Friday, June 28, 2013

More on Sunday Sport

Below is another article in a series on Sunday Sport from our friends at Christians in Sport in the United Kingdom ( It is thoughtful and well written. Please give it some consideration as you consider how to deal with this sometimes contentious issue.


Should Christians keep Sunday as a day ‘set apart’ for God and church?


According to a recent study published in the Review of Religious Research, when pastors of 16 US congregations with declining attendance were interviewed, the most common reason cited by them for the decline was children’s sport on Sunday.[1] The research did not establish whether the pastors’ perceptions are what is really going on, but the very fact that the headline has such traction implies that it is a fear many share.

Take here in the UK for example. It was in the early 1980s that driven by the commercial push to televise football but not to affect the match day attendance, Sunday afternoon became a key time for televised games. Other sports soon followed suit, and swiftly on the heels of Sunday games at the elite level the mid to late 90s started seeing children and youth sport being moved to a Sunday morning. Suddenly your average youth worker at a church started noting that their Sunday club attendance was a bit lower, and not just the youth workers. Parents were required to drive the children to the game and they also wanted to watch and so many started alternating church attendance - taking it in turns to take their son or daughter to Sunday sport and so adult church attendance was also impacted.

In response to this debate there have been some that have wanted to reaffirm the importance of keeping God as no.1 and not relegating church to merely that which fits around the gaps left by sport, others though have recognised what they see to be an avoidable clash and so want to seek models that allow sport and church to co-exist. Then hanging over the whole debate is the issue of whether or not Christians should keep Sunday as a Sabbath day or not. How can we see a way forward in this complex web of competing claims?

First to speak into the Sabbath issue, should Christians keep Sunday as a day ‘set apart’ for God and church. It is important to recognise that there are differing opinions on this and that the gospel gives room for people to disagree on such an issue. However, it does seem that when the Sabbath comes up in the New Testament ‘keep the Sabbath day holy’ is not a command that is binding on Christians. Paul writes, ‘Therefore let no one pass judgement on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath’ (Col 2:16). It is highly unlikely that Paul would write that no one should pass judgment if it was a binding moral command to keep the Sabbath. After all, nowhere in the New Testament do we get such flexibility on other Christian moral requirements such as sexual purity, or not lying? Therefore Christians are not disobeying God if they do not keep a ‘Sabbath day’.

However, this does not mean that the Old Testament principle of the Sabbath day has nothing to teach us. In Deuteronomy 5 as Moses expounds the law he articulates three important aspects of the Sabbath.

-  First, it is a day of rest from work. Deuteronomy 5 emphasises that even working animals (like an ox) can’t labour all the time and it seems God has ingrained a need for rest throughout creation (hence fields are to be ‘rested’ one year in seven in Leviticus 25). In the same way there is just something healthy about taking a day to appropriately rest.

-  Secondly, rest is linked to devotion to God. Sabbath was a day ‘to the LORD your God’ (Dt 5:14), and therefore rest is not just the absence of work, but it is also about the peace that we find in Jesus Christ, ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I shall give you rest’ (Mt 11:28). It is worth asking ‘what do we do when we rest’ - the word ‘recreation’ carries the idea of renewal (literally re-creation), and so our leisure time should be (at least in part) a time of spiritual renewal and refreshment.

-  Thirdly, rest is linked to freedom from slavery. The Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy continues, ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the LORD your God brought you out from there’ (Dt 5:15); therefore having a rest day is an expression of being a liberated person! This is particularly important because so many people feel they ‘can’t’ take a day of rest; “I have to work/study/train” they say, when the reality is they don’t always have to, they just feel like they do because they are enslaved to their career/degree/sporting achievement or something else.

Where does this leave us then? Well we have not yet solved the practical tension in sport on Sundays but we have started to unravel some of the principles. Keeping the Sabbath is not a binding ethical norm for Christians, but there does seem to be something in the principle of having a day of rest (whenever that may be). Seeing this day not just as ‘leisure’ but as having a devotional aspect to it and watching for the danger of feeling like I ‘can’t’ spare ourselves a day off are important parts of this principle. This is significant because Christian sports people often play sport on top of everything else (family, church, work etc.) and so our diaries can be very full. There is then a sense in which we have to trust God with taking appropriate time off. God is the one who apportions time and so we can trust him that if we stick to good biblical principles of rest, not only will we still be able to fit everything in, but we will better maintain our physical and (more importantly) spiritual health.

