Rev. Dr. Alyn E. Waller. Photo provided by Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church.
The fundamental belief that I have is that most of us who are doing well today have another champion in our lives other than our parents and usually we call them “Coach.” We see the benefit of how sports can teach the game of life.
I’ve been at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church for 24 years. My second year into pastoring, we started canceling Bible study in the summer and playing softball. That was a way of fellowship with the whole church. The church was small then. From there, we kind of grew into a group of guys that just played ball on Saturdays: basketball, football, baseball. We saw the benefit in our own personal lives. We also saw the evangelistic benefits of young boys coming around and hanging around with us as we played and we wanted to do a much more formal offering for kids in the community.
We’ve always had a strong commitment to the community. Our church tithes back to the community, meaning 10 percent of everything that comes in, we give back out to the community. We decided that the first 10 percent of that 10 percent would go to our children as an investment in our children. That’s how we funded the athletic ministry program.
From there, we put it out there that anybody that was credentially qualified to coach a sport and put us in a reputable league, we would add that sport to our ministry. Since then, we’ve expanded from football to baseball, basketball, track, martial arts, chess, and soccer. Everyone at the helm of it is volunteering their ministry.
We teach Christianity through the medium of whatever the sport is because ultimately Christianity is all about how you treat other people, how you work with other people. This is a relational religion. And if you can’t get along with people, then you’re probably not getting along with God.
Sports is all about teamwork and learning to trust. The health of a team is not as much in the individual talents of its members but the relational nexus. If you give me a basketball team of five mediocre players who really get along and work as a team, I’ll take them over superstars. While we have won a lot of championships, that’s not our goal. Our goal is to learn how to take life on life’s terms. We win some, we lose some. You learn how to forget the last play, which is working the muscle for forgiveness. All of that is what makes us the human beings that we are.
Sports can also be a bridge to college. We believe that the 21st Century holds no place for uneducated African Americans in particular but uneducated people in general. High school is not enough for the 21st Century. If one can leverage their athletic ability to get a scholarship, it’s great. Helping them make choices that get them to college is what the ministry is about.
If you play on our team, you’re going to come to Bible study. We’re going to pray at the end of the practice and at the end of the game. That is said on the front end. It’s not like we’re hiding it, trying to beat people over the head with the Bible. This is what we believe. This is what we do. We do not hide the fact that we are evangelicals – not in the sense of the political Right that’s out there right now – but evangelical in the sense that we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe that accepting Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior is important. Through the sport, we like to introduce people to Him.
We’re year-round doing some sort of athletic program. We touch about 1,000 kids a year and we’ve been doing it for 15 years. It’s safe to say we’ve worked with 10,000 kids. Our football team alone is 200 boys. Soccer is 300 girls. There is a fee to play with us but it is drastically reduced from what it costs to play for other teams. We supplement for every athlete, whether they are a member of the church or not.
Our church sits on 34 acres. We bought the old Temple University stadium. The stadium had been torn down. We refurbished the field. We play on that field. We have 20 acres of athletic facilities back there. We have tennis courts, football fields, NCAA baseball diamonds, two softball fields, and enough grass area for two soccer fields. We are the big church with the big backyard for the community to come and play in.
I hope the future is that we will expand to other sports and that we will continue to do sports at a high level and present to the world more Christian citizens who love God, who love this country, who love themselves and are citizens to the community that they live in. I would love to see lacrosse. I think soccer is going to be bigger for this next generation than it was for my generation. It’s a global sport. I hope to see our martial arts ministry move beyond self-defense into sports karate. Right now, our martial arts ministry is really more self-defense and not as tournament focused. I hope it will become more tournament focused as we grow.
I’m an athlete as well. I think every church has to get in where they fit in and every pastor needs to lead out of authenticity of who he or she is. I was brought up as an athletic musician, so our outreach is athletic and musical. As a church we have a record label. We’re doing the same thing with music, because that’s my heartbeat.
My larger prayer would be that other churches find what is authentically theirs to do that makes sense in their own footprint. If athletics is it, I hope they will grab hold to it. I think we all have to be much more creative in how we spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how we engage this generation of youth.
Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller is the senior pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.