December 14, 2017

An Inside Look at Sports and Faith

Tom Rust is a friend of mine who loves Jesus and loves sports. Twenty years ago, he found a way to unite his two loves when he became the host of a syndicated radio program called Face to Face. Here is a description of the program from their website:

“Face to Face” is a radio program which focuses on Christian athletes. Professional and college athletes from all walks of life are interviewed, and talk about both their sports experiences and their love for Jesus Christ. All interviews are done in person, and have a warm, friendly feel rather than the hard interrogation of a typical interview. Over 300 athletes have been involved since the show began on one station in the fall of 1992. Face to Face is a thirty-minute show heard weekly on many stations. There is also a two-minute vignette of many athletes heard daily on some stations.

Tom Rust has worked in radio since 1984 as a play-by-play host and color commentator on high school sports broadcasts in Columbus, Indiana. He was also involved with Youth for Christ for 27 years. Most recently, he directed the local Youth for Christ chapter in Columbus, leaving that post in 1998. Tom and I met and got to know each other on mission trips to India in the late 1990’s. For a couple of years, he served as chaplain for the Indiana University basketball team, and I invited him to speak to our men’s group at church about his experiences there.

Bill Eakin, long time worker with Youth for Christ and member of the Face to Face board, describes how the ministry is growing:

Tom on mission trip to DR

Tom continues to grow the ministry. His passion, perseverance, and faithfulness have enabled Face to Face to flourish. Consider the ministry:

  • More than twenty stations share the testimony of Christian athletes.
  • The website at facetofaceradio.com has nearly 20,000 hits a month, and reaches people around the world 24/7.
  • Tom’s personal ministry with athletes, coaches, and sports officials provides encouragement, personal counsel, and spiritual direction for his “congregation”.
  • Tom’s speaking ministry is expanding and includes high school chaplaincies to sports teams, and involvement in professional sports chapels, seminars, churches, and many other opportunities.
  • His writing ministry includes a monthly sports related column on the Faith and Fellowship page of the Columbus Republic newspaper, as well as a blog distributed by e-mail.

One thing I admire about Tom’s work is that he cares personally for athletes in all levels of sport, deals directly with them as human beings and brothers and sisters in Christ, and seeks to serve them as an encourager and friend. This is not a high-profile ministry, out to make a name for itself by becoming attached to big name stars. Much of it is behind the scenes. It involves personal interviews and encounters, Bible studies, chapel sessions behind closed doors, and person-to-person discipleship. Tom works with athletes the way the Apostle Paul worked with craftsmen and shopkeepers, the way military chaplains work with soldiers, the way all good missionaries and pastors operate — in the realm of the I-thou relationship. His ministry is not called “Face to Face” for nothing.

Here is a story Tom tells about an experience with some baseball players during Spring Training:

One night a few weeks ago, I was involved in a Bible study, a very unusual Bible study. It was in Arizona, and involved about 20-30 major and minor league baseball players and their wives and girlfriends. The meeting was held, ironically, in an upper room at the sprawling complex of the Scottsdale Bible church. It was during spring training and the players were from the various baseball organizations that get ready for the season in the Phoenix area. A headcount showed that the San Francisco Giants had the most there, but the Oakland A’s, Cleveland Indians, and Kansas City Royals were also among the teams that were represented.

I was there as a guest of longtime friend, Matt Herges, now of the Cleveland Indians. I was in Arizona to do a radio interview with Cleveland second baseman, Jamey Carroll. But God has his own plans. While preparing for the Carroll interview, I felt led to look on the rosters for another player who might be a Christian, and recognized the name, Brian Bannister, a young starting pitcher with the Kansas City Royals. When I called the Royals organization, their media person agreed to set it up.

The Bible study was on a Wednesday evening, and I was scheduled to interview Brian the next morning at the Royals’ complex in Surprise, a retirement community west of the city. While doing my research, I noticed that Brian had accepted Christ at a young age at Scottsdale Bible Church, the very church where I was headed for the Bible study. I arrived at the study right before it was to start. Couples were seated around tables. I sat next to Matt and his wife Jane. I mentioned to Matt what I had found about Brian, and Matt pointed across the table. It was Brian Bannister and his wife.

I believe in divine providence rather than coincidence. Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” I thought, “What a stroke of luck that I am not only in the same Bible study, but at the same table with a guy I am supposed to interview.” I thought perhaps Matt had invited him but in a conversation later that night, I discovered it was Brian’s first time at the Bible study, and he and Matt had never met. In other words, God had arranged this in his timing.

The next morning, hours before the Royals and White Sox were to meet, Brian Bannister and I sat in the seats of Surprise Stadium and talked about how God works. The air was chilly, but conversation was warm. Brian loves to talk about Christ. The meeting had been delayed because the Royals were holding chapel. They are a team with a strong spiritual core. They have a Christian manager in Trey Hillman, and a Christian General Manager in Dayton Moore, and both are very open about their faith. For years, first baseman Mike Sweeney has been the spiritual leader in the clubhouse, but Mike has moved on to the Seattle Mariners. Brian Bannister is now the leader.

He knows that having Christian players doesn’t guarantee a winning season. In fact, the Kansas City Royals haven’t had a winning season since 1994. But Brian also knows that he is with Kansas City for a reason. “Baseball is my mission field,” he says. As a young player, he knows that he has a better opportunity to share Christ than anyone. And who knows what those young players in the Bible study could do. Christ challenged twelve men in an upper room long ago, and they changed the world. I still am amazed when I think of how the interview with Brian Bannister came about. It reminds me of the oft quoted verse that I hear from athletes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”(Phil. 4:13). In His time and in His place, I certainly can.

I encourage you to take a listen to “Face to Face.” Check out their website HERE.

And thank God for a brother like Tom Rust who is quietly and personally encouraging those with vocations in sports to follow Jesus more closely.

Comments

  1. Matt Purdum says:

    I’m not at all a sports fan, and I’ve commented previously regarding football as a gladiatorial war game about worldly empire. But a close friend of mine — a wonderful brother in Christ — has been offered a coaching job — high school football — and he sees it as a great opportunity to influence young men’s lives. And young men need all the good influences they can get.

  2. I’d be curious to know what he thinks of FCA. I hang out and have been discussing theology with a guy that led a FCA chapter on his collegiate sports team. I have a lot of respect for him. Very kind, generous, loving, humble, lots of “I don’t knows….”, and he’s far from being 110% certain. He’s told me of how’s he’s changed his view a few times as he’s aged.