Pete Nicholas, Christians in Sport

[1] McMullin Steve. The Secularization of Sunday: Real or Perceived Competition for Churches.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Sunday Sport Dilemma

Below is a recent article from our friends at Christians in Sport in the United Kingdom ( It is a wise and thoughtful approach to the dilemma of how Christian coaches and athletes (and their parents) should deal with sport on Sundays.  I hope you’ll give it a fair read.

The Sunday Sport Dilemma

Increasingly Sunday sport is becoming an issue for Christian children and parents. More and more sport is being organised for Sunday mornings and this causes a clash with the traditional time for church. It is a problem for parents and pastors alike who find themselves torn between prioritising children’s spiritual growth whilst at the same time encouraging them in the sport they are evidently passionate about. They walk a tight-rope of difficult decisions between on one hand having children who do lots of sport but have no concern for Christ, and on the other hand children sitting in church resenting it because it is taking them away from sport! Does reorganising church to fit around sport send the wrong signals? If Sunday sport is where we find all the children and parents who aren’t Christians isn’t it crazy to disengage from it? What about our spiritual growth as a family, shouldn’t we all be at church together, rather than alternating who takes our daughter/son to the game? These are tough questions, it is a tough dilemma. 

Last week Christianity Today, a widely read magazine in America, published an article by Megan Hill, a mum who is going through this dilemma in real time. Her son is a good young baseball player with Sunday games. In her piece she wrestled with this problem and concluded, 

“Sports are good. It's good for children to use their bodies, to cooperate with others, to compete under authority, and to discipline themselves to perfect a skill. But the triumphs of the playing field are a dim shadow of the true blessings of Sunday.” 

She continued, 

“Our weekly detour to the ball field, instead of showing our children how much we love them, actually promotes a lie: children are not important in worship. Nothing could be further from the heart of our Lord... Worship will be the unceasing work of eternity (Rev. 4:8). When we shuttle the family minivan from one Sunday game to another, we are actually depriving our children of vital practice time. Practice for heaven.”

Clearly these conclusions had not been easy for her to reach, but they do echo a growing consensus in the church (hence how many people retweeted the article link and referenced it in their Facebook status) - tough as it is, we should prioritise spiritual growth and ‘worship’ and therefore go to church on Sunday and miss Sunday sport. 

I want to completely agree about the priority of worship: 
- Children are vitally important to it.
- The triumphs of the playing field are a dim shadow of it.
- We need to help children see how it shapes their whole life.

And yet I want to completely disagree about the conclusions that are reached! 

Why? Because the conclusions are based on an unfortunate and far too common misunderstanding of worship. Worship does include the corporate gathering of God’s people (the church) on Sunday - or any other day for that matter, but worship is not confined to this.

Jesus Christ and his Apostles make it very clear that in the light of his death, resurrection and the giving of his Spirit - worship encompasses every sphere of life, and that must include sport. Jesus tells the woman at the well that in contrast to worshipping only in a particular location, at a particular time, ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth for the Father is seeking such people to worship him’ (John 4:23). 

The Apostle Paul famously writes in Romans 12:1, 

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’. 

Worship is still tied to the temple; but the new temple of the Holy Spirit - our bodies, and not the old temple at Jerusalem. Consequently, wherever our bodies go, there is a sphere of worship. Of course then the very bodily activity of sport can be an act of worship if it is offered to God in light of his mercies. 

Pause and please don’t let the profound significance of this reality pass you by. Think of the difference it can make to sport. When I was first shown that I could play rugby as worship to God, it was like an revolution in my heart - and I have seen the revolution repeated every time someone grasps this. Suddenly one of my great passions in life was given a dignity and importance that was transformative. Immediately I started to see how significant my conduct on and off the pitch was - God reclaimed the rugby pitch for his own! 

What an impact this truth can have on children. The world tells them that Christ is a cultural irrelevance to be kept barred up behind church doors. This tells them that Christ is the Lord of all who claims every sphere of life for his own! The world tells them that their faith is disengaged and worship is an odd activity for a few people. This tells them that their faith is engaged and worship is the normal activity for those made in God’s image! The world tells them that heaven is an ethereal existence singing endless choir anthems. This tells them that heaven is a profoundly physical existence where all things are transformed and renewed - this world, us, our passions, our work, our sport. 

