Lisa Wedel on athlete identity and how sports outreach impacts communities

Lisa Wedel is a recent University of Guelph graduate with Biological Science honours degree. She was co-captain of the Gryphons women’s varsity volleyball team and worked as a Student-Athlete Mentor for the Pearson Family Student-Athlete Mentorship program. Wedel continues to be involved with the campus ministry Athletes in Action and this summer will enter her fourth year working with Onside Athletics, serving as Recreation Manager. She was interviewed by Love Is Moving’s Ilana Reimer.

Q. Can you start by telling us about Onside Athletics?

A. Our mission is to connect the Church to the community, so when we go to a location, it’s always partnered with a church. We’re sports-focused versus a classic summer camp where you have craft time and you play a little bit of organized sports. We run leagues in the spring and then summer camps that are sports specific: lacrosse, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and ball hockey. Ball hockey is by far our most popular and that’s what we’re known for.

We’re trying to use sports as a door to these kids having access to the gospel because the vast majority of people at the camps have never heard God or Jesus or anything. But our staff are hopefully plugged into a church, and we have devotionals in the spring and stuff like that so they are equipped to have these kind of conversations and build these relationships with campers and their families.

Q. How do you think sports can positively impact a community?

A. Kids love coming and getting to play sports all day. We are very intentional with how we connect with the parents as they come in. The whole family is who we’re caring for. We’re modeling behaviour so that they’re having this positive interaction with a Christian organization and with the Church. They could come from a background where they don’t have a positive experience [with a church]. Like they’ve been hurt in some way or grew up not in a church.

We also have grants like Jumpstart Canada for kids who can’t afford to come. If we have the funds and the donations we give away free weeks of camp and we have bursaries for kids who have a parent who is incarcerated.

So we have this particular group that’s been under-serviced and we get to minister to them. We try and have like spare equipment available as well. One day, a kid came wearing crocs and I’m like, Do you have running shoes at home? He was a foster kid, and whoever was dropping them off told me they didn’t have like good running shoes at home. So Onside has a bin of extra shoes just because of this.

So the fact that we’re caring for God’s creation in this way and these kids are healthy and active and then this extends to the families, giving them an opportunity to really put a name and a face to the churches in their community.

Q. Why do you think it’s important for churches or Christian organizations to engage in sports ministry?

A. I think God loves sports. Like looking at how the body works and the intricacies of the human anatomy and the physiological, physical, emotional, mental—all of that stuff—and the benefits of physical activity. To me, [these details] point to a Creator. He knew what he was doing when He made us.

These are God-given abilities, in my opinion. And man, what an opportunity to get to use sport to give glory to God and to use it as an act of worship. How can you play a sport and it can be an act of worship? I think He’s given us these bodies to move and I think it’s glorifying to use them. And then also the fact that just non-Christians clearly love sports too.

Sports are a non-threatening social thing that can help build connections. And it’s a door to have those kinds of conversations, like in the locker room or team talks, with people who may have never heard of the gospel.

Q. How does your own experience of playing sports connect with your faith?

A. I had never thought about integrating my faith and sports until I joined Athletes In Action. I was the only Christian on my team for a long time at the University of Guelph. That can be kind of lonely, but Athletes in Action has equipped me and God has given me these amazing opportunities to have conversations.

My team is very much the culture of go out and get super drunk, hook up with someone, and then that’s gonna make you feel good. And I see them have their hearts broken. These are people who I love; my teammates are my closest friends now.

But that’s why I love sports ministry, because athletes really have their identity in their sport, especially if they’re good, like the higher level you get. And then you have a bad game and you’re like, Oh my gosh, what am I, who am I? Or you don’t start, or a coach doesn’t like you, or your teammates don’t like you, or you get injured and you’re done.

I’m learning that my identity is not in my performance. [The pressure] is concentrated in athletes because you have all these people praising you and the message in your brain is that this is all that matters. But God cares about me more than He cares about the sport. Learning that my identity is in Christ helped me play my sport more freely. So I wasn’t, you know, freaking out every time I’m like made a bad hit or something like that. And I’m showing others that they too are worth more than that because God loves them.

Teammates or fans see how you act on the court while you play. I can talk to my teammates about God, I can model Christ-like behavior to my coach even when he’s like yelling at me or if I don’t agree with the [referee’s] calls.

Q. How can the Church encourage professional athletes in their midst or welcome other athletes in?

A. If churches could somehow connect with Athletes in Action or connect with other campus ministries, like coming to the [athletes], reaching out to them because they might not want to come to church. Or hosting on-site events, like having a volleyball or frisbee game, that’s a great ministry and a non-threatening opening of the doors. I think every church should have a gym; it’s [a way] to get people into the building.

And if you have athletes in your midst, just encouraging them and feeding into that gift so they really understand that they’re supported and given the tools to use. I think evangelism training is honestly super important for athletes, especially for university students.