Authors: Joseph C. Spears, Jr., Erica Hernandez, Ph.D.

Corresponding Author:
Joseph C. Spears, Jr., Ed. D
Assistant Professor Sport Management
Faculty Athletic Representative
Bowie State University
15402 General Lafayette Blvd
Brandywine, MD 20613
Phone: (301) 860-3778

Dr. Joseph C. Spears, Jr. is an assistant professor of Sport Management at both Bowie State and Liberty Universities. At Bowie State, he also serves as faculty athletic rep and chaplain of the football team. Dr. Spears has an Ed.D in sports management from the United States Sports Academy and has completed a masters in higher education from Morgan State, a masters in divinity from Virginia Union and a B.A degree in Christian education from Logos Christian. College. Dr. Spears understands the need and importance of developing families and communities spiritually, socially and economically. To that end, Dr. Spears utilizes sports as a framework to partner with other community organizations and leaders to provide educational and informational programs that promote the well-being of the entire community. His sports background is long-distance road, trail running, and mountain biking and boxing.

Dr. Erica Hernandez is an assistant professor of psychology at Bowie State University. She earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi. Dr. Hernandez has been teaching psychology for over 10 years and has research interests in a variety of areas spanning psychology, education, and finance.

Church & Sport in Alabama

Can a Sports Ministry program positively impact the church’s mission among its members? Previous research with commitment theory in psychology as it relates to sports and religious activity (2, 19) indicates that what benefits that church members get out of attending church activities will impact their frequency of attendance and commitment to their church. Sports activities have long been used as a tool to bring people into the church and increase fellowship and evangelism (11). To date, there has been little empirical research into the specific benefits of a sports ministry in the opinion of the church leaders who have sports activities in their church.

Keywords: transformative, sports ministry, benefits, church growth

The purpose of this study was to investigate Church leaders’ perceptions of the benefits of utilizing a Sports Ministry Program within the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Alabama. A survey questionnaire was developed by the researcher to access the perceptions of the benefits of utilizing a sports ministry within the churches. Prior to this date, no surveys of church leaders’ opinions on the impacts of sports ministries in predominantly African American churches have been published. Church leaders of AME churches in Alabama were asked about sports ministry and its potential impact in eight areas: 1) overall benefit, 2) growth and economic impact, 3) fellowship, 4) evangelism, 5) helping spread the Gospel, 6) teach character development, hard work, and respect, 7) discipleship, and 8) training future leaders. Most of the church leaders who responded indicated that they saw positive value of sports ministry in all 8 areas. Establishing a sports ministry has the potential impact of not only improving youth commitment to the church, it also can have positive effects on the social relationships of participants with their coaches and peers, as well as improving self-esteem (6). This research article will disclose church leaders’ perceptions of the benefits of utilizing a sports ministry program within the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Alabama.

How is sport related to scripture?
Henry Ward Beecher, a muscular Christian, was an outspoken supporter of the benefits of sports that, “nothing could be more properly in the sphere of Christian activity than the application of the cause of physical health and community” (3). Beecher also stated, “If general health is not religion, if it is not Christ, it is John the Baptist; it goes before him” (18).

The Church has long used Paul’s (10) four primary sporting metaphors to connect religious and secular ideas. Paul wrote:

  1. to the Philippians of pressing towards the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, (Phil. 3:14);
  2. to the Corinthians of running the race to obtain the prize (1 Cor. 9:24);
  3. to the Ephesians of wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the dark ages (Ephesians 6:12,)
  4. to Timothy having fought the good fight of faith, and to finish the course for the crown of heaven is awaiting him (2 Tim 4:7-8).

There is a historical and Biblical basis for using sport as both a metaphor for spiritual growth and as a manifestation of the Christian ideal. These examples show the close relationship between sport and spreading the word of the Gospel, and evangelism. If sports can be a manifestation of Christian ideals, it can be an effective tool for evangelism through teaching how the leisure activity of sports can complement and enhance the spiritual experience.

