Do Churches Need a Sports Ministry? | Sojourners

Do Churches Need a Sports Ministry?

Photo courtesy Ashley Lynn Hengst. Graphic by Candace Sanders/Sojourners

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

When I was a kid, there were few places I enjoyed more than our local YMCA. My dad had a gym membership, and I played youth sports at the Y. Originally known as the Young Men’s Christian Association, the sports and fitness organization gave me my first organized-sports experiences: soccer, basketball, flag football, and the occasional racquetball game.

As an adult, I still play sports on a regular basis, but I’m in the minority. Only 1 in 4 adults play sports each year, according to a 2015 study from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This is despite nearly 3 in 4 respondents reporting playing as kids, and a majority of adults saying sports improved their mental and physical health.

This lack isn’t all personal failure, though. There are disparities among how many men play sports compared to women (disparities that don’t exist for kids), and people with higher income and education are more likely to play sports as adults.

Ashley Lynn Hengst sees opportunities for the church to help decrease those disparities and build space for more people of all ages to play sports. Hengst serves in pastoral care at All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., after a decade working for the Y in youth development.

Sports, Hengst shared in our interview, carve out a space for youth (and adults) to find pleasure in and through their bodies. Safe, bodily pleasure is sorely missed in faith spaces; churches devalue bodies at the expense of souls. And culture broadly devalues any bodies that are not white, cisgender, male, and able.

“For conservative teens, sometimes the only place that they can find or are allowed pleasure in their bodies is in sports,” Hengst said.

Hengst lives with her wife and 10-month-old daughter in Los Angeles, where she boxes, practices taekwondo, races in triathlons, and powerlifts. She dreams of a future where bodies are seen as essential to spiritual life. In our interview, Hengst discussed sports as a site of self-discovery and compassion, and how churches might support and include all bodies in that future.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Mitchell Atencio, Sojourners: How long have you been powerlifting? How long have you been boxing?

I dislocated my left kneecap pretty early in my teens and it forced me to pursue weightlifting as a permanent physical therapy. So, I’ve been weightlifting since I was about 15-16, and I’m obsessed with it. I’ve been boxing since the start of the pandemic. It’s a wonderful way to exercise and get stress out.

Was the knee dislocation a sports injury?

Yes, I did it playing sports three times. The first one was softball. Second and third were playing basketball at school in the yard.

What were your very first sports and what were the formative sports for you as you were growing up?

My first introduction to sports was soccer. I grew up in Miami, so soccer is a big deal. So is baseball and softball. I did a lot of that early on and loved it. I played defense for soccer. For softball, I was always first base and a big heavy hitter because I was a bigger girl. I grew up quickly, so I was a good hitter.

I also played street hockey in the neighborhood with tennis balls and Rollerblades. I played basketball after school. Occasionally we would play flag or touch football in the neighborhood streets. I played sports as early as I could run.

How did you start working in youth sports and for the YMCA?

I was looking for a job that would be fun and engaging, so I started working for the Y[MCA] in a youth program in Miami for about half a year. I ended up moving to North Carolina for undergrad and worked for the [North Carolina] YMCA there for five years, and then Chinatown in San Francisco for four, and then a year in [Los Angeles].

I taught soccer, baseball, racquetball, tennis, swim lessons, and so many [other] sports. I taught so many youth sports. I taught sports I didn’t know how to play. 

I started with early arrivals and after-school care programs. I transitioned to day-camp programs where we played sports all throughout the day for summer. And then I would do “track out,” which is a daycare for yearlong school programming.

Did you learn anything about sports when you were coaching that you hadn’t learned as a player?

When I was coaching, I realized how important sports were, regardless of whether you were athletic. Sports allowed children to get inside their bodies, to become one with, or really embody their bodies.

It allowed them to learn to control them. Not necessarily as a way of repressing their urges, but as a way of controlling their urges [and to feel] empowered, strong, and capable to be in the world in their bodies.

How do you have those conversations with kids? Is it something that you try to explain or is it something they learn by playing?

I try not to focus on winning and scoring when I coach. I focus on skill-building. That keeps the emphasis on them and not on their role in the team.

