“Life is ministry, regardless of placement.”
ne of the biggest frustrations I experienced at a Christian college was the Athletics department’s status as an afterthought with respect to ministry. Unfortunately, when a person indicates he or she is interested in going into ministry, the typical thought is of being a pastor, evangelist, or foreign missionary. Yet I view the ministry through a different set of goggles. One could argue that a more biblical perspective requires an individual to realize that life is ministry, regardless of placement. I am in no way downplaying the importance of pastors, evangelists, or missionaries, but I do believe that the typical layperson misses the point of the gospel.
My perspective came initially from my college wrestling coach. I was trained by Ben Peterson, Olympic Champion, at Maranatha Baptist Bible College. Ben was a pastor to the team as well as an assistant pastor for a local church, although I do not recall if the two ever overlapped. He has been an evangelist to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of wrestlers in camps and clinics across America for over 35 years. Lastly, Ben was a missionary to Soviet Russia during most, if not all, of his international career, which spanned three Olympic Championships. He was able to hand out many Bibles and share the gospel to those in communist countries where a typical missionary would not be able to reach. Because of his athletic connections he was able to travel to countries missionaries would be forbidden to enter. With that said, when people think of Ben Peterson, they would not call him a pastor, evangelist, or missionary, despite the fact that those qualifiers have been the focus of his adult life.
Another of my mentors, John Peterson, also an Olympic Champion, has done the same, although the emphasis was with Athletes in Actions (AIA). As a missionary, he spent a decade running Bibles to communist countries and still takes trips overseas to share the gospel with wrestlers. Like Ben’s, his missionary work began during his international wrestling career. Later, John and his family lived in Austria and would travel to Russia, Romania, and other Eastern Bloc countries controlled by communism and very anti-Christian. Today, John regularly holds Bible Studies at Augsburg College (DIII), the University of Minnesota (DI), and St. Cloud State (DII). John has spent a similar number of years working camps and clinics and is also the asst. coach in his hometown. Granted, at one point he would have been labeled a missionary, but it was with AIA instead of a more mainstream missionary organization. The same titles apply to John just as they do with Ben, and yet in a non-traditional manner.
Jim Elliot and David Howard were Wheaton College Alumni Wrestlers who were both missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador. Although Elliot was never a standout wrestler, he believed in discipline and physical conditioning. Interestingly, Jim never wrestled in high school and the main reason he started in college was that he was told it would make him a better missionary. Jim Elliot was a martyred in the 1956, and my guess is the lessons he learned on the mat helped him make the choice not to defend himself when his life was at stake and a wife and child were awaiting his return. His legacy of sacrifice is one that I use regularly in the wrestling room.
David Howard was one of Elliot’s friends, brother-in-law, and the best man in his wedding. He shared many stories of Elliot but also his time on the mission field. At the beginning of one practice, David relayed one such life story to the team. Howard explained that the work he did in wrestling practice helped him get through some particularly rough moments while back packing through the mountains and jungles. This was an encouragement to the team and was also a way for him to pass the ministry torch to the next generation of Wheaton Wrestlers just as Ben has done with me. Howard displayed that missions, ministry, and mentorship can happen in the jungle or on the wrestle mat before practice.
Because of the mentorship of the Petersons, I also brought Bibles to foreign countries. By the time I started competing internationally, Russia had opened its borders, yet Cuba was a country one could only enter with political or sports contacts. I was able to hand out many Bibles on a trip to Cuba and witness, in a limited degree, to one of my toughest competitors. I have also worked with Ben and will be entering my 25th year of camp and clinic ministry. Regardless of the venue, I try to make it a point to share the gospel in every camp and clinic. I have never been asked not to. I was a youth pastor for a few years and filled the pulpit in a church going through a pastor transition for two years.
I have been a wrestling coach for nearly a decade and have spent countless hours training and mentoring the individuals the Lord has sent me. A pastor can step into a wrestling room but, in most cases, will be viewed as just another suit. Is there respect there? Maybe, to varying degrees, but with a coach who trains, sweats, and bleeds with his team, there is an elevated level of respect that no other missionary or evangelist could attempt. A coach spends thirty to sixty hours a week with his or her athletes, which is more time than pastors, parents, teachers, and professors combined.
Lastly, for both domestic and international missions work, Ben, John, and I have been in videos produced by AIA showcasing the careers of high level Christian wrestlers in an effort to reach even more athletes with the Gospel. The opportunities I have had would not be possible without the sport of wrestling. Moreover, the ministry God granted me would not have been possible without the ministry of Ben and John. Life is a ministry, and we each have a mission field. I profoundly respect the work of pastors, evangelists, and missionaries; however, their work does not exempt our God-mandated responsibility to share the gospel and mentor. The Wheaton College Team shirt states, “Jesus Christ Is Life. The Rest Is Just Wrestling. Philippians 1:21.” Whether foreign or domestic, share the gospel where God has put you.
James Gruenwald is a 1994 graduate of Maranatha Baptist Bible College, earning his degree in Secondary Math Education. He was a three-time National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) National Champion with MVP honors and a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team. He completed his competitive career in 2008 as a national champion. James and his wife Rachel have six children: son Adin and five daughters, Arwyn, Ava, Autumn, Aleyse, and Ashley.