We sit down with Rev. Pete Nicholas to discuss the question of Sunday sport and church in our latest podcast.
Listen in for discussion around:
Jonny Reid: Great. Welcome back to the Christian in Sport podcast.
Today, we're going to dive into what some would say is a pretty contentious, but important issue to discuss. Playing sport on a Sunday, or maybe more accurately, the relationship between sport and church. It's maybe a relatively recent issue in some senses. In the early 1980s, Sunday afternoon became a key time to televise matches, and to not affect Sunday attendances of professional matches. Other sports then followed suit in the 1990s, and then youth and children's sport has followed, and now the majority of youth and children's sport takes place on Sunday morning. It's now an issue not only for elite level players of competing on a Sunday, but the parents when they're driving their kids. The kids themselves who aren't able to maybe make a Sunday gathering, and in response then you've got those who are really keen for church to remain a fixed marker in the weekend. For it not to be relegated to when it fits around sport, and others that recognize it's a really avoidable clash, and look to find models to allow sport and church to exist together.
The Archbishop of Canterbury even said that recently at a gathering. So, basically it can seem quite a complicated issue, and to help us wrestle with this, we've got Reverend, I'll call you Reverend, Pete Nicholas. You are a Reverend, but that helps for the relevance of this. You're minister in charge at St James Clerkenwell. Former high-level rugby player, as well as someone with many sportspeople within your church. Much experience working with elite sports people as well, from when you used to work for Christians in Sport. So, Pete, welcome. Thanks for coming on.
Pete Nicholas: Thank you.
Jonny Reid: Firstly, what's your personal experience been with this issue?
Pete Nicholas: Yeah, so I have personally had matches organized for Sundays, and obviously it's been something that I had to grapple through when I was playing serious rugby. Semipro rugby.
And so there's been that side of it, as a player experience, and I've also played in teams where there've been players who are Christians who've had a range of opinions on it as well. So, that's also been challenging, and then when I worked for Christians in Sport, supporting professional players, I can think of one man who played professional rugby, and it was very, very high level, and it was affecting his international career, and his contracts.
He was getting into discussions about his contracts, and he wouldn't play out of position of conviction on a Sunday. So, supporting him, and then other people working it through, and grappling it through, and now as a church pastor. Of course, I think about it, and it affects members of my congregation who have children who play Sunday sports. So, I guess I've got a range of experiences, probably the full gambit in some sense, and I imagine given I've got two boys, one is three and a half, one is one and a half, it won't be long until it's around the corner for us as a family to work through as well, where we... And how we navigate that as well.
Jonny Reid: So, some of our people listening, they'd probably be going, there's just not a discussion to be had here. God makes it clear. Sundays for Sabbath. The term they'd use for sort of that day set apart. It's holy, it's set apart for rest. So, right at the start, let's deal with that. What would you be saying to somebody who's listening in, and going, ah, come on, Christians in Sport?
Pete Nicholas: Yeah. I think one of the wonderful things is that the New Testament does actually speak directly into this issue. I think the one of the point.... Not the only place, but one of the helpful places to go, would be Romans 14, and there the apostle Paul does talk about one person esteeming one day as better than another, one another esteems all days alike.
Each one should be fully convinced in his or her own mind. The one observes the day, observes it in honor of the law to one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, and he goes on. Clearly there his primary issue of focus is the Sabbath. That's what he's refered to as the day. One day. That phrase in the Greek relates to the Sabbath, and so he is taking directly the issue of the Sabbath on then, and discussing it.
And just previously, earlier on in the passage of Romans 14, he's called it, and urged the importance of not quarreling about opinions, or sometimes it's translated don't quarrel about disputable matters. So, disputable matters like this are issues where there can be a genuine disagreement amongst Christians about exactly what is right, and there needs to be an acknowledgement amongst Christians.
