Frisbee evangelism in remote WA
Why a Pilbara pastor created two disc golf courses
It’s Sunday afternoon in Tom Price – a remote mining town in the Pilbara region of WA, around 1500km north of Perth. Despite the heat, around 16 people have gathered at a local oval. That’s a significant number for this town of only 4000.
The group includes a couple of roaming kids, a shire councillor, several teachers, some families and the local Baptist pastor. But more striking than the odd mix of people at this oval on a Sunday afternoon is their shared purpose for being there: frisbee.
The oval – next to the local primary school – is now home to the town’s brand new “disc golf” course, unveiled just over a month ago. And the idea for the project was driven by Gavin Douglas, pastor at Tom Price Baptist Church and disc golf enthusiast. Not only did Douglas spend years lobbying the local council to fund the creation of this nine-hole course, but he also managed to get another new course on the ground in Paraburdoo (around 80kms south). These are WA’s only disc golf courses north of Perth.
“What I love about disc golf and my faith is that both support community engagement.” – Gavin Douglas
Douglas also put in a lot of work to gain community support for the courses.
“I went to local parks and threw frisbees. I went to the local primary schools and high schools and did clinics where I taught them how to throw a frisbee,” he explains to Eternity.
“In many ways, like evangelism that we do as Christians, it’s a passion. I would always have a disc in my hand and always be ready to talk about it … I was always sharing the hope of disc golf!”
The game is played like traditional golf, where the aim is to reach each “pole hole” (an elevated metal basket) with as few throws of the frisbee as possible. Since being officially recognised as a sport in the 1970s, there are now professional disc golf tournaments across the world and over 60 courses in Australia.
Douglas believes the ethos behind this unique sport shares many similarities with the gospel message, making it the perfect outreach tool.
1. It’s inclusive
Douglas explains why he first got into disc golf: “I have hemiplegia – a mild form of spastic cerebral palsy – which affects the right side of my body. So I was always looking for sports that I could play one handed.”
After discovering the sport, Douglas moved to Tom Price four years ago to take up his current ministry position (along with his wife and two young sons). In selling the idea of a local disc golf course to Ashburton Shire council, Douglas not only highlighted the accessibility of the sport to all ages and levels of ability, but he also stressed its availability to anyone, anytime.
“Everything in our town is based on a club – you’ve got to sign up to subscriptions, you’ve got to fundraise … There’s a burden which comes with that.
“I didn’t want to create another club. I wanted to create something that anyone can go to at any time during the day. It’s free to use and free to play. Just rock up to the park and throw a disc.”
“It’s a way of connecting with people. You stroll along and talk about life together.” – Gavin Douglas
Douglas notes the inclusive way the game is being played in Tom Price. Players are inviting kids who hang around in the park and sometimes “cause trouble” to join in.
“You share the sport. So when you seeing someone coming past, you don’t snob them. You invite them in and give them a disc to throw,” he says.
And the locals are taking up the sport with enthusiasm. In fact, the hardware store that has been stocking discs has already sold out of them several times.
2. It connects people
“What I love about disc golf and my faith is that both support community engagement,” says Douglas.
“It’s a way of connecting with people. You stroll along and talk about life together.”
This is particularly important in a mining town like Tom Price, where workers have little time to socialise and can feel demoralised by the demanding hours and difficult work environment.
“I’m not just the preacher but I’m also the guy who throws frisbee. That’s opened doorways.” – Gavin Douglas
As many locals only get along to church sporadically, Douglas is using disc golf as another avenue to get alongside people.
“I’ve been able to connect with a whole new demographic of people that I hadn’t before,” he says.
“Everyone knows who I am in town – that I am the pastor. It sparks interest because I’m not just the preacher but I’m also the guy who throws frisbee. That’s opened doorways … It’s broken down barriers.”
3. It attracts controversy
When asked how the local ball golfers have received the disc golf idea, Douglas admits,“They hate me!”
But he is unfazed by comments like “it’s an embarrassment to ball golf” or “it’s a gimmick”. While he does point out that as a “millennial sport” disc golf could attract more young people to take up ball golf, Douglas also welcomes the opportunities that such criticism brings.
“I think that’s the same with the Christian faith. Sometimes people come at us because they feel threatened for whatever reason. I think sometimes we should just lay it down and say, ‘I know, it’s weird. We pray to an invisible God. How weird is that?’ When you break down that defence, you can actually have a conversation about it …
“I’ve used that mentality here in town with my faith – to break down barriers instead of getting defensive.”
4. It creates change
For Douglas, disc golf and even his church ministry are not an end in themselves. His focus is on creating lasting change.
As a pastor’s kid and the grandson of well-known missionary “Wilf” Douglas, he says, “legacy is important to me”.
“So that’s what excites me about installing a disc golf course. I’ve left a mark on the town. I’ve given something to some people. That’s the same in church ministry – leaving something that stays after you’ve gone.”