Rather than retreat from sport to prioritise Sunday worship, we need to engage with sport as worship. Have we thought that if we want to prioritise our children’s spiritual development that perhaps one of the best training grounds for this could be on the sports pitch? Where better to learn how to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength than a place where all those facets are put under strain? Where better for the fruit of the Spirit to grow than a place where character flaws are quickly exposed? This is not to fall into the parallel error of thinking the goals of secular sport are somehow seamlessly aligned with Christ - our engagement must be transformative - and that will mean saying ‘no’ to aspects of sport; the self-exaltation, the professional fouls, the idolatry. But it is to say with C S Lewis that, 

‘There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan’ (Christianity and Culture)

So let us help our children claim this ground for Christ.

Pete Nicholas, Christians in Sport

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sports Chaplaincy UK Video and Johnny Shelton

I’m in the middle of a whole month of FCA Power Camps (11-14 year old campers), thus this week’s note is brief. 
This is a link to an excellent video produced by Sports Chaplaincy UK. Please stop by and give it a look.
A friend and colleague of ours has recently made a move from the ranks of serving a college football team to a team in the NFL.  The note below shares Johnny Shelton’s exciting news.

“FCA veteran and Virginia Tech Football Chaplain, Johnny Shelton, has just accepted the role of Chaplain for the Super Bowl Champion BALTIMORE RAVENS. He will be a full-time member of the Baltimore Ravens staff. We are so excited for Johnny!”

Friday, June 7, 2013

Athletics Ministry in Rome

Our friend and colleague from Oxford, England, Stuart Weir, has developed a unique ministry among the men and women of Athletics (Track and Field to us Yanks). For the last several years he has coupled his sportswriting skills and a heart for ministry to forge an impactful chaplaincy. He is presently in Rome, Italy for a big international Athletics event and the paragraphs below detail one of his days of ministry at the event. Stuart understands and embodies the ministry of being present as well as anyone I know. I hope his experiences serve to challenge and encourage you.

Rome Wednesday

How I set new standards in professionalism and other stories in the life of a chaplain at large.

Caught the 9.00am shuttle to the athletes’ hotel.  It was really a “bus” but “shuttle” sounds more impressive. It was actually a 40 seater bus, which was important as there were two of us travelling. Nils sat on the right and I on the left. (This evening I was the only one on the bus so they only sent a 20 seater).  I wonder if there is a work for organization in Italian – probably not as there does not seem to be any!)

There were press conferences from 11 so I sat in a lobby area for an hour or so while the world walked past.  Within an hour I had spoken to 7 Christian athletes out of the 13 I had identified in the event.  I was looking out for a Kenyan athlete I had never met and had printed off a photo which I had on my knee.  Three Africans came out of the dining room, I was wondering if “mine” was among them.  One of the others came over pointed at the photo and at an athlete and said “I thought you  were looking for him”.

Hannah England (Oxford) came past and I wanted to record a short interview with her for the oxford Mail. I asked if she would give me 10 minutes.  She was happy to and did it there and then.  I have followed Hannah’s career since 2007 and spoken to her in China, Korea, India, Spain and now Italy!

Allyson Felix was one of the athletes in the press conference so I arranged beforehand with her than I would ask her a question about faith for the benefit of other journalists.  As always she gave a good answer.

There was an athlete at the press conference with whom I had had a brief conversation in Korea in 2011 but had not seen since.  This morning I spoke to her at a really busy moment when she was being hurried from one interview to the next. I just said I had been praying for her since Korea.  She stopped and almost hugged me! We agreed to speak more after she had done media. When we sat down together, she shared how tough her injury period had been until she leant to "give it to the Lord and put her comeback in his hands".  She added that she had learned  that "it is better to jump with Jesus than without him".  A really encouraging encounter.

I saw one of the athletes on my list and asked if she would do an interview.  She was going into lunch and said she would see me after lunch.  By the time she came out I was unsure if she was who I know she was.  I had to bite the bullet and ask her name.  It was not the one I thought!  I did the interview anyhow, pretending I had always wanted to speak to her.  Afterwards I realized I had forgotten to switch on the recorder! (Got that I failed to record an interview with an athlete who wasn’t the one I wanted to speak to?)

Spent the afternoon working on the day job and looking out for athletes.  I recorded an interview with the Kenyan after lunch. At the end of the day I bumped into an athlete from Botswana whom I had met briefly in Korea but have never had a chance to speak to since. She was very warm.  She was in a rush but suggested we meet in the morning.

Overall an encouraging day. I spoke to 11 of the 13 I knew, prayed with 4.  The three that I did not know beforehand, I got 5 minutes with one, 10 minutes with another and will meet the third tomorrow.


J Stuart Weir
Executive Director
Verite Sport
19 The Globe