Historical precedent for using sports to grow the church and spread the Gospel
American Christian institutions saw the potential for using sports to grow the church and spread the Gospel starting as early as the 19th century [e.g. 7, 16,] In 1891, Dr. James Naismith created the game of basketball to help him spread the Gospel as part of his position at the YMCA (16). The focus of muscular Christians such as James Naismith was to use athletics to spread the Gospel message (11). Sports was ways to reach diverse audiences that may have not otherwise have attended church events (14).

Since the early twentieth century, intercollegiate sports have served as an important recruiting tool for bringing students (especially male student) to enroll in evangelical colleges and universities (e.g.8,15, 17, 9, 1, 13,11, 5). Universities affiliated with a variety of denominations have used sports to recruit not only student athletes, but also to expand the school’s reach to spectators of sports. (e.g. 12, 4). Sporting events provide a unique opportunity to bring in new participants and spectators who may not otherwise have come into the church.

Both the muscular Christians of a bygone era (e.g. 11) and modern-day universities. (e.g. 12; 4) have used sports to bring people into the church. American church leaders have realized the power of sports to grow their ministries and use familiar and entertaining sports activities to spread the Gospel. Let us now examine the ways in which sports ministries can benefit the churches that sponsor them.

Forty-four Alabama A.M.E. church participants were recruited from 18 counties in the State of Alabama. All 44 surveys were completed resulting in a participation rate of 100%. Participants consisted of 37 males and 7 females.

The purpose of this study was to investigate church leaders’ perceptions of the benefits of utilizing a sports ministry in the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Alabama. A list of churches representing the population of interest was identified from the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Alabama official registry mailing list. The survey questionnaire titled “Church Leaders Perceptions of Youth Sports” utilized a Likert scale design to assess attitudes of church leaders (N=44) regarding the impact of church sponsored youth sports programs. A non-random sample of this population was made based on the following criteria: 1) the church had an active sports ministry, 2) the church held regular services other than just on Sunday (for example, a Wednesday night bible study in addition to Sunday service), and 3) the church regularly hosted social activities or other types of ministries in addition to regular church services.

Once these criteria for sample selection were identified, five pastors were selected for a pilot study of the questionnaire to test whether the questions were clear and whether any changes needed to be made. An additional five pastors were chosen to be “expert” reviewers to look at the results of the pilot questionnaire and evaluate the questionnaire as additional reviewers. Once the questionnaire was finalized, a sample of forty-four Alabama A.M.E. churches was selected based on the three criteria explained previously. Of the six A.M.E. conferences across the state of Alabama, there were eight churches selected from each of five conferences and four churches were selected from the remaining conference. The survey was then distributed through survey monkey to church leaders at each of the identified sample of forty-four A.M.E. churches across the state of Alabama. After the respondents were contacted by the researcher, there was a 100% response rate and all forty-four questionnaires were returned to the researcher.

Each church leader participant was asked for demographic information including their gender, age, years of experience as a church leader, church leader participation in sports during their K-12 years, and highest educational level obtained. Participants were also asked for demographic information about the church that they served: age of the church, number of K-8 children that attend their church, county where church is located, and questions about the status of the current or future sports ministry program with questions about the specific sports involved. After the demographics information was completed, participants completed the Sports Ministry Impact (SMI) survey. The SMI consisted of 8 questions, each scored on a 5-point Likert-type scale with descriptors from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”. Each item also included a comment field in case the participant wished to add more information. The SMI questions are listed below, and they solicited the church leaders’ feedback on the effects that the sports ministry had on the church in areas such as fellowship, economic impact, evangelism and character development.

  1. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly benefit the Church.
  2. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly impact the growth and economic impact of the Church.
  3. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly impact the fellowship within the Church.
  4. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly stimulate evangelism and outreach for the Church.
  5. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program can significantly help spread the Gospel and the Lords Word.
  6. Utilizing a Sports Ministry Program can significantly teach character development, hard work and respect for fellow man.
  7. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program can significantly be a useful tool for discipleship.
  8. Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program can significantly be an avenue for servant-hood and training strategy for future Church leaders.

The surveys were administered using Survey Monkey and the results were downloaded to IBM SPSS Statistics version16 for analysis. Descriptive statistics for each item were calculated, along with the Cronbach’s alpha for the entire scale.

