(Kara Witherow for the AWFUMC) - On sunny Saturday mornings in the fall, the parking lot at The Way United Methodist Church in Pace, Fla. is packed.
Children run across the church’s 10 acres, parents cheer, and Rev. Jennifer Guidoni walks up and down the field, stopping and talking to families and kids along the way.
It’s not a fall festival or a camp meeting; just a typical Saturday morning at The Way.
Nearly two years ago, the congregation converted its then-unused field into soccer fields and launched a recreational league. Now, Saturdays are for soccer.
“The goal of this was to bring the church outside the walls of the church building,” Rev. Guidoni said. “This is a great way to introduce new ways of caring for our community.”
The church sits next to an elementary school in an area that has very few parks, Rev. Guidoni said. The small congregation looked at what its resources, recognized the community’s need for an affordable recreational soccer league, and saw an opportunity to serve its neighbors.
In addition to the soccer fields, the church grounds also include a playground, a disc golf course, a volleyball pit, a half-mile walking trail, and a basketball court.
But youth soccer is the most popular sport played at The Way.
“Our soccer program has been our largest and fastest means of outreach to the community,” said Rev. Guidoni, who had no experience coaching soccer, playing soccer, or running a soccer league before being appointed to serve The Way. She was, however, quite adept at working with families and sports.
“I was a family life pastor and children’s pastor and had years of experience hosting wresting events,” she laughed. “God prepared me for this!”
Begun last fall, the soccer program, which offers teams for children in kindergarten through fifth grade, has grown from 45 players in its first season to 125 players this year. Families appreciate the affordability – $25 per player and $15 for additional players in the same family – and location. A free Tiny Tikes program for player’s younger siblings is popular, too, with 27 children participating last season.
Soccer is one way to help bridge the ever-widening gap between church and community, Rev. Guidoni said. Coaches, teams, and parents fill out preseason paperwork inside the church. The teams gather in the sanctuary and are prayed for during a brief, fun “Blessing of the Teams” service. Every game begins with prayer and players and families are prayed for before, during, and after the season. A worship service and award ceremony close the season.
“Everything we can do to bridge that gap and make it less of an expanse is going to help bring someone over into the Kingdom of God and our church life. We’re working together to bring the kingdom of Christ to the community,” Rev. Guidoni said. “The best part about this are the changes we’ve seen in the families’ lives.”
God has used soccer to change the Mauldin family’s lives.
The family of five – Chad, Amy, Emily, Caden, and Caitlyn – were introduced to The Way via soccer. Caden, 13, and Caitlyn, 8, played. Emily, 18, refereed and Chad volunteered and announced games.
During soccer, Caitlyn heard about Kid’s Club, the church’s Wednesday evening children’s programming, and wanted to attend, so Chad and Amy began attending Bible study at the same time. The two had long discussed finding a church home, and The Way felt like a good fit.
The family recently joined the church and Chad recommitted his life to Christ.
The congregation is warm, welcoming, and friendly, Chad Mauldin said, and he’s hopeful others searching for a church home find their way to The Way.
“I think the soccer outreach is a wonderful thing. I am an example of someone who would have never known about the church if my kids hadn’t played soccer. It’s very important to us and the community.”
Rev. Guidoni realizes other congregations may not have 10 acres of land or the ability to launch a sports league, but said every community of faith has resources and the ability to build relationships to serve its community.
“We have to use the resources we have. We happen to have land,” she said. This is a way for us to show God’s love. God can use anything, even a soccer field!”