There is a range of opinions, and that that doesn't mean necessarily that one person is... Should be looked down upon by the other person. Even if you hold to that position strongly yourself. And it's quite interesting that Paul himself, of course was an Orthodox Jew by background, is actually able to say about the Sabbath, which would have been the fourth commandment, that he would've been grown up and knowing about in Saturday school. You've got to keep this, and they were incredibly strict in observance. He himself was a Pharisee, trained on the Gemayel, and he's saying that actually this is disputable matter. In other words, this is one where Christians can legitimately disagree on, and he says, but the key thing you know is the way that it's the kind of discussion is held, and not judging another person, for not looking down their nose. Now, I think even if we just get that baseline principle, that's quite an important.
But I think them pushing it a little bit further, Paul, by the very fact that he's saying that one could esteem one day is better than another, like while one another esteems all days alike. He's giving that wiggle room, which there would never be under an Old Testament reading of the 10 Commandments. No one says one person thinks about do not murder, that it's okay to murder, and one person says absolutely not. So, what he's showing there is that the way the Old Testament law, and the 10 Commandments map onto the New Testament is now different. And when it comes to the specific issue of the Sabbath, there is actually now... it doesn't bind. It is not a command that needs to be obeyed in the same way, it's been fulfilled in Christ, and so actually the importance of observing the day of the Sabbath as a matter of obedience to God, it is no longer a marker of obedience to God, per se.
Now, of course, if one thinks it is and their conscience, Paul would say, don't sin against your conscience, but he's saying if you see other Christians who've really thought it through, wrestled it through, and have come to a different opinion, than that's legitimate as a reading now of that command.
Jonny Reid: Okay, so help us then understand... There are a few things, which we'd say then, not necessarily aren't disputable, but are really helpful as we wrestle with this issue, because there'd be certain things we'd say, no, they're actually really important. We don't want to massively sweep under the carpet church, for example.
Pete Nicholas: Right. Correct.
Jonny Reid: We think that's so important when we say it right at the start. So, help us maybe understand what are the sort of things we need to be holding in tension with this issue.
Pete Nicholas: Yeah. So, I think that's one of the challenges is that I think what often has happened in this discussion is that once someone has grasped, for example, that the way that the Sabbath commanded of the Old Testament to observe the Sabbath day, and to keep it Holy, isn't carried forward in the New Testament in a way of a binding command in itself.
They kind of can almost therefore go, fine, wonderful. Therefore, church is relegated to secondary importance. And therefore, I can understand of course a lot of people who say, well, see the damage you've done by saying that of course, but the New Testament of course, and again you need to think of the apostle Paul, they hold these two things in common, which is the binding of the Sabbath command, the New Testament has changed, but nonetheless, the importance of the New Testament gathering, and corporate worship as we gather together as believers, is still absolutely foundational to the people of God.
And so therefore you think of Hebrews 10, 24, and 25. Not neglecting meeting together as somewhere in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another daily. It's almost a raising of the standard there. It's not just weekly you would gather in synagogue, or temple, but you know, gather daily and certainly therefore if there's this call to not neglect meeting together, but encouraging one another daily.
The importance of having a regular gathering, to gather, to worship God together for mutual encouragement, and edification of building up the body is really important. So, I think there's just always a caution there of balance of sportspeople who say, okay, I want to play on Sunday, and I see I'm not bound to the Sabbath commandment. The question still has to be answered, right, you know carefully by those people, which is okay, where is your regular corporate worship gathering? How are you ensuring that you are being encouraged, and you are committing to encourage the body? Because that itself is a really, really important exultation.
Jonny Reid: ... and that's when... It becomes quite important that, doesn't it? Cause I've heard, I've had friends, I've discussed with other people, and they'd go, well, I'll listen to some sermons online, or I'll... listen to a podcast or two, and you kind of go, you're ticking a box, but we're made to meet together, aren't we? Mutually encourage each other?
