Sports Friends Launches in Malawi
by Luke Voight
18 July 2012
Luke and Becca Voight serve with Sports Friends, a ministry of SIM which brings the Gospel to youth in many countries using the universal language of sports. Read Luke’s account of the first Basic Training for new sports ministers in the southern African nation of Malawi.
On Tuesday, June 12, the very first Sports Friends Training began with 40 church-elected sports ministry leaders from the southern villages and 29 more from around the city of Blantyre. What an exciting night!
Berhanu and Ephraim, seasoned Sports Friends trainers from Ethiopia, did the teaching. They shared story after story of God’s great work in Ethiopia through sports ministry; and I could see this connecting with the youth leaders. We learned much about how to effectively use sports to preach Christ, and how to identify teachable moments during coaching and mentoring where we can weave in Gospel threads. Such amazing times of fun and learning! On Wednesday night, we were riding high and praising the Lord. But by Thursday night, rumors had begun.
Foul PlayOne guy came to Fostance Mtolo, national youth coordinator for the Africa Evangelical Church who has been a great help to Sports Friends, and said, “You are going to give us balls, Bibles and jerseys, right?” This got us thinking that some had come to the training for the wrong reasons. Fostance and I soon discovered that a rumor had been planted by one influential leader in the group that we “owe it to them” for attending the Basic Training and being elected by their church leadership. We knew things were about to get interesting.
Sports Friends does not give out balls and jerseys to sports ministry leaders because this is not sustainable. It also fosters unhealthy dependence on Sports Friends instead of a healthy church-centered, church-funded sports ministry. At times we give a ball and Bible as a prize or encouragement but, by intention, Sports Friends does not hand out balls, jerseys, Bibles, soccer cleats or other sports equipment.
Friday morning came. We were not surprised when several more participants asked about balls, cleats and jerseys. Again we answered, “No. We want your churches to show their support of the ministry. After all, what we are doing is church-based ministry, not Sports Friends-based ministry. We love you and know that if you are organized and passionate, your churches will be too, and it will be nothing for them to financially support such a simple outreach.”
By Friday afternoon, 40 of the sports ministry leaders had the idea that they deserved balls and equipment to start their ministry, and that if they didn’t get them, then they would boycott the last day and a half of Basic Training. At lunch, the ringleader rallied the rebels together and said, “Let’s not go to our afternoon practical session. If you go, we’ll mock you for being so stupid.” Thus we arrived at the soccer field to find just 25 of our 69 sports ministry leaders. We were devastated and depressed. The rumor had spread like poison and many had followed the leader.
Making the CutFostance and I looked at each other in disbelief and discouragement. All the trips we took to villages to identify these leaders, all the prayer and resources invested in the training, all the sleepless nights in preparation… and now they quit because they are not given a bunch of material things? Really? God, what are you doing here!? We were thoroughly confused, but the Lord was not. As Fostance and I stood there, our experienced Ethiopian brothers walked up and spoke two words: “Look up.”
As our heads lifted, Ephraim said, “Look! Is this not exactly what you want? Here are 25 leaders from the villages and Blantyre who resisted the peer pressure of troublemakers and are here to love and serve the kids. THESE ARE THE PEOPLE YOU WANT! You don’t want those other guys. A lot of growth needs to happen in their walk with the Lord. But God has used this difficult experience to show you exactly who you need to disciple. These are the ones who are going to turn this country upside-down. This, my brothers, is an answer to prayer. I thought you needed to start smaller, anyways.”
The Lord had spoken directly through Ephraim. Our eyes shifted from gloom to gladness as we watched our newly trained sports ministry leaders do an amazing job loving the kids by coaching games, teaching them the Word, and teaching them praise chants and songs. By the power of the Holy Spirit of the Living God, they retained the lessons and served with passion.
God spoke to me as I watched, “Don’t worry. This was my plan from the beginning. My ways are higher than yours, so trust me. Pour your life into these leaders. They know me, and I know them and want to use them in great ways for my glory in this land and beyond.” More than ever before in this ministry, I experienced the realness of the God we serve. In the late afternoon we returned to the classroom for debriefing and reflection… but we were not prepared for what happened next.
New Game PlanAs we approached the church where the class sessions were held, many of the rebellious participants were waiting. They ridiculed the 25 faithful trainees and told them not to go into the session. But having just come from the field where they tasted how the Lord could use them in sports ministry, they walked right through the rebels. The spiritual battle was intense. The enemy was waging serious war.
Fostance whispered to me, “This is a separating of the sheep from the goats. And can those goats be noisy and annoying.” Just as the words rolled off his tongue, something happened. Our 25 leaders broke out in unhindered praise and dancing like I have never experienced in all my days in Africa! It was the purest, most beautiful sound and words I’ve ever heard in worship to our great God. I will never forget it. We stopped everything and joined them for a half hour just praising Jesus for His work. During the Basic Training we had several times of singing and dancing, but it was NOTHING like this. This was direct communion with the Father. Friday was a battle. But in the end, the Lord was victorious and He provided the ultimate confirmation that these were the leaders for whom we had been praying.
We counted the Bibles: there were only 15. Then we counted the churches represented: there were 15. This is not a joke. The exact amount of Bibles was the exact number of churches represented! And these 25 churches are spread across the southern region. Fostance said, “This is crazy. They are from very strategic locations, so we’ll still be able to reach the areas we wanted to. Wow!”
We didn’t know what Saturday would hold, but we arrived to find 39 repentant sports ministry leaders. They expressed how deeply sorry they were for being so ridiculous the day before and asked for our forgiveness. They pleaded with us not to neglect them in follow-up and prayer because they will go and start sports ministries. But the one agitator was not sorry. Will you please pray for “T”? God knows who he is. Pray that God will soften T’s hard heart and use him in great ways among the youth of the villages.
More than anything, please pause for a moment and praise God. Praise Him for who He is in your life. Praise Him that you have knowledge of Christ. Praise Him that you have food to eat. Praise Him that He is working in incredible ways here. Praise Him that He’s overcome the adversary. Praise Him that we will see His face soon. Praise Him because He is. Jesus Christ is worthy of every ounce of our being! He is real and wants to work through you today. Surrender everything to Him.
Keeping the Ball in PlayThank you for your prayers for the Basic Training. Amid obstacles and frustrations, God won. He showed us exactly into whom we need to pour. This is beyond what we expected from Basic Training. We also gleaned much wisdom from Berhanu, Ephraim and Jennifer Brady. Proverbs 16:9 says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” That verse has never been so real to us as now. Praise God! He knows what He’s doing!
Meet one of the newly trained Sports Friends ministers in Malawi: Coach Honest
To learn more, visit Sports Friends International
photos courtesy of Jennifer Brady