Using sport as outreach for the Gospel

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The work of Sports Friends Malawi is supported by SIM Malawi project MW#96754 Sports Friends Malawi

Set up to work with the Africa Evangelical Church, Sports Friends Malawi in recent years has been spreading its wings, working with other denominations and church groups. Now, as it looks to start collaborating with another, it is also seeing its work being used in outreach to Muslims in the east of the country

The work and influence of Sports Friends Malawi is being felt far and wide across Malawi. It was originally set up to work with the Africa Evangelical Church (AEC) and it now has coaches working with boys and girls in almost all of the churches in that denomination.

Teamwork: Action from a girls’ netball camp held in Liwonde

For the boys, the emphasis is on football while for the girls, netball is the sport of choice. But in addition to training in sports skills, Sports Friends Malawi coaches also give training in life skills and Bible skills; learning how to win and, possibly more important, lose with grace is paramount.

“We started with football for the boys, but soon the girls wanted to get involved with our work,” said Revd Fostance Mtolo, head of Sports Friends Malawi.

“Netball is massive in Malawi; the Queens, the national team, are regularly ranked in the top six nations in the world, so it seemed logical that we should offer the sport. This is what we offered to the AEC, and we have developed teams in all of the churches. So, we knew if we wanted to develop further, we needed to look outside.

“In addition to the AEC, we are working with other denominations such as the Evangelical Baptist Church of Malawi (EBCM), and the Baptist Convention Church of Malawi (BACOMA). We are also working with groups of people known as Pastors’ Fraternals in the Mangochi area to help to reach the Muslims there, and with a similar group in Zomba, reaching out to orphans there.”

Outreach to Muslims and, in the case of the work in Zomba, to vulnerable young people, is becoming increasingly important in the work of Sports Friends Malawi. Work with EBCM and BACOMA is important in this regard, especially in the eastern region. Areas such as Mangochi, Balaka and the Lakeshore Region are the traditional heartlands for the mainly Muslim Yao people group, one of the most unreached people groups in the country.

Coaches have been trained from within these two denominations and are now engaging with their young Muslims, using sport to help introduce the Gospel. The approach that the coaches need to take is very different from those in other parts of the country. Generally, every training session will conclude with a Bible study as the coach, or an invited guest, will expound the Scriptures, Bible in hand. Not so in the Eastern Region, as Fostance explained.

National Leader: Revd Fostance Mtolo who heads up Sports Friends Malawi

“Openly using the Bible can be a problem in these areas, so we encourage people to memorise scriptures; they don’t carry a Bible, but they have it in their hearts, especially the coaches. So, they will memorise the passages that they want to share with the young people.

“But much more important are their lives – the ways they live their lives.  This carries a message that is more than just someone opening a Bible and speaking from that passage. We are encouraging them to live a life of example as Christians that will reflect Christ.”

Working with denominations has been helpful, not least from a logistical point of view. A Denomination Co-ordinator is appointed and he or she helps to develop the work in that Church, liaising with Fostance and his team in the office in Blantyre. Sometimes other methods of work are also needed, which cross over such formal boundaries.

In Mangochi, for example, a group of pastors from a number of churches have set up a ‘Pastors’ Fraternal’ and Sports Friends Malawi is working with them, again in outreach to their Muslim neighbours.

“Working with the Pastors’ Fraternal in Mangochi is helping us to reach our Muslim neighbours with the Gospel,” said Fostance.

“In this case, we are no longer using one church or denomination but have multiple churches working interdenominationally. So, all churches that are in this place, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, or whatever, as long as they are under this umbrella of ‘fraternity’, we are working with them. This is a great opportunity for us to reach many more Muslims through churches that are in this place.

“Many pastors are very happy; they are coming back to us, giving feedback of how they and their churches are ministering in this area. They are finding this ministry to be very fruitful because it is one that is looking to create friendship, and through that friendship they are able to interact, able to share faith and eventually these Malawian                       brothers, these Muslims, are able to surrender their life to Christ.”

The approach used for the work in Zomba is slightly different again. Here Sports Friends Malawi has linked up with a ministry called ‘Passion Centre’ which is a para-church organisation working with and supporting street kids in the city. The main work of Passion Centre is to work with the community to help clothe, feed and educate the street kids. Sports Friends Malawi was approached by Passion Centre wanting to start training sports coaches to enhance their work.

Goal!: Even Sports Friends Malawi resorts to penalty shootouts to decide winners in key games at the boys’ camp in Ngabu

“This is a community-based ministry and it has been exciting to be able to work with them,” said Fostance.

“In addition to having coaches who can go out into the community, Passion Centre wanted to set up a team at its main base in Zomba. This is when they first approached us to see if we could train coaches for them, and it has proved to be a very fruitful partnership.”

Sports Friends Malawi has come a long way since it was first set up ten or so years ago. But where does it go in the future? Talking to Fostance, it is clear that it will not be sitting on its well earned laurels.

“In the near future, we are looking to focus more on the Eastern Region which is a more strongly Muslim area. We want the Gospel to be taken to this area through the churches which are there or through the Pastors’ Fraternals,” he said.

“We are also looking to partner with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP). We are discussing how best we can move together, and we hope to start training coaches soon.

“To start with, we are working with just the Blantyre Synod, concentrating on Blantyre City, especially with churches in the east and the north of the city. That gives us 88 local church in these two areas. After we have worked with Blantyre, we will look at other places they may want us to roll training out to, possibly the rest of Blantyre Synod and hopefully Nkhoma and Livingstonia Synods – but that is a very long-term goal.

“I have a very strong passion for youth, and I have found this ministry has drawn me closer not just to them but to God Himself. I feel like I have got peace and joy because I am doing what I am supposed to do. I wanted to give my best in this area because I feel like this is the area in which I can give my best. This is the place where I can give the best to what God has been calling me to. I have been learning a lot from other people. In the SIM family I have got people who have been mentoring me. So, personally, I feel I have been growing a lot through this ministry.

“I am very confident that Sports Friends Malawi will continue to grow because we work as a team. We have denominational co-ordinators, we have coaches, we have people that we can call on to help with Training of Trainers, so it is like a very big family. The ministry is growing fast, and it is our prayer that God will turn Malawi around with the help of this ministry.”

Basic Training: Coaches from the Evangelical Baptist Church of Malawi undergoing Sports Friends Malawi Basic Training in Balaka