interview

From Youth Pastor to American Ninja Warrior

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Matt Atwell wears many hats. He’s a husband, father, youth pastor, employee at a furniture store and an assistant at his local Baptist association office.

Yet this Spring, he added one more — American Ninja Warrior.

Matt Atwell at the American Ninja Warrior “Daytona Beach Qualifier.” (Photo by Myron Luzniak/NBC)

Matt grew up on a farm in Council Hill, Oklahoma. After two years serving the International Mission Board in Guinea, he and his wife moved to Wake Forest, NC to study at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

In their down time, Matt and his wife watched American Ninja Warrior. As they watched the show, Matt decided, “I think I can do this.” Thus began a journey of training and preparation, all of which culminated in Matt traveling to Daytona, FL to compete on American Ninja Warrior.

Matt can’t tell us the results of his competition. Nor is he assured to be on television, since over one hundred other athletes competed at the same event. But his experience provided him with opportunities to share the gospel — and give God glory.

Recently, we had a chance to chat with Matt about American Ninja Warrior, ministry, evangelism, calling and his time at Southeastern. Here’s our conversation (edited for clarity):


How did you get involved in American Ninja Warrior (ANW)?

When my wife and I returned from Africa to attend Southeastern Seminary, we started watching the show. I grew up in competitive athletics and played basketball in college. I have always been able to pick up new challenges quickly. Watching the show, I thought to myself, “I think I can do this.” I decided to start training. I’m not a carpenter, so I wasn’t going to build obstacles. ANW uses a lot of grip, upper body and balance strength. There are a lot of strong men and women that could lift crazy amounts of weight over their head, but that does not translate into obstacle training. I started my training at the local YMCA. It’s the only one in the area with a rock wall, so the first few months of my training was predominantly on the rock wall. From there I progressed into various upper body and grip exercises that you can do with typical gym equipment. Occasionally, I go to a few obstacle training places in North Carolina to practice, but most of my training has been here in Wake Forest.

The application process is pretty simple. You fill out an online application with a variety of questions, but the most important aspect is your video. I worked hard on my video, trying to make it fun and unique while incorporating a meaningful story. The application was due in early January. At that point you are just waiting. You might or might not get called. To my knowledge, around 77,000 people applied this season. There are six regions, and around 100-120 people get picked for each region. By those numbers, there was a less than a 1% chance of getting called.

On March 1, on a Wednesday evening, I was at church. I got the call. I was picked to compete in Daytona, FL on April 7-8.

What was the experience like?

It was surreal, exciting and confusing at times. I connected with all the competitors I could find from North Carolina ahead of time, but we were all new. As a rookie, you don’t know how things work. Everything looks so polished and perfect on TV, but the filming process isn’t so easy. If you watch the show, you might have noticed how it’s always nighttime. That’s because they film all night long. The regional qualifier is filmed the first night and doesn’t start filming until dark. They filmed until about 6am the first night. The second night is the regional finals, where the top 30 from the qualifier compete to go to Las Vegas. Only 15 people move on to Vegas.

They let you know ahead of time whether you are in the early or late check-in group. I was in the early group, which meant that I checked in at 6pm on Friday. The late group checked in at 11pm. When you check in, they give you your number, which determines the order of the competitors. I was feeling pretty relaxed until I went to check in and was told that I was #1. Five walk-on competitors ran before me, but I was the first called competitor to run the course. That got my nerves going.

Going first was nice because I have a toddler son and pregnant wife; I didn’t have to wait around all night. But going first also meant that I wasn’t able to watch many people run the course before me. Everything is different on the course in front of the crowd, lights and cameras. No matter how much you have trained and how strong you are, you have to deal with the atmosphere. You could even see yourself on a giant screen as you were being filmed.

One of the greatest things about ANW is the community. In many competitive sports’ communities, people wish for their competition to fail. Of course you can’t escape that mentality completely, but the ANW community is incredibly encouraging and friendly. Everyone cheers for the other competitors.

Nobody ever thinks to give God glory after they lose.

How does your faith influence this aspect of your life?

I like to think that my faith is a big reason for getting into ANW in the first place. I prayed through the process and continue to pray that it never becomes about me. I want to use this experience as an opportunity to build relationships and connect with people that I never would have had the opportunity to meet, providing chances to share the gospel and talk about my faith. And I have already had a few opportunities to do so.

Sometimes, my competitive side wants to sneak in and take over, distracting me from what is most important. There are many fellow Christians in the ANW community, but it is easy for the competition to become consuming. I have been careful to prioritize time with my family. Since ninja gyms are still few and far between, you can do a lot of traveling just to train. But training is not important enough to give it that much time. I think God has blessed my training and the way I have prioritized things. But if my intent is to make a name for myself, then my prayer is that nothing would ever come of any of this.

One of the things I tried to prepare for ahead of time was how I would respond — whether I hit the buzzer in victory or fell off the platform at the first obstacle. When you watch interviews after sporting events, you often hear the winners give God glory. It seems like nobody ever thinks to give God glory after they lose. But I think there can sometimes be even more glory for God after a loss. It shows that we live for something higher than worldly success. If we give God the glory after we lose, then we are actually giving Him glory. If we only give Him glory after we win, we are like the people Jesus talked about in Luke 6:32, which says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (CSB). What does it say about us if we only think God deserves glory when things go our way?

What has been your biggest takeaway from Southeastern Seminary?

One of the things I appreciated most about Southeastern is the focus on applying our knowledge in ministry. My wife is in the biblical counseling program, and I have greatly appreciated Southeastern’s focus on biblical counseling. I think everyone needs to take some classes on leadership and counseling. It is no good for us to build up theological knowledge without the ability to help a couple that is about to get divorced or a young woman contemplating having an abortion. I believe that SEBTS is trying hard to bridge that gap between academia and ministry.

What do you sense as God’s call for your life?

At this time, I feel that God has been preparing me for a wider role in church discipleship. I want to be a trainer of trainers. God has yet to reveal what the next step is, but I am open to anything He wants. Ultimately, God’s call is for me to live by His Spirit according to His Word no matter what location or position I happen to be in at any given time.

The new season of American Ninja Warrior premieres Monday, June 12 at 8pm ET on NBC. You can follow Matt Atwell (“The International Ninja”) on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Cover Image Credit: Max Bender / Unsplash

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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