By SARAH MCLAUGHLIN
Sharing the gospel through Mississippi FCA
“We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us,” the apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:8b, ESV). And today, if Kiel (pronounced like Kyle) Higginbotham — the new state director of the Mississippi Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) — wrote a letter expressing his vision for the Mississippi FCA, it would likely mirror that of the apostle.
Some may wonder where Kiel’s vision came from and how his journey led him here, yet for Kiel, his position as state director is an extension of not only his childhood, but of those who poured into his life at every step of his journey. Kiel grew up in the church, but it wasn’t until his time at East Central Community College that Kiel remembers his faith became personal and real to him.
Reflecting on his journey with Christ, Kiel remembers that “I never knew a time when I didn’t know the name of Jesus. I knew He had a general love for me … but it wasn’t really until college that I really started to understand what His truth and unconditional love could look like in my life.”
Two experiences in college became stepping-stones for Kiel by showing what Christ’s love could look like in his life and paving the road for his future. As Kiel began playing baseball at East Central, his coach — who was an FCA Huddle sponsor — gave Kiel the opportunity to share his faith with his teammates in the Huddle.
As Kiel shared with his friends and teammates what Christ had done in his life and what Christ meant to him, he began to see a vision for what sports could be. He realized it could be more than winning or losing: It could be a platform for sharing Christ.
“It was a small moment,” Kiel remembers, “and I don’t think I knew at the time … but looking back, that was the start of my ministry.”
After sharing part of his testimony at East Central, Kiel remembers another opportunity and transformational moment he had during his time attending Belhaven University. Walking across campus one day, Kiel heard about an Olympian named Chad Hedrick. Hedrick was an American speed skater who famously wrote the letters CGIM on his skates, an acronym for “see God in me.” Kiel remembers hearing how the acronym served as a reminder to the Olympian — and everyone watching — that Hedrick was skating for the glory of God. The news touched Kiel and inspired him to make bracelets with the same letters for his Belhaven baseball teammates. As Kiel gave the bracelets to his teammates, he encouraged them to give glory to God by using their talents to serve Him.
Those times at East Central and Belhaven became the foundation for Kiel’s involvement with FCA. When Kiel graduated in 2011, he began coaching baseball at Hinds Community College, where he met the previous state director of FCA, Bill Buckner, who encouraged Kiel to become more involved with the organization. Following Buckner’s advice, Kiel took a position with FCA in December 2011.
Since then, Kiel has served in almost every possible leadership position with FCA. From 2011–2015, he served as an area representative, where he was a direct presence and encouragement in high schools and middle schools. As all area directors do, Kiel traveled to schools and communities and taught coaches and athletes. There Kiel engaged, equipped and empowered people to become closer to the Lord, all while using athletics.
In 2015, Kiel became the Jackson area director of FCA, where his position centered on hiring staff. As Kiel remembers, his goal as area director was to think about hiring staff members and volunteers whom God would use to effectively share the gospel. After two years of serving as the Jackson area director, Kiel became the southwestern multi-area director, where he oversaw a large part of Mississippi and FCA’s involvement in that part of the state. Ultimately, this led him to accept the position as Mississippi’s state director in September 2020.
In many ways, all of the previous things combined — his time in college and the positions he took with FCA after graduating — paved the road to the position Kiel now holds, and built the biblical vision he now has. Today, Kiel explains why he’s grown to believe in FCA as a powerful mission field:
“I really believe the Lord has positioned FCA well for such a time as this. Sports really is one of the only things that can naturally bring people together from different cultures and backgrounds. What better place is there than sports to show the ultimate unifying thing, that is, Jesus Christ.” It’s with this goal in mind that Kiel leads the Mississippi Fellowship of Christian Athletes and continues to shape the ministry.
Over the past three years, as FCA has continued to evolve, the organization has begun shifting its mission in order to create deeper roots for Christ and to make a lasting impact with schools, coaches and athletes. Kiel explains that many of these changes center on adjusting the areas staff members cover, discipleship, and Huddle Groups. These three things, Kiel explains, are vital to his mission — and FCA’s mission — of creating Christian athletes and disciples throughout the state.
Kiel explains that, when he was an area director, he covered around 30 schools in the Jackson area, and now the area directors are beginning to cover around five to 10 schools together.
“We shrink to grow,” Kiel said. “We can shrink the area our staff covers in order to grow the depth of their relationships with the athletes and coaches.” As FCA adjusts the areas their staff members cover, it allows the staff to visit schools more frequently and develop stronger relationships with the athletes and coaches.
As these relationships develop, the possibility of focusing on discipleship becomes greater. Kiel believes that FCA is ultimately a platform God has created to make disciples, to unify people, and to fulfill the Great Commission. While Kiel believes FCA has laid a foundation for sharing the gospel, he wants to build on that foundation and create more opportunities for people to put their faith in action through discipleship.
“I believe God has so much for these athletes and coaches. If they begin putting their faith in action and make disciples of others, then they can encourage more people, mobilize more people … off of the pews and into the community.”
One way FCA accomplishes this is by emphasizing and expanding their Huddle Groups. In many ways, a Huddle Group is almost like a Bible study.
“A Huddle is a small group of coaches or students, centered around God’s Word. The goal of our Huddles is that those attending would be equipped to study and apply God’s Word to their lives — and empowered to lead others to Christ.”
In many ways, then, a Huddle Group is a direct application of FCA’s initiative to increase discipleship among teams, schools and athletes. Although FCA previously had large Huddle Groups, the ministry has also developed smaller groups in addition to their campus-wide Huddles.
Kiel explains that since team members spend hours together every day, the team is a wonderful opportunity for discipleship and ministry to take place. For example, from 2019–2020 the ministry had more than 500 Huddle Groups meeting regularly across the state in an effort to grow FCA’s discipleship initiative.
Internationally, as well, Kiel oversees Mississippi’s involvement in a multi-state initiative which sends FCA members to east Africa to support and advance the work God is already doing there. The hope of this initiative is to go on trips and, as Kiel explained, “help countries in east Africa advance what God is already doing and already leading them toward.” Kiel was able to travel to Uganda as a part of this initiative. There he served and helped the community find resources to build a soccer field in one of their towns. Ultimately, they were able to use the field as a means of sharing the gospel with those in the community.
As FCA expands and grows under Kiel’s leadership, and as he continues to oversee the ministry in Mississippi, he humbly acknowledges that the ministry is only possible by God’s grace and the help, strength and constant support of his wife, Lara. Kiel is also thankful for all of the people who invest their time, prayer, resources and energy to serve and volunteer with FCA.
Visit mississippifca.org to volunteer, donate, and learn how you can be praying for Kiel, his family and his team as they continue to share the gospel by sharing life with athletes throughout Mississippi.
Sarah McLaughlin is a senior at Mississippi College, and plans to graduate with a B.A. in English education. She attends Pinehaven Presbyterian Church in Clinton. You’ll often find her reading, listening to vinyl records, and drinking coffee.