There were eleven types of sports programs that were being utilized at the targeted A.M.E. churches at time of the survey (see Table 1), however the most common sports were basketball (N = 11), boxing (N = 6), and baseball / softball (N = 6).
Thirty-seven (n=37, 84.1%) of the church leaders were male and six (n = 6, 13.6%) were female. One respondent did not report their gender. Thirty-nine (88.6%) of the church leaders reported that they participated in sports at the K-12 level, while five participants (11.4%) reported that they did not participate in sports. When asked to approximate the number of children K-8th who attended their church, the mean estimated number of children was 34.6 with a standard deviation of 27.9. The median estimated number of children at the church was 30 and the mode was 20. The results of the additional demographics questions are shown below in Tables 1 – 5.

Table 1. Sports ministry programs being utilized in the African Methodist Episcopal Churches of Alabama at the time of the survey
(N = Number of Churches Using the Sport Listed)

Sport N
Basketball 11
Boxing 6
Baseball / softball 6
Golf 4
Football 3
Soccer 2
Frisbee golf 2
Cheerleading 1
Aerobics 1

We see here when asked which sport is preferred, again basketball is given preference.

Table 2. Self-reported age ranges of church leader survey respondents

Age group N Percentage
21-30 4 9.1
31-40 8 18.2
41-50 12 27.3
51-60 13 29.5
60+ 6 13.6
Not reported 1 2.3

Participants were recruited from counties in the state of Alabama. All 44 surveys were completed resulting in a participation rate of 100%.

Table 3. Number of years since each church in the survey had been established

Years established as a church N Percentage
0-5 3 6.8
6-10 1 2.3
11-15 1 2.3
16-20 1 2.3
21+ 37 84.1
Not reported 1 2.3

Their respective churches were over twenty years or more.

Table 4. Number of years as a church leader of respondents at the time of the survey

Number of years as church leader N Percentage
0-5 4 9.1
6-10 12 27.3
11-15 5 11.4
16-20 5 11.4
21+ 14 31.8
Not reported 4 9.1

Most had ten years or more in the ministry.

Table 5. Highest reported educational level of the church leader respondents

Highest educational level reported N Percentage
High School 7 15.9
Associates 4 9.1
Bachelors 13 29.5
Masters 14 31.8
Ph.D. 2 4.5
D. Min 4 9.1

Most have had some participation in sports, with at least a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Sports Ministry Impact (SMI) survey was scored using a 5-point Likert-type scale where 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = don’t know, 4 = agree and 5 = strongly agree. The results from each item are summarized below. Three survey responses were excluded from analysis because their negative ratings (1 = strongly disagree) on the items did not match the positive content of their comment section, so it is believed that they erroneously filled out the 1-5 Likert type scale. The resulting sample size for the SMI survey was 41 respondents. The Sports Ministry Impact survey had excellent internal consistency, with a Cronbach’s alpha of 0.958. A total Sports Ministry Impact score was calculated by adding the numeric responses of the eight items for each participant.

Table 6. Item full text and descriptive statistics for each item


Strongly Disagree


Don’t Know


Strongly Agree


Standard Deviation

Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly benefit the Church.

4 (8%)

0 (0%)

6 (12%)

20 (40%)

20 (40%)



Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly impact the growth and economic impact of the Church.

3 (6%)

2 (4%)






Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly impact the fellowship within the Church.








Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program would significantly stimulate evangelism and outreach for the Church.








Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program can significantly help spread the Gospel and the Lords Word.








Utilizing a Sports Ministry Program can significantly teach character development, hard work and respect for fellow man.








Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program can significantly be a useful tool for discipleship.








Utilizing a Sport Ministry Program can significantly be an avenue for servant-hood and training strategy for future Church leaders.








Eight questions on the survey assessed these perceptions in 18 counties in the state of Alabama.

