Reclaiming education has become an important national conversation now that parents are beginning to see how far secularism and damaging ideologies have pervaded the school system, from university all the way down to preschool. But the call to return America to its God-honoring roots is one that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has been answering for decades, long before this renewed awareness swept the country.
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, also known as FCA, has a twofold mission: to encourage every Christian coach and athlete into a deeper, growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the church, and to bring others to salvation and to a rich understanding of life with Jesus. In Lancaster County, the local chapter has been focusing on reaching out to students, discipling them, and mobilizing them to spread the gospel.
“Disciples that make disciples — that’s really our heartbeat and what we’re working towards,” Tim Van Dalen, the area director of Lancaster’s FCA chapter, told The Lancaster Patriot.
FCA’s vision is “to see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.” The Bible-centered organization was founded in 1954, after Don McClanen, a young basketball coach in Oklahoma, noticed the sway that people in professional sports had within the culture. He was concerned by the fact that there were approximately 30 million American youth without religious training, and he thought that if professional athletes could encourage people to buy products like cigarettes and razors, why not have Christian athletes endorse godly living and finding Jesus? It took him several years to turn his vision into an organization, but eventually he began the discipleship ministry he dreamed of. Over the subsequent decades, FCA has grown into an international organization that reaches more than 100 countries, inspiring athletes and coaches to be a light to the world and preparing youth who have a passion for athletics to use their gifts to live out their faith.
FCA’s main outreach is the huddle — a before- and after-school program where students gather to pray, grow in their understanding of Scripture, learn how to share the gospel, and bond with like-minded students. For an FCA huddle to be allowed in a public school, a student must request it — but that is all that is necessary to require the school to allow a huddle, since a school that allows extracurricular clubs of any sort cannot discriminate against religious ones. In Lancaster, the huddles are mostly in middle schools and high schools, but there are a few in colleges and elementary schools. Van Dalen hopes to see FCA programs in every school district in the county, since FCA’s ministry can take root in places that churches cannot easily reach. The huddles are low pressure — leaders don’t take attendance or push for students to keep showing up, and a student doesn’t have to be a Christian or even an athlete in order to attend — but the fruit of the students taking time for the Lord among their friends is evident. The kids are inspired to take the messages they learn to their classmates, and they invite their classmates to the huddles as well.
“That peer-to-peer ministry is so valuable, and we love seeing that,” Van Dalen said.
Van Dalen’s own ministry started with him serving as a staff member at a church for almost ten years, but in the last few years of that he was able to serve with FCA and work as a character coach for a high school football team. After eight and a half years of trying to have a presence in the schools and among the youth, he said, “the doors flew wide open.” As a board-approved volunteer coach, he could be with the students every day at practice and even for much of the offseason, like when they were training in the weight room. Through that, instead of only spending a limited time around youth at church, he could play a more consistent role in the kids’ lives and even form relationships with unchurched kids he never would have met otherwise.
“That’s really what drew me towards FCA — just having that presence there is so huge to me, in the schools,” he said. “The setting of athletics is such a microcosm of life — what I found is I would have conversations with guys on the sideline of football, game or practice, that would take me a couple years to get to that point and that depth with the students in my youth group, just because I didn’t have that much time with them.” There is something about athletics, he added, that brings out who a person is on the inside, both their best traits and their worst habits or outbursts. The highs and lows on the field created opportunities for him to ask significant questions, like why a student had lost control for a bit, and those questions led to important conversations.
Serving as a character coach gave him a valuable way to engage with students, but it also allowed students to approach him to initiate conversations on faith that school employees cannot broach on their own. “If an athlete crosses that line and opens up that conversation, you can walk right through it,” he said. “That’s the hope, as you’re walking them through some of these things and walking through life with them, that you get to have those kinds of conversations.” When a student already is a Christian, those conversations can be crucial moments of discipleship, and when a student isn’t, it can lead to a relationship with Jesus, since FCA coaches and leaders look for ways to share with people who Jesus is, what He has done, and what He says on topics like identity and integrity. These conversations, Van Dalen said, come out naturally in athletic settings.
Although Lancaster’s FCA chapter focuses on middle and high school students who are engaged in school sports, in the summer the chapter also offers Power Camps for 8-to-12-year-olds. At these day camps, kids receive sport-specific training from local coaches and participate in biblical discussions led by high school FCA athletes, and these camp huddles include a clear presentation of the gospel. Attending one of these faith-centric sports camps makes it easier for students transitioning into middle school to join a huddle there, since they are already familiar with FCA’s work and FCA has been able to invest in their faith. “It just helps them bridge that gap,” Van Dalen explained. He added that kids can sometimes struggle to figure out how to make faith an active part of their lives and something that permeates everything they do, since so many people make religion look like it only belongs in church. Power Camps can be an entry point for kids to see how sports and faith can be connected and how God can use an athlete’s faith to impact others.
As a 501c3 ministry, FCA relies on donations and community support to continue its outreach. The Lancaster chapter currently has nine people on staff and several interns, who together represent many of the county’s school districts and a handful of colleges and universities, but Van Dalen hopes that more staff members can be added so that every school district can have a dedicated representative. FCA has a presence in 12 of the 16 Lancaster school districts, and the chapter hopes for new staff who could represent the Elizabethtown-Donegal area, the Penn Manor-Columbia area, the Lancaster City-McCaskey area, and the Warwick area.
Volunteers are also welcome and don’t even need athletic training to serve in roles like huddle leader or character coach or to help out at events, although volunteers serving directly with kids must be vetted with a background check first. Parents with students in huddles or Power Camps can pitch in as well, like helping provide food for events. Van Dalen encourages interested parents to reach out to the FCA staff who are local to their area; contact information can be found on the Lancaster chapter’s website, lancasterfca.org.
Van Dalen said that he is extremely excited about what God has already been doing in Lancaster County. “It’s so easy sometimes for us as believers to focus on everything that’s wrong in our public schools. But, man, I just love to share with people that there are some amazing things happening,” he said. “We do live in a very tough time and our culture is dark, you know, but God is doing some amazing things.”
He has plenty of stories about kids who are gathering in classrooms, on campuses, on fields, in public schools and private schools, to open God’s Word and to learn for themselves what it means to follow Jesus and to share their faith with others. He is thrilled that kids don’t have to go through school feeling alone in their faith. There are a bunch of different ministries working in the schools and in the public school system, he said, and it is a privilege for FCA to be one of them.
To learn more about FCA, to help Lancaster’s FCA chapter financially or by volunteering, or to register a child for one of this summer’s Power Camps, visit lancasterfca.org, check out LancasterFCA on Facebook or Instagram, or contact Tim directly at email@example.com.