The Risks and Rewards of Sports Evangelism
January 1, 2003 - You slide your hand up the granite cliff to search for your next bomber handhold. Beside you, the sheer rock face drops 600 feet straight down. Your climbing partner tightens his grip on the rope, and you lunge upward.
by Steven James
A) Starring in the next big action flick?
B) Preparing for the upcoming "X Games Global Championship I" on ESPN?
C) Auditioning for a Mountain Dew commercial?
Well, maybe all three. But if you're rock climber Steve Hughes, you're probably just embarking on your next evangelism campaign. "Every week we go climbing, backpacking or hiking, and we take people out and establish relationships with them," Hughes says. "We use climbing as an evangelism tool."
And he's not the only one.
There's a whole breed of evangelists climbing the cliffs, hitting the slopes, skating the ramps and riding the waves of the world. With their tattoos and earrings, they may not look like your typical evangelists. And with their skateboards, mountain bikes, motorcycles and kayaks, they may not act like your typical evangelists. But despite the differences, their message remains the same—faith in Christ is our only hope for the future.
"Evangelism today has to be extreme in some aspects," says Hughes, who directs 52.7 Adventure, a wilderness-guiding service in Yosemite National Park. "You just can't do the Gospel-tract routine anymore. People don't want to hear that. They don't want to be told by you what is the truth. They want to discover it for themselves. You have to find those points of contact where you're making them think about who they are and what they believe and what they commit their life to."
And more and more Christians are finding a point of contact in the realm of extreme sports.
Calvin Landrus, director of the Oregon-based group Solid Rock/Climbers for Christ, believes the inherent risks of extreme sports break down walls and create deep interpersonal trust. "There just seems to be a natural openness and vulnerability and trust that come from climbing together," Landrus says ."It takes a long time in normal life to develop that."
So what is it about extreme sports that's so appealing to the next generation? Sure, they're exciting. There's the thrill. The rush. But what else? Is there more to it than that? "Individuality," says Eric Hannah, co-director and writer of the 2001 feature film "ExtremeDays," which features a group of young adults surfing, snowboarding, and motocrossing their way along the California coast. "Extreme sports really speak to the individual. That's why it's a lifestyle."
Hannah and others are using this swell of interest in extreme sports as a unique platform for sharing Christ. Now, with an evangelistic message included at the end of the film, Student Venture, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, has begun distributing 2 million DVDs of the movie. They're hoping to reach tens of millions of students with the extreme message of God's love.
Robby McQuary, a 20-year-old motorcycle racer, agrees that extreme sports can be a platform for sharing Christ. Currently touring with the Christian rock bands Audio Adrenaline and Toby Mac, McQuary does motorcycle tricks—including a 60-foot ramp-to-ramp jump—and then talks with the crowd about using their talents to God's glory. "Even if you're jumping motorcycles, you can do it to the glory of God," he says. "It's a springboard because most of these people have never been to a motorcycle race. It opens up a whole platform to talk to people I would never get to talk to."
Salt and Light
John Garretson, director of Manna Skateboards, a touring skateboard ministry, grew up surfing and skateboarding. He sees his interest and participation in alternative sports not just as an attention-getting way to get an audience, but as a natural bridge to the unbelieving world. "The people who do extreme sports don't think they're extreme," Garretson says. "It's just a part of who they are."
Garretson thinks the church has failed to reach today's subcultures because of an emphasis on conformity rather than inviting people to express their individuality. He explains that surfers and skateboarders embrace a unique lifestyle. "The traditional church doesn't really reach these people," he says. "We're going where the church doesn't reach."
John Wyatt III, another unconventional evangelist, serves as worship leader at Epic Surf Ministries, a "surfer church" in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. "The worship is loud," he says. "Our mission is to be salt and light to the world. Surfing is something we all share in common. And surfers are open to our Bible study where they can wear flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt. They're not climbing the corporate ladder because they might miss a good day of surfing."
Making the Connection
Some extreme evangelists use their interest in high-action sports to build relationships. Others use their expertise to gain a platform to share their faith. Still others see their shared interests as a way of reaching out to a community of like-minded enthusiasts. And some use extreme sports to facilitate discussion about life, death, meaning and faith.
Hunger for adventure is natural, says Ryan Vernon, activities director for Doe River Gorge Ministries, located in Elizabethton, Tenn., and one of the fastest-growing Christian adventure camps in the country. "We all have these wild desires," Vernon says. "God is adventuresome and creative, and we're made in His image."
Vernon uses metaphors, analogies and relationships to help bridge the gap between extreme sports—such as rock climbing, caving, rappelling and whitewater rafting—and the Gospel message. "When we talk about the experience, issues of fear come up," he says. "And eventually it'll come to the fear of death. Then we ask, ‘Why are you fearful of death?' We use fear as a bridge. Our ultimate destination is heaven."
Jessica Murphy, an extreme sports enthusiast who serves as the program staff trainer at Camp Bighorn, a wilderness camp in Montana, agrees. "When you're upside down in a kayak, you start asking questions," Murphy says. "What we've seen happening in North America is that the church is busy giving all the answers, but nobody is asking any questions. An answer is inappropriate until a question is asked. And we need to create a question. When we do extreme stuff, it's to connect the spiritual thing to something tangible and visible that we do understand."
But what if you're not the kind of person to nail a killer skateboard move, climb a mountain or kayak down a raging river? How can you partner with these adrenaline-fueled missionaries?
"First of all, we constantly need your prayers," Garretson says. "Pray for us, to help us be a ministry of integrity and honesty and boldness and strength and to focus on God and His strength to do what we're doing."
Or, consider volunteering in their offices. Says Landrus: "I've had people help me out with outreaches who are non-climbers. I've actually been praying for a senior adult volunteer who would have an evangelistic heart and some good computer skills to do database work."
You may wish to help by bringing free food to rock climbers, handing out suntan lotion to surfers, or sponsoring a Bible study for extreme athletes during the next event in your area.
Of course, be genuine in your faith as you reach out to those in your own community, wherever that is—on a mountaintop, a beach, a skate park, or in the middle of the city.
"The biggest adventure for me would be living in a city," Murphy says. "It's not wilderness God has called me to. It's being extreme in my adventure with God."