There was no significant correlation between the estimated number of children K-8th that attended the church and the total Sports Ministry Impact score (r = -0.285, p = 0.071). This was one of the few variables tested that approached significance. Otherwise, the Sports Ministry Impact score did not show a significant difference due to the gender of the church leaders [t(38) = -0.633, p = 0.531], the church leader’s age group [F(4,35) = 1.714, p = 0.169], how long the respondent had been a church leader [F(4,32) = 0.710, p = 0.591], the age of the church [F(4,35) = 0.291, p = 0.882], whether the church leaders participated in sports themselves in K-12 [t(39) = 0.560, p = 0.579], the highest educational level attained by the church leaders [F(5,35) = 0.450, p = 0.810], or whether the church utilized a sports ministry program [t(14.735) = -0.681, p = .507]. These analyses may have lacked the power to find significant effects due to the low sample size relative to the number of groups in some of the analysis. The lack of significant differences in these demographic groups indicates that the Sports Ministry Impact score was similarly high in many different AME church environments.

A qualitative analysis of the 48 free response comments given by the survey respondents revealed that 37 of the 48 comments (77.1%) were positive towards the benefits of a sports ministry program to the church, 1 was negative about sports ministries (2.1%), and 10 were neutral (20.8%). There were four dominant themes of the responses about the positive effects of a sports ministry: 1) bringing people into the church that otherwise would not be there, 2) improving fellowship among the youth and the adults in the church, 3) the character building opportunities of teamwork and leadership, and 4) the opportunity for spreading the gospel but only if prayer and scripture is included in the sports program. The one negative response referred to “a poor witness on the part of a few of the participants”. The neutral statements mostly focused on general statements about church involvement that were not directly related to sports ministry, but there were several responses that were cautious about the idea of a sports ministry, questioning whether there was enough demand for a sports ministry to result in a benefit to the church.

A sample of positive comments of church leaders on the benefits of sports ministry to the church: “improve cohesiveness of the youth in our church”, “help bridge the gap between the church and community”, “support the youth by giving a God-based activity to participate in outside of the sanctuary”, “help with leadership, teamwork, character and respect”, “give the kids who didn’t make the team at school a chance to compete” “As sports continue to gain the interest of the youth of our community. We must draw the connection of not only being a winner on the court but allowing the athletic or future athletics to understand what it is to be a winner with Christ. Through such ministry, the church can fulfill the Great Commission. From that the church sees growth-not only from the youth-but with families. They have not only won the soul of the child but of the family, which in most cases are three or more.”, “ the researcher personally has seen a lot of kids come to know Christ through sports ministry, that may never have stepped into a regular church service.”

Most of the church leaders surveyed had a positive impression of the possible impact of sports ministries, independent of the age, gender, or other demographics of the church leader or the church at large. There was low variability in the responses to the Sports Ministry Impact survey, indicating that sports ministry may have a positive impact on AME churches regardless of whether the church is a long-established church or a newer congregation. The responses to the survey were overwhelmingly positive, with church leaders expressing positive opinions about the effects of sports ministry programs on various aspects of church participation and engagement. Future research should focus on the direct effects of sports ministry on church attendance, finances, and engagement. A before and after research study with measures of church attendance and monetary giving, as well as surveys completed by the sports ministry participants, would add another layer of important data to this line of study.

Recommendations: Best Practices for Sports Ministry based on previous research
In 1999, Bronfenner, as cited in Fraser-Thomas et al. (6), proposed the following operational model for activities that effectively encourage development in adolescents: a) a person must engage in activities, b) activities must take place on a fairly regular basis, over an extended period of time, c) activities must take place over a long enough period of time to become increasingly more complex, and d) activities must involve long-term reciprocal relationships” (p.5-6).

Fraser-Thomas et al. (6) report that some of the negative effects of youth sports participation such as early dropout from the sport, physical injury and psychological stress can be lessened by providing a more diverse set of early sports experiences rather than focusing on a single sport at an early age. Fraser-Thomas et al. (6) also emphasized the importance of social relationships in promoting positive outcomes for youth athletes- participants experienced more enjoyment and benefits from participation when parents were supportive but did not pressure the youths. As for the relationships between athlete and coach, there were better developmental outcomes when the coaches focused on improving the athletes’ technique using reinforcement rather than punishment (8). Ultimately the transformative power of sports can attract people from all walks of life and affect human life and relationships at virtually every level.

