How can I balance church and sport?
How can I balance church and sport?

For players, parents and pastors, the issue of whether you should play sport on a Sunday is a difficult one.

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 for the decline was children’s sport on Sunday. The research did not establish if this was in fact the definitive reason, but the very fact that the headline has such traction implies that it is a fear many share.

Take here in the British Isles for example. It was in the early 1980s that Sunday afternoon became the key time to televise football games so as not to affect Saturday match day attendance. Other sports soon followed suit and by the early 1990s, not just elite level games were scheduled for Sunday but children and youth games too. Suddenly your average youth worker at a church sees their Sunday club attendance drop, and not just the youth workers. Parents were required to drive their children to games, and also wanted to watch, so many started alternating church attendance - taking it in turns to take their son or daughter to Sunday sport impacting adult church attendance too.

In response to this issue, there have been some who are keen for church to remain the fixed marker in a weekend and not relegate it to when it fits around sport. Others have recognised what they see to be an avoidable clash and seek models that allow sport and church to co-exist. Also 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?

A disputable matter

Ultimately, whether to play or not on a Sunday is conscience issue for each sportsperson. In Romans 14:5, Paul is clearly referring to the Sabbath (though perhaps not only the Sabbath) as a day special to the Lord when he writes:

"One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

He is saying here that the issue of keeping the Sabbath is no longer an issue of covenant faithfulness and obedience but is a “disputable matter” (Romans 14:1) - in other words, an area of legitimate disagreement between Christians.

Old Testament prophets would have treated Sabbath keeping as law because it was a command from the Lord, but since Christ has come, it has become like the food laws, not something we are required to keep anymore but something that some people still wish to keep. Consequently Christians can be flexible but the key thing in both Colossians 2 and Romans 14 is not to be judgemental when others have different opinions on it.

With that said as way of introduction - here are three principles to keep in mind.

Created to rest

Right from the start in Genesis 2 we see God blessing one day of the week and making it a day of rest for all humanity.

God’s blessing on this day is linked to the fact that God himself rests on it and it became a day of rest for all humanity.

We all need rest don’t we? Think about it in sport - you have recovery days after a race or a match and millions of pounds of investment is pumped into research about the latest trend to make sure the body and mind recovers as well as possible. Rest is good and rest is necessary.

Genesis 2 is not all the Bible has to say about rest however.

In Matthew 11:29, Jesus tells us that true rest is now found in Him and Hebrews 4 reminds us of the spiritual rest available now which Christ’s death and resurrection provided. There is a wonderful promise here that we will only truly and fully rest with Christ.

So rest is not just stopping work, as it was in Genesis 2, it is also a time to focus on God and to re-orientate ourselves back to Him.

Born to worship

In Romans 12:1 Paul tells us about what worship is:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship.”

We’ve written lots about these verses but the key principle here is that, because of God’s mercy given to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection, our response now is one of worship with ALL that we are, ALL of the time.

There is a church in London which has a big sign above its door as you walk out which reads ‘Now go and worship.’ Paul reminds us that our ‘worship’ is not just confined to a church meeting or church activity. In all we do, including our sport, as we use our gifts, in relationship with others, for the glory of God, that is an action of worship in and of itself. We are born to worship, 24/7.

Made to meet

If you took these two principles on their own, you could end up playing sport every Sunday and chilling out on the sofa on a Monday.

That would ignore the fact that the Christian life is never to be lived in isolation. God, in His very being, as Father, Son and Spirit is relational and we have been made in His image. We need each other as we live this life.

In Hebrews 10, the writer exhorts us to not give up meeting with one another:

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

When this was written, the Romans had made Christianity illegal and so the temptation was to just give-up meeting in the face of the persecution. Yet, even as the Hebrew believers might risk their lives doing so, the message is loud and clear - ‘don’t give up meeting together - without meeting together it is very hard to run your race of faith.’

Think of a marathon - the cheers of the supporters and the encouragement of fellow runners all help spur you on to the finish line.

Church is wonderful, and so important for all Christians. We get encouraged in Godly living and we get help to keep going as a believer, as we meet together and sit under the teaching of God’s word. We were made to meet.

Some practical points

In light of these principles, how do we reconcile this issue which is very real for a number of sportspeople?

Some practical tips would be to:

  • Sit down and chat with your pastor and discuss the issue and make them aware of it. Ask for your leaders’ wisdom and work through the situation together. Undoubtably there will be others in the church like shift workers who can’t make every gathering.
  • Get to a gathering in the evening or in the week. Prioritise small groups and make every effort to get to something on a Sunday and in the week. If you’re a parent of a young sportsperson, make sure your child is stuck into a youth group if they can.
  • Think about when you are resting and how you are resting. Is your rest something which helps you re-orientate towards Christ?

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