When you focus on helping these children master skill sets through repetition and drills, it becomes natural. Girls who thought they could never throw a football are suddenly throwing footballs. Little boys who thought they could never catch one are suddenly [catching on the run].

Do you see overlaps between that and the work you do now in pastoral ministry?

Oh, a hundred percent. I got a lot to say about this. In the Christian church, we don’t do a great job of talking about our bodies. If we do talk about our bodies, it’s typically about sex and controlling it. It’s as if we’ve developed a theology that’s exclusively about the spirit.

Most of the church doesn’t have any kind of antagonism toward sports, but it’s almost like a sin of omission in that we just don’t address the human body.

What does a healthy future of the church talking about sports and embodiment look like?

[In that future], we’re talking about the health and wellness of the human body and prioritizing that from the pulpit. Even if there’s not a Bible story to “back it up.” We’re talking about more programs and fellowship around health initiatives that support healthy lifestyles ... in all different types of bodies — big bodies, small bodies, bodies that can run, bodies that can’t. [Our bodies] should be just as essential to our spiritual life as prayer and fasting and attending church.

I sometimes see an overlap between the discipline that sports ask of me and the discipline I have needed in my own spiritual life. There are obviously toxic versions of each, but at their healthiest, I am submitting myself and disciplining myself to a process. Do you see a similar overlap?

Sports is an opportunity to help Christians cultivate self-compassion, gentleness, and tenderness more than discipline, devotion, and excellence.

The self-compassion, tenderness, and gentleness is rooted in approaching a sport with the understanding that you are going to do the best you can, that you are in relationship with your body, and your body is going to coach you on what you can and can’t do. It ought to be this gentle ebb and flow rooted in a love and acceptance of your body.

Even if I’m doing that last rep on a deadlift and my body is aching, I want to find pleasure and joy in that. I am gently coaching my body toward this one last rep.

I’m curious to hear more about gentleness, especially as an ebb-and-flow relationship as you describe. Can you share a time you gently coached your body toward a goal?

When I dislocated my knee for the third time, I felt like that was a “sign from God” that I needed to stop running. So, I stopped running for 10 years and coached, but I would fumble along when it came to running because my knee would be in so much pain.

Then the pandemic happened, and I had this amazing coach who really gently taught me how to run again. He would tell me to “model” running as I was walking — lift your legs, move your arms as if you’re running, but go slow if you can’t breathe. And go slower if it hurts. But don’t stop. Just keep going until you’ve done the two laps.

Because of him, I was able to get back into running. I did 12 [5-kilometer races] the following year. I did a [10-kilometer race] for Thanksgiving. I did a triathlon. Because of the confidence that I learned from him and the strength that my legs got back from running again.

Where do you see overlaps between pastoral care and coaching, especially in coaching youth?

We assume youth don’t have insecurities about their bodies. But they do, and more often than not, we as adults have taught them to have those insecurities, unfortunately. It’s important for there to be coaches and teachers who are pastoral. Coaches who are gentle, but [who intentionally focus on] growth and don’t lose hope when there’s a lot of resistance toward growth.

Youth sports can have a reputation as a place where parents behave badly, either pushing their kids too far or mistreating opponents. What would you advise to parents who want to sign their kids up for a sport?

I would encourage the parents to play sports with them. I would also encourage the parents to see this as a first chapter in a long journey of their child building a relationship with their bodies.

I know we don’t think along those lines, but I find that, when that becomes the focus, it doesn’t matter if the kid is [good] or even if they win. It matters that they showed up and had fun and they’re getting better at something. When parents play along, when they’ve had to run the bases and hit the ball, they’re more sympathetic with the child and less likely to put that pressure on their child. They’re more aware of the different ways that they have to grow in order to succeed in the task.

Sports really encourage a process of trial and error. In tennis, if you’re hitting the ball too soft, you try hitting it harder. If the ball hits the back fence or goes over the fence, you go, “OK, that was too hard.” I wonder if that’s a virtue too, where we learn to find different ways to accomplish something.