Pete Nicholas: I think that's a really important emphasis. The corporate gathering. It's people coming together. It's not just about me being fed, or me walking on in the Christian life. I mean, I do think that even if you have that view that I could do that by being fed online, and things like that. The problem is I actually need other believers to speak into my life, and I need that fellowship, and also we don't want to miss the incredible importance of gathering. When we actually gather together as believers, where two or three gather together in my name I'll be with them, says the Lord. Of course, we individually have the spirit, but throughout scripture there is a very high expectation of when we come together as believers, the presence of God in our midst, both for edification, for building up, and also for evangelism, for reaching out is really, really important.
So, I think it's really hard to be heard having that balance, and I certainly know myself that when I've written blogs, or spoken about the way the Sabbath command doesn't carry over in a binding way. Almost once people have heard me say that, anything else I say afterwards that urges the importance of corporate gathering is lost, and people say, well you're undermining it. I'm saying, look, I'm a pastor, I'd be the last one to undermine it. I'd be undermining my core business, but equally I do think that you need to hold those two in balance. The freedom I suppose of believers, but also the priority of the corporate gathering of church.
Jonny Reid: What would you then say to somebody who talks about... talks about rest? For a little bit, cause we're made to meet, we want to gather together, such an importance there.
So, we'll wrestle with some of the practicalities of that maybe a little bit later, and we've got a number of podcasts, which are speaking to people who are wrestling with the issue. How do we meet corporately together, but what about rest? Because there seems to be a principle, and understanding that rest is a good thing.
Pete Nicholas: Yeah.
Jonny Reid: ...and seventh day God rested. But are we called to just be go, go, go the whole time?
Pete Nicholas: So, I think... and there's an interesting thing to notice about what's happened with culture. So, well first let me give the Biblical moorings. The rest day, the seventh day of rest, is blessed by God. So, it's really important Genesis two. So, God blessed the seventh day, and made it Holy. So, he made it Holy. That is, he set it apart. He made it distinctive, important, significant.
And then he blessed it. And so the first movement of the Sabbath is not to obey a command or not, but it's actually a movement of blessing to enter into the blessing that God gives us of rest. And that blessing traditionally throughout scripture is always had two elements to it. The first element you got to abstain from your work. So, the first stop working, down your tools, God stopped from his creative work on the seventh day. Six days he worked, and then you know, one day he rested.
The end result is not just leisure now, just this amorphous term which becomes so big in Western society. We stop working so that we can worship God. So that we can pay attention, particularly to God. So that we can gather together with believers in corporate worship. So, rest has got two dynamics stopping work, and then resting in God.
And it's really interesting with the stats you were giving at the beginning, about when sport on Sunday started. What's happened is society has kind of walked away in general terms, secularization in general terms, from God. Then we've lost that second element of rest. So we understand the idea, cause of course we still have the same rhythm in our week. Of, you know, five days working, two days rest roughly. So we stopped working, but we don't know what we stopping working for. So we now stop working for leisure.
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Pete Nicholas: But in scripture we stopped working to rest in Christ, and to rest in God, and to particularly focus our minds on that. I think a lot of Christians have missed that as well. That that movement of the reason I need to rest is to rest in Christ, and to have that particular focus.
And that is a blessing. So, I want that. I need that, and that's going to be good for me. We need to recapture that. It's not just so that we can stop working so we can watch the Premier League, and you know, Super Sundays, or even play in Super Sundays.
Jonny Reid: So, what about when I can't rest when others are resting? Cause we talked about there's the advantage of being together. The mutual encouragement of one another, but what about people listening in now, who as in currently in Britain, if you're listening in another country, while it might be another day of the week, it might not be the same day, but-
a Sunday, when others are maybe meeting together, but maybe you're on a golf tour, and you're... As in, the Sunday is nearly always a final round. So, hopefully if you're doing well you're there. Wimbledon has a rest so it's slightly different on a Sunday, but there's lots of sports that you'll play on a Sunday, and so you can't rest as you may want to. As a pastor, what would you be saying to a sports person in your church who's got that wrestle?
