Clemson University's Fellowship of Christian Athletes largest in nation

Clemson's Fellowship of Christian Athletes holds its opening worship service of the school year in August. The organization has opened its doors to thousands of others seeking to grow in their faith. Garrett Bailey/Provided

Though the group was founded as a platform for coaches and players to spread the Gospel, Clemson's Fellowship of Christian Athletes has opened its doors to thousands of others seeking to grow in their faith.

The university's FCA, tucked in the heart of the country's Bible Belt region where conservative Christianity remains a dominant view, hails as the largest college chapter in the nation and it's mainly because the group has welcomed participation of non-athletes.

Dabo Swinney, who heads the school's elite football program, has also been long involved with FCA and hasn't shied from using his major platform to spread his faith.

The student-run organization hosts worship services, campus events and international missions. Thousands of students participate annually.

"It’s the cool thing to do," said Reid Hodges, president of the school's FCA. "I don’t think Christianity is like that everywhere in the world.”

FCA was founded in 1954 several years after a college basketball coach started the organization as a platform for professional athletes to profess their faith. Today, the organization has established itself in schools and communities across the globe. Ministry leaders and coaches teach Christian principles to athletes through camps and programs.

Clemson's Fellowship of Christian Athletes largest in nation

Clemson students visit Philadelphia during a mission trip organized by the university's Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter. At Clemson, it's not uncommon for most FCA members to be non-athletes. Provided

The national FCA pointed out that while the organization aims to transform the world through the influence of coaches and athletes, all are welcome at FCA events.

At Clemson, the organization's setup is twofold. One part operates as a traditional FCA group where coaches offer inspiration and spiritual guidance for sports players.

The other side is run by 11 students who organize large-scale programs and weekly worship services. Students participate in international and domestic mission trips where they've ventured to Costa Rica, Jamaica, England and Philadelphia.

The group has a wide reach. Last year, for example, the group's first worship service of the year welcomed around 1,300 students at the campus amphitheater. The event had to be moved to NewSpring, a megachurch in the Upstate. Additionally, around 1,500 attend the ministry's annual Fall Shag, or dance.

Clemson's Fellowship of Christian Athletes largest in nation

Clemson students attend the FCA's annual Fall Shag. The Clemson chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the largest in the nation. Provided

The group's popularity stems from word of mouth and God's faithfulness, Hodges said. Students have the chance to fellowship with like-minded believers in non-church settings.

The organization has handled the popularity by remaining focused on the mission at hand, Hodges said. By doing so, Clemson's FCA has developed a culture where freshmen students are nurtured in their faith. Students participate in small groups and mission trips.

Paige Ashworth, a junior who serves as the organization's connections director, went on trips to Memphis and Philadelphia where students performed home maintenance for elderly residents.

"It's a really cool way to watch the Lord work," Ashworth said. 

Ashworth joined FCA as a freshman and is grateful for a community of students who've helped her grow closer to God and become more active in the community.

Ashworth is part of the Downtown Team, a group of FCA students who, after worship services on Thursday nights, hand out baked goods to partygoers in downtown Clemson.

"Our job is not to judge people,” she said. "Our main goal was to talk to people and meet them where they were.”

Group leaders recognized a need to grow the ministry's athletic presence, but said that both sides of the ministry have the same goal in mind: to reach people through the Gospel message.

Clemson North Carolina Football (copy) (copy)

Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney has been a longtime supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Chris Seward/provided

Head football coach Swinney was featured on the front cover of the organization's 2017 magazine, where he credited God for Clemson's success.

After the Tigers clinched the 2019 national championship over Alabama, he reiterated his love for God in a postgame interview, stating that "joy comes from focusing on Jesus, others and yourself."

"It simply the the grace of the good Lord to allow us to experience something like this," he said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.