The impact of baseball as an outreach tool has grown far beyond a one-week camp that OM worker Terry Lingenhoel, from the USA, began in the summer of 2002 in Érd, Hungary. Today, with over 120 players on eight teams, the Érd Baseball and Softball Club is the largest in the country.
Although only a small percentage of the population plays baseball in Érd, a town of 75,000, most residents know that it is played there, and most city officials and hundreds of parents and former players know that the coaches are followers of Christ who coach differently.
Terry has found sports ministry to be the best tool in reaching non-churched youth and forming long-term relationships. The response of players testifies to its influence. During a recent summer camp, one player said that his best experience was when his coach encouraged his hitting during his very first practice years ago, despite the way he had played. Another player said that the spiritual input received from coaches was “the icing on the cake”.
“Making contact with players is the most important thing,” says Terry. Often Christians have trouble making contact with teens and men, as many do not readily respond to an invitation to come to a church event—but they’ll accept an invitation to play baseball.
The coaches interact with players two or more times weekly during practice, giving ample opportunity to demonstrate and share their faith. Summer camps give extended times to hold Bible studies in small groups; during such a time, one young boy, Máté, was challenged to ask God to reveal Himself. Asked why he did not believe in God, he responded that he didn’t know how a God who knew his past could love him.
During the study, the group discussed how God used Paul, who was the worst of the worst, and made him into a most effective preacher of the gospel. One week after the camp, Máté accepted Christ. The team rejoiced at the news of one new life given to the Lord. Two other boys who had already accepted Christ were baptised a few months later in front of many of their baseball team.
God is using baseball to transform other communities in Hungary. Only 2,500 people live in the village of Mikepércs in the northeast, yet baseball recently produced the village’s first championship team in any sport. Several years ago, fellow Christian worker Russell Chun took up the challenge to use baseball to transform this community. Several players have since come to know Christ, and the entire village identifies baseball as a ‘Christian’ sport.
In Budapest’s 11th District, several young leaders of a Baptist church caught the vision for the potential of baseball to draw young men into their fellowship and to disciple young believers. They now have a men’s baseball team composed of believers and unbelievers and are looking for a Christian coach to develop the programme to increase their community impact.
Lajos, a 60-year-old living in Hódmezővásarhely in the south, decided that baseball would be the best way to reach the youth in his community. Within a few months, an adult team started playing in Hungary's NBIII League, and baseball practice for children began.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we are transforming the baseball community in Hungary,” says Terry. “The success of these ‘mission clubs’ and the integrity and service of our Christian coaches displayed is proof thereof.”
Sports in missions are not just limited to Hungary’s baseball programme. Christian sports enthusiasts around the globe are using sports to meet people and share the good news of the gospel creatively.
OM’s SportsLink is part of OM’s wider vision to reach specific people groups by making the gospel relevant to all. It serves the Body of Christ by mobilising, empowering and equipping people with a passion for sports to also share their passion for Jesus Christ.
SportsLink leader Chris Welman shares the wider vision of Christians in sports going beyond those involved in the sports to the surrounding community. “Our (Christian) coaches are role models and trendsetters for players and their families to follow Christ and embrace right values. If we reach a few coaches and their players, we have the potential to reach and influence a small community,” he states.
“With many of the sports we are involved in being played on Sundays, the playing field for many of us becomes ‘church’,” he continues. “Many of us spend more time with our players than their fathers do—imagine the impact we can have.”
He also shares the dream of SportsLink International to establish sport academies to sustain the ministry and to train new leaders alongside mentors in the field. “This is a very practical way to establish ministry but also raise the next generation of sports leaders. Our dream is to have sport academies in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe in the next two years.”
Jill Hitchcock joined OM in 1992, serving in Belgium for five years before moving to Hungary in 1997. She has held many roles in OM over the years, but, for her, it’s about being His servant and using the gifts and abilities He’s given her wherever there’s a need.