Based upon the surveys collected and the data analyzed, the following conclusions were made regarding the research questions posed in this study: There are forty- four African Methodist Episcopal Churches in Alabama that are utilizing a Sports’ Ministry Program, and that meet more than two Sundays a month. There were several programs that were currently being utilized, however the ones that are most favorably being utilized are: basketball, boxing, and baseball / softball, golf, football, soccer, Frisbee golf, cheerleading, aerobics, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and track. Amazing, though these number of sports were being utilized according to table 6 the questions directly dealing with social areas such as fellowship, character development, evangelism, leadership, etc. more agreed or strongly agreed. On the other hand, the two questions that dealt with the growth and impact didn’t lean so much towards agreed and strongly agreed.

Many either agreed or strongly agreed that a Sports’ Ministry would significantly impact the A.M.E. Church. Some commented that many youths have come to know Christ through their sports’ ministry that may have never attended a regular church service. Others stated that a sports’ ministry has allowed physical activities with religious teachings and principles. Sports’ Ministry has helped in leadership, teamwork and character development. Sports’ Ministry has helped with bridging the gap with the church and the community. Sports’ Ministry gives the youth that didn’t make the team at school a chance to compete. Sports’ Ministry has improved the cohesiveness of the youth and the church. Finally, one church leader mentioned the importance that Sports’ Ministry has played in gaining the interest of the youth in their community. In addition to having the ability to demonstrate playing well in competition, but the ability to have that same perseverance and discipline in Christ can be shown. Through this venue the church is fulfilling the Great Commission. Winning a youth to Christ creates opportunities to impact the whole family.

Christ like character development is taught as part of becoming an excellent athlete.

Can the utilization of a Sports’ significantly be a useful tool for Church discipleship? Many had discovered that people who would normally not come to church would come to a sporting event. Sports’ can model the character of Christ, just like the disciples strived to do, in a setting that people are accustomed to in everyday life. The Church leaders in addition perceived that utilizing a Sport can significantly be an avenue for servant hood and a training strategy for future Church leaders. All the leaders either agreed or strongly agreed that Sports’ in the local church is a great tool for developing leaders. It provides people the opportunity to serve the body of Christ with a new avenue for service. In serving the body of Christ, members can tap into their gifts of leadership that would ultimately impact the church. Sports’ can be a specialized tool for the local church, and something that can be found among the urban or rural, Christian or Muslims, rich or poor. Since Sports is so embedded in our society today, it is something that can be an ally rather than an enemy. There remains a need to explore some of these oppositions and to teach the relationship between Sports and Religion. This relationship can possibly impact the growth of the Church and change lives. Sports can give the church an available opportunity to fulfill the great commission “go into the entire world and preach the gospel.”

Many churches consist of an older generation, and major lines of racial divisions and other biased attributes. It will behoove the church to become more creative in reaching all people for the Kingdom, “for God gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes” (John 3:16). What better way to begin to tear down these divided walls than through Sports? Because this is not happening, churches are dying both physically and spiritually. The apostle Paul describes it like this, “I am willing to be a Greek for the Greeks, a Jew for the Jews, that I might win some for Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:22, KJV)

The researcher sees Sports as the vehicle to ignite a major impact on the spiritual, physical and financial growth of the Churches of Alabama. The researcher says the State of Alabama because of a very important observation. Alabama, out of all other States the researcher has ever visited shares a very strong passion and loyalty to Sports. People will literally fight you over Auburn vs. Alabama football game. Many younger athletes all dream of one day making it big in the professional leagues, not just them their parents do as well. We see it whenever we turn our television on or, if we go to any college game throughout Alabama. The researcher truly believes that if the AME Churches in Alabama will ever have a chance to resurrect themselves, it must be now. The researcher purposes to you that Sports is that gateway to that resurrection.

This article could have not have been accomplished without the encouragement and support from all my children; specifically, the researcher wants to thank my wife Shelia for the support and dedication. She never complained but was very supportive in my pursuit of writing this article. The researcher is truly grateful for her and wanted to tell her thanks. The researcher truly considered this project as a team effort. Finally, if it was not for the cooperation and encouragement of all the church leaders who answered the survey in a timely manner, the research could have not been completed.

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