His players feel called by God to play for this team and want to “keep the main thing the main thing,” Steffens says. “And the main thing isn’t winning.”
“Priorities are well set and kept,” says goalie Eric Reed, 27. “It’s about living the gospel in a broken world – like in any job.”
The Eagles’ ministry can be seen in various ways around Charlotte, through weekly soccer camps, church involvement and inner-city ministry – as well as in their overseas tours.
This year, six players will travel to Trinidad to play soccer and do service work in the community. The team traveled to Jamaica last year, playing high-level opponents as well as spending time at an orphanage and a delinquent center.
Other recent destinations include Nigeria, Ethiopia, Colombia, Laos and Thailand. The team members who travel each raise a couple thousand dollars for the trips, believing they are preaching sermons through the way they play soccer overseas.
Locally, four players and two staffers have moved into four urban neighborhoods to lead the Urban Eagles, an outreach program directed at kids living in low-income housing.
“We’re a family,” Eagles forward and Urban Eagles volunteer Ben Page says. “The Lord has created this culture of love and acceptance, and the kids have responded.”
Page, 26, lives in Grier Heights in east Charlotte and has worked with the Urban Eagles since January 2010. Through this work, Page said he has realized that the unconditional love he is developing for the kids “is the love God has for me.”
In addition to soccer, the kids are taught basic manners and respect for one another. They learn how to struggle through difficult times and work hard.
“The world says they’re a statistic,” Page says, “that they’ll go to jail, or won’t graduate, or will cause trouble.” Urban Eagles teaches them that God has a plan and a purpose for their lives by pointing them to Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
“My goal isn’t to see their behavior change,” Page says, “but to see their heart change. And the fruit of a heart change is a behavior change.”
Page has played for the Eagles since 2008. He considers the team a training ground to learn how to care for others and find joy and purpose in investing in eternal things, such as sharing the gospel of Jesus with others.
“This environment where we’ve been coached by men who love the Lord – we’ve been cared about as people instead of just players,” Page says.
It’s an attitude that he hopes to pass along to the kids he works with off the field.