Sports provide youth and children the opportunity to problem solve … and it allows them to do that on their own. If they’re being asked to kick a ball to another person and it’s not working, oftentimes they will figure it out on their own, even if it’s the “wrong way.”

And it’s not personal because it’s about the ball and their foot. And I think that relates to life in many ways: Trial and error is embodied in sports, [making error] more tolerable. [You learn] sometimes things just need to be done a little differently.

OK, I like a lot of the talk about gentleness now at 27 years old, but at 7 — or even 17 — I wanted to win. We’ve talked a lot about helping the kids who are shyer and more reticent, but what about the kids who don’t need to learn how to try harder? What do you do with ultra-competitive kids?

I make it about fun. If it’s a team sport, [I’m encouraging that kid to] bring others along. “Oh, I know you can score, Javier. But could you get Michael to score? Could you pass the ball and see if he could score too? Because that would be a lot harder. And I know that you’re up for it.”

I try to give them challenges that encourage them to bring others with them in hopes that they see that it’s not just about them, but about their team winning or getting the chance to get close to winning. Oftentimes I’ll see one or two children, regardless of gender, who are like that. They want to score; they want to win. If you don’t [or] if you’re not a good player, they don’t want you on their team. I try to help them see their role as leading and teaching and showing. [I’m] helping them see the fun in getting other people to score and kick ass.

Growing up, I clung to the Vince Lombardi quote, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” (The quote, repeated by Lombardi, was originally used by UCLA football Red Sanders. Lombardi also said he was misunderstood, talking instead about the will to win, not the result itself.) Obviously I had some maturing to do, but I think it’s been hard for me to give up the desire to win. I love winning. And it was healthy to mature to a place where losing didn’t devastate me, but I can’t stop the fact that every time I play tennis, I want to win. And in team sports, I wanted to win with my team. I wanted to help my teammates get better, like you described. Is that OK?

There’s a lot of pleasure in winning, right? There’s a lot of pleasure in straining yourself and succeeding, whether that be sports or a project or any kind of competition. There is a lot of pleasure in winning, even for children. I know sometimes that can feel dangerous. If we apply it to some things, people become greedy adults who only take pleasure in exploiting others. But I feel like [we need to remember] that not all pleasure is bad.

Perhaps God has given us this kind of pleasure in sports as a gift. It is a good thing that there are people who really love to compete, excel, and win. It should not be selfish but geared toward bringing other people along.

Right, it’s better to lose than to win by playing unfairly.

As long as that is maintained, the drive and will to win, the pleasure they get, that should be nourished. It shouldn’t be shamed or repressed. And [it is good] to bring other people along to feel that pleasure — and I use the word “pleasure” specifically.

How else can sports help people discover themselves? There’s a lot of stereotypes about what sports attract particular people, and I don’t want to traffic in that, but you mentioned playing softball and mentioned your wife…

[Laughs] I was closeted until I was 21. I don’t think anybody thought because I liked softball, I might be gay. Softball was the only option for girls. You couldn’t play baseball in our neighborhood. But sports allowed me to have contact with my own inner strength.

I remember learning the word “aggressive” as a good thing from a coach, not from the church. “Be aggressive, be assertive, attack that ball in an aggressive way, hit the bat with an aggressive strength.” It was almost taboo in the Christian church for women to be assertive. Sports gave me contact with a part of myself that I was not encouraged to have contact with.

I box; I train taekwondo. I love martial arts. Both are about building a relationship with your body and having control so you can protect and defend yourself, which I think is important for women-identified people.

We’re not taught to [protect ourselves] and we’re not praised for being able to do that. We’re praised for our ability to be attractive [and] rely on a male-identified person to protect us.

When I practice martial arts, I don’t have someone’s face plastered on the bag. I’m not trying to get my aggression out. I’m just trying to build a relationship with my body where I understand that, should anything happen, I have the ability to protect and defend myself, and I am strong. All of me is strong.

Have you started playing catch with your 10-month-old yet?

Oh yeah. She tends to pick the ball up and toss it. She’s slowly catching on that she can pass it to me. I roll it to her, she tosses it, and gets really excited when I grab it and give it back.