For those who attended the Speed Date A Missionary nights during our 2017 Missions Focus, you met Reza Zadeh and heard his amazing testimony of how God used a group of missionary families attending a conference in Fort Collins to reach the heart of an Iranian-American college football player. Reza’s journey eventually led him into pastoral ministry and full circle back to work with athletes. Our Storytellers team took the opportunity to shine a spotlight on this local ministry.
There is little doubt that sports culture dominates our attention. We can possibly try to divert our attention away, but it’s not long before someone is bringing up the buzzer beater half-court shot that won the game, or the fifty-two-yard field goal that took the game into overtime. Even the Apostle Paul referenced sports in some of his writing. (1 Cor. 9:24-27) Certainly then, this mission of Athletes in Action, is a notable place to start dialoging about opening doors to athletes and faith in Jesus Christ our Savior.
Reza Zadeh, on staff full-time with Athletes in Action, serves athletes at Colorado State University, University of Northern Colorado, and Denver University. Zadeh conducts a CSU Bible study of 30-40 athletes and 16 athletes that are a part of Discipleship Groups. Here he says, “the athletes learn what it means to intimately follow Jesus, worship Him through their sport and learn the skill of reaching and discipling their teammates and others in the athletic department.” He also serves as a guest chaplain for visiting NFL football teams.
It seems that the potential to reach people through athletics is huge. Just look at Tim Tebow for an idea of how far an athlete’s platform can reach. However, many have a hard time meshing the components of athletics and Christianity. After all, Christianity is our everyday walk in grace and humility while sports is something of an all-out, superiority struggle. But Zadeh says, “Our hope for our college campus ministry is Every athlete, on Every team in Every athletic department. We want every team in the world to have at least one Christ Follower on it dedicated to fulfilling the Great Commission by reaching their teammates and discipling them.”
I asked Reza if he saw a specific trend in athletics today that opens the door for Athletes in Action. His response was: “There is so much pressure on athletes to perform. This pressure comes from parent’s, coaches, media, fans, alumni and keeping their scholarship. I have coached my kid’s sports teams and I see this pressure starting at a very young age. Parents are continually wanting to push their kids in hopes that their son/daughter will become the next star athlete or earn that athletic scholarship. The most damaging thing an athlete can do is put their identity and or self-worth in their sport.”
Zadeh goes on to say that, “Although sports are a wonderful thing . . . sports will let you down. Coaches, media, fans, parent’s alumni will let you down one day and your sport cannot love you the way you want it to love you.”
Athletes in Action is a mission that serves to strengthen the bond between Jesus and the athlete whether winning or not. The schism between Christianity and sport does not have to be polarizing or inconvenient or negative. Zadeh tells us that Athletes in Action “. . . teach athletes that their identity is not in their sport, but their identity is in the One who created them and created sport in the first place. It is Jesus that gives us ultimate worth and until athletes can see that sports are a platform where they can worship Jesus rather than sports being a platform for them to be worshiped or them to worship sports-they will continually be frustrated.”
There can be a like-mindedness between Christianity and athletics. I asked Zadeh what it would look like if Jesus’ message of hope was brought to athletes today? He said this, “The message of the Gospel reminds us that our motivation in life is much bigger than wins/losses. If athletes can find a way to be motivated by the love that God has for them and allow that to drive them, then their motivation will never run out.”
Currently Athletes in Action is serving athletes at CSU, UNC, and DU. They are looking to expand to other athletic departments along the front range. (Metro State, CU, Wyoming). On a personal note, Reza Zadeh says, “We know that our athletes have the potential to reach the world. When I grab one of my college athletes or one of the NFL players that I disciple and take them to a school or a kid’s camp, every ear is attentive because they have a platform. We want to help remove the spiritual scales off the eyes of the athletes so they can see their lives and platform through the lens of the Kingdom and be a part of building the Kingdom.”
Thank you Reza for sharing your story and for your tireless effort in reaching athletes for Jesus. If you would like to know more about Athletes in Action and how you can pray for this local ministry, please contact the Missions department for information. Remember, when you give to missions through Timberline Church, you are helping to support missionaries like Reza.