There’s no doubt that the tension between Sunday sport and Sunday church services is a significant problem for the church in the UK (as well as the US). Broadly speaking there are two types of approach and both have pitfalls.
First, some churches feel that if they move church to accommodate sport then it sends all the wrong messages about what is most important. Consequently many churches hold to the status quo and may try and make some small provision (youth group on a Friday evening) but generally offer a straight choice between the two.
Secondly, other churches feel that they should be helping their young people engage with culture not disengage, and so they offer alternative service times (e.g. Sunday afternoon) so that parents and their children do not have to choose. However, this requires a church with significant enough resources to be able to do this (no small thing) and it does risk turning Sunday from a church day to a rather hectic schedule where family time is a rare commodity.
How do we decide what to do? Well we need to be clear on the biblical principles at stake here.
1. A key consideration is to remember what church is for. Church is for building up the body of Christ to attain maturity (Ephesians 4:12-13), but this maturity must be demonstrated publicly so that the church is ‘the light of the world’ shining its light before others to lead to glory to God (Matthew 5:14-16). Straight away there is a tension here then. On one hand of course church will involve some time away from the ‘front-line’, where there is teaching and equipping, but it is always done so that God’s people can get back on the front-line - in their sport, job, among their friends etc. to witness about Christ. The church must see the importance of equipping its people to live in the world and therefore sending them into the world of sport to live for Christ.
2. A second consideration is that whilst sport is a vital part of God’s good creation, we do need to recognise that the bible is clear that ‘physical training is of some value but godliness has value in every way, both for the present life and the life to come’ (1 Timothy 4:8). Please hear me as a passionate sports player, this is not undermining the importance of sport, but it is elevating the importance of spiritual growth. It is therefore worth asking whether as players ‘devoted’ to our sport, or parents devoted to our child’s sport, we show as much commitment to godliness? The stark reality is that long after my sporting ability has faded my character will endure. I sense this is almost a bigger problem for parents who with admirable commitment pour hours into their children’s sport, but as one youth worker put it to me recently “if only I saw as much passion for their children’s spiritual growth!”
A solution then will require balance and appropriate involvement from all sides - pastors, parents, youth workers and the young people themselves. Certain pitfalls will need to be avoided:
- The pastor or youth worker who has a ‘quiet word’ with the parents, telling them to get Sara to give up her county swimming because its taking her away from church. Have they thought about the disenfranchisement that she could feel with church as a result, and even if she doesn’t what about the subtle message she is learning that church = cultural disengagement?
- The parents who admirably try to fit Ankur’s church around sport, but without thinking about how they can marry the two together or communicating adequately to their church. Consequently he picks up the significant signal that church comes second to sport (particularly when they win!) and quickly it becomes very difficult for him to have meaningful contact with church and other Christians his age.
There are no easy answers and no one ‘out of a box’ solution that every parent and youth worker can implement, but considering the above principles here are some suggestions to help think this difficult area through.
1. Communicate. Parents have a great opportunity to teach their children about the various priorities as they work this through, so talk it through with your children - pray about it with them. Similarly talk to your church about it. Help them understand your thinking and see how they can support you as a family.
2. Check your heart. Parents may well be wanting to bask in the reflected glory of their child’s county trial. Children may well want to please their parents by getting selected. Ministry staff may well be governed by a concern not to lose a ‘key family’ from their ministry. Pray for godly motivations and be honest with yourself about your real motives (often dressed up in pseudo-godly way!
3. Don’t force a choice between the two if you don’t have to - if there is a workable solution then go for it, but as you do so be realistic about its implications both practically but also spiritually. So parents if you will drive two hours to watch your child play squash against another club, will you be similarly devoted to getting them to and from youth group on Friday evening?
4. Realise the primary role that parents have for the spiritual health of their children. It is primarily the parents job, not the church’s, to bring up their children in the grace and truth of the gospel. This does not mean you are responsible for wether they trust in Christ - that is God’s area, but beware the thinking that “as long as I get my child to youth group then I’ve done my bit”. Youth leaders are there to help but its your child and ultimately under God he or she is your responsibility. So take an active lead in trying to resolve the church sport tension yourself. There was a great example of a Father who would drive his young lad to rugby on Sunday mornings but every week they would pull over for half an hour on the way there and do a bible study together that he had prepared. It turned out to be the most precious time of the week between him and his son!
Pete Nicholas, Inspire Church London
Pete was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 2017 and is a rugby player by background who now plays touch rugby. Pete is ordained in the Church of England and Minister in Charge of Inspire Saint James Clerkenwell in London.
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