Touchdowns for Christ: Flag Football Evangelism

Posted on May 4, 2010

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By David Ettinger

Call it “contact evangelism.” That’s exactly what First Orlando’s Nate Naversen has been doing since 2000. The sports enthusiast organizes co-ed flag football games that are open to the public and designed as Christian outreaches. “Basically, if you want to show up, just grab a jersey and play,” said Nate, who along with his friend Niles Jester oversees the games.

And pretty much, it really is that simple. Games are open to both men and women high school age and older. “One of the reasons we do this is to draw people who would never step foot inside a church,” Nate said. “Though they won’t visit church, they will come play a competitive game of football. It’s our way of sharing with people a little bit of the Word [of God].”

Games are played Saturday mornings beginning at 10 a.m. at Lyman High School located on Ronald Reagan Blvd. just north of Dog Track Road. Because the flag football ministry is designed to honor Christ, Nate has instituted several rules you won’t find in most adult athletic competitions. “We try to emphasize good character,” he said. “One of our rules is that we play for an audience of one, our [heavenly] Father. We’re not playing for personal gain.”

As part of that mindset, bad sportsmanship is not allowed. “People are pretty blown away by that,” he said. “In just about every league around town there is a lot of trash talking. But here, there is a completely different environment, and the people really like that.”

Another practice of the flag football ministry is borrowed from hockey. “If anyone gets out of hand by either showing bad sportsmanship or using foul language, they are sent to the ‘penalty box,’ ” Nate said. “That means they have to step off the field for three plays and their team doesn’t get a substitute. After the third play, the player can come back in and we act like nothing ever happened.”

Before every game, Nate reviews the rules with the players, has them introduce themselves, then leads them in a short prayer. According to Nate, prayer has never been an issue, even for first-time players who are unbelievers, some of whom have just literally walked off the street when they saw the players warming up. “We have never had any problems in all this time,” he said. “What prayer does is put some athletes on notice. They realize that they must watch their mouths and behavior.”

It’s been an effective formula, one that has worked for nine years, when the ministry began. “There was a group of us attending Northland church about 10 years ago who were playing flag football,” Nate said. “One day, we invited an atheist to play with us and realized that it wasn’t enough just to let him play, but we had to do something to share our faith with him.”

Caption: Nate Naversen has been faithfully running leading the flag football ministry since 2000.

That led to the creation of a halftime devotion, which comes after the hour-long first half. Though that particular player only showed up another two or three times, the devotions have remained. “The devotions emphasize being better people, better spouses, better parents, better boyfriends and girlfriends, better employees and better bosses,” Nate explained. “We emphasize making solid life choices.”

Nate gets his devotional material from several sources. One recent lesson focusing on discipline was written by Ohio State University head football coach Jim Tressel. “I also write quite a few myself,” Nate said (click here to read some of Nate’s devotions.) “If I’m watching an NFL game and there is a story about a guy who has overcome obstacles or displayed a character-development trait, then I will use it and relate it to how we can use those traits in our relationship with God.”

The devotions last about 10 to 15 minutes. Players will usually receive a copy of the devotion, with each player reading a paragraph if he or she so chooses. “It’s not a full-out Bible study,” Nate said. “The idea is to pause, reflect and have something to think about each week.”

The results often vary. “Sometimes we just close in prayer and go on to the second half of the game,” Nate said. “But other times, the devotions are deep and impactful and some people have really shared their hearts with us.”

Caption: The guys spend halftime discussing a devotion.

An example, Nate recalled, is when a couple of high school students joined in one of the games. “They were really scared that if they didn’t receive football scholarships, they wouldn’t be able to go to college at all. They shared their lives with us for about 20 minutes. So, instead of getting back to the game right away, we just let them pour out their worries and concerns to us. We were happy to listen to them.”

This is exactly the kind of impact Nate is hoping to make.

“I would say that each week, at least a third of the people who play with us are unbelievers,” he said. “Even though on occasion we will invite several of them to church or to a Life Group, we’re careful not to be overaggressive. We want unbelievers to know that this is a place where they can come and feel comfortable. But if the opportunity allows, we will definitely take it.”

As well as the Saturday games are going, Nate is currently shopping for a new location. “We usually get a good amount of people,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll have 20, other days 10. In our heyday, when we played just off a very visible road, we used to have three games going on at once.”

Nate’s next goal is to organize a flag football league that emphasizes the same character and sportsmanship featured in his current pickup games. “I want to get sponsors and see this thing grow,” he said. “I’d love to give as many people who want to play an opportunity to be a part of these games.”

And for good reason. “This ministry has been so rewarding,” Nate said. “Even though it takes a while, you definitely see fruit. For instance, at the beginning, we had a problem with trash talking. But now, those same guys who had the problems are the leaders. I have seen a lot of change in people’s lives.”

So, how long does the 36-year-old plan to keep playing? “Until I can’t walk. I love it way too much to stop.”

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Posted in: Local Missions