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Shooting at Two Goals

Can you serve both God and Sport?
Man with a rugby ball
Posted September 6, 2011

Weet-Bix boxes have sparked the dreams of millions of Kiwis. While we sat at our breakfast tables, printed images of New Zealand’s sporting heroes shone at us, capturing our imaginations and teaching us what is possible if we just give sport our all.

On the other hand, in church and in Sunday school, our minds were filled with images and aspirations of another kind. Images of a man named Jesus who recklessly loves the world and loves God, and who revolutionises life as we know it. We were told that we, too, could do what he did (and does) … so long as we give God our all

Costs and Contradictions

Give it your all. It’s what success in sport demands; it’s what life with God demands. Full dedication, nothing less. But Jesus said, ‘You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matthew 6:24), so would he say the same thing about God and sport?

Consider this: success in sport requires early morning exercise sessions, specific diets, regular weekends away, all manner of restrictions on your time and energies, plus your full mental attention. Essentially, the road to the top in sport is selfish. The personal costs that athletes pour into it benefit no one else directly. It seems in stark contrast to the God first, others next, self last principle that we may have sung about in Sunday school.

Yet, we Christians adore our own sporting heroes. We invite them to speak at our churches in order to fill our pews. In a sense, we use them to validate our faith: ‘See,’ we declare, ‘Christians can be great, too.’ And yet, we frown at young Jimmy who has missed church occasionally since his selection to his rep soccer team. And we’re disappointed at Sarah for stepping down from youth leadership because her swim training demands early mornings and weekends away.

So the question is this: as Christians, is it possible to shoot at the two goalposts of living for God and succeeding at sport? And if so, how can we, the church, help those who choose to do it?     

One Master. Many Callings.

Steve Willis is a New Zealand Olympic coach and also an accomplished runner. Having witnessed the rise of his brother Nick to running stardom (1500m silver in the 2008 Olympics) and having coached and mentored many athletes, Steve has confronted the above questions almost on a daily basis. He points out the challenge of Philippians 2:3–4, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’

‘This can be a tough verse for elite sports people,’ says Steve. ‘How many elites do you find with no ambition, or who view their rivals better than themselves, or who put the need of their competitors before their own? The very nature of elite sport challenges the Christian athlete’s theology and purpose.’

Steve continues, ‘Thankfully, God also calls us to use the gifts he has given us for his glory. As Eric Liddell [1920s Olympian whose story is told in the movie Chariots of Fire], said: “I believe God has called me to China, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.” Rather than feeling pressured to give up their sport for their faith, elite Christian sports people need to be encouraged to use their God-given gifts in the area in which God calls them—in other words, to grow where you are planted.’

God’s demand of giving our all to him may not necessarily mean letting go of sporting dreams, but it will mean approaching our sport and training in a new way—God’s way.

Sport as Mission and Worship

Kevin Goldsbury is the director of Ignite Sport, a Wellington-based ministry using sport to reach the community. He says that for years as a cricketer he struggled with the guilt of playing representative cricket on Sundays. He says he wishes he’d known then what he knows now—that Christians should approach their sport as an act of worship.

Kevin remembers his mother quoting Leo Buscaglia, saying, ‘Your talent is God’s gift to you; what you do with it is your gift back to God.’ So, in sport, it’s about acting appropriately and not getting boozed at after-match functions, but it’s also more than that. It’s giving your best, acknowledging God when things go well and staying cool when they don’t, says Kevin.’

When this paradigm shift occurs—of approaching sport as a platform for worship and mission—no longer is our sport self-seeking; it becomes God’s work. And when this occurs, sport is no longer the master, but God is. Sport becomes a way of serving God, not a distraction from him.

God as Coach

Far from conflicting with our faith, Steve suggests that faith can actually lift our game in sport. ‘The Bible contains many principles that help athletes get their lives in order off the field, which, in turn, leads to better performances on it,’ he says. ‘Even small things like the concept of the Sabbath (which doesn’t have to be on a Sunday) is a great tool for including regular breaks in training and competition to refresh body and mind.

‘Many athletes fail to reach their potential due to issues of character and making poor decisions off the field; for example, drinking problems, relationship and anger issues, or even just getting out of balance. Performing well at the highest level requires building momentum from consistent training and competition, which is best done by reducing the number of distractions and potential hurdles. Following God’s way provides an athlete with the best possible platform from which to use their talents.’

Steve believes that ‘Christians also know there is an even bigger prize waiting for them at the finish line.’ 

We All Play a Part 

Most churches will have several young people who are heavily involved in sport. This might mean that they have to miss out on many church happenings, like youth group and services. Kevin is a great believer that these people offer a tremendous opportunity for church members to learn how to truly nurture each other.

He was recently approached by a pastor who has a young competitive swimmer in his congregation. Due to her swimming commitments, she didn’t have much church contact time. Kevin’s strongest advice to the swimmer’s pastor was to ‘engage her world as much as you expect her to engage your world’.

He elaborates, ‘This might mean that her youth leaders take more interest in her swimming and her goals. For example, a pair could go down at six o’clock for four mornings a week and sit by the swimming pool holding the watch for her to do her times.

‘To know that people are taking an interest in you, I don’t think we can underestimate the effect this has on an athlete. For most people, just to have someone on the sideline is enough. Taking an interest in that swimmer’s life outside of church is critically important for her success as a swimmer but also for her success as a person and her sense of connection with the church.’

Kevin draws attention to the value that churches place on musical gifts (because of music’s prominence in Sunday services) while neglecting sporting gifts. He offers several suggestions to churches:

  • make an effort to ask how the training and competition is going for a sports person in your church and offer to pray for them
  • consider coaching as a great way to engage and serve your community
  • volunteer for a local sports team (provide transport, do the washing, etc.)
  • simply cheer from the sidelines.

In other words, rather than requiring the young person to always come to the church, be prepared to take the church to them!

What a witness and opportunity to instil tomorrow’s Weet-Bix packet sports stars with positive values and to demonstrate the life-transforming message of the Gospel?

By Hayden Shearman (abridged from War Cry, 10 September 2011, p5-7)