Pete Nicholas: Well, I think first of all, I do try to look in the mirror as a pastor. Now, I get that pastors were often stretched. It's often difficult, we're limited in our resources, and so therefore I don't want to kind of heap extra pressure on pastors. I think the first movement, in some sense for me as a pastor, is to think, look, there is this big cultural phenomenon going on, and I can't pretend it's not going on. So, if you're looking around your church on a Sunday, and hopefully you've got a number of people there, but also you only have to walk down to the parks, and see there's thousands of people. You can't pretend that that's not happening. And if we're serious about reaching, and engaging with those people, we do just need to grapple with that. There are no easy answers, but there are certain things that one can do as a pastor. So, for example, we're fortunate enough as a church to be able to run a 4:00 PM service. So, you know, for a lot of parents or children who are playing sports on Sunday morning, that's an option for them. Partly the reason we have a 4:00 PM service is we're mindful of that. We do an 11:00 AM, and a 4:00 PM, and that gives people the possibility and means that they can still attend the corporate gathering, and then attend Sunday worship. You know, be built up away from mornings. Now, of course, if you're an elite athlete, or if you're away on a golf tour, or something like that, it gets harder.
Again, I think as a pastor, I'd want to first look in the mirror, and say they're a part of my church. How can I serve them? How can I kind of go, and meet them, or recognize the rigors that they're under. So, in the same way, that I will try and meet with men who work in the city early in the morning, because I'm aware of their schedules and to -
Jonny Reid: Well, in some ways it's no different from shift work, is it?
Pete Nicholas: Right.
Jonny Reid: We sort of, maybe, put sport on a pedestal, because it is seen as leisure.
Pete Nicholas: Yes.
Jonny Reid: When for some people this is their career. This is the opportunity, and gifts that God has given them to compete professionally.
Pete Nicholas: Yeah.
Jonny Reid: As in, not to compare apples and pears, but there's no difference to a doctor working on a Sunday, cause they've got shift work on a Sunday.
If we believe sport can be a vocation, it can be a job, then I think maybe it's just because we sit here working for Christians in Sport, or understanding as Christians we hear this pressure, but is that maybe because sport is seen as leisure, not as vocation?
Pete Nicholas: Yeah. I think also because there's been a past where sport has been looked down upon by the church as being something which could distract, and become an idol. So, therefore you've got worship, and then you have the idolatry of sport. There wasn't necessarily a view of redeeming sport by not worshiping your sports, but by worshiping God through your sports. So, sports has been seen as an enemy in a way that work never really has. So, when sport is your work, sometimes the church still grapples with that. Now, of course, I think legitimately we want to hold that some people will feel the need to make a conscience stand on this, and say whether work or whether sport as work, I can't do that on Sunday.
That's fine, and we need to of course to support them, and respect their opinions in a Romans 14 way. Also, for those who say that's not where I'm at, and I do think that it's important to have the corporate gathering, but it doesn't necessarily need to be on a Sunday. Then there are creative ways that one can do, in terms of meeting around God's word with other believers, in another context. I mean, I'm slightly nervous of making too much of kind of doing a small group Bible study, because I don't actually think it's the same as a Sunday gathering. You know, you don't have usually sacrament in that. In that gathering.
Jonny Reid: So what does that mean? Help us understand that.
Pete Nicholas: Thank you. Yeah, sorry, pastor speak.
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Pete Nicholas: So, that we wouldn't have the Lord's supper, and we wouldn't have baptism normally in a small group setting. So, there is something lacking, and you don't have all of the church there-
Jonny Reid: Yeah, and that'd be quite a key thing, isn't it? Cause you could sit here and go, well I'll meet with other... as in it's a really good thing, and in some ways what Christian Sport does try to facilitate is... Let's use the golf tour analogy, we'll try and gather golfers on the top level tours, to meet together around the Bible, and encourage each other and spend time in God's word together, and to be a place of witness of evangelism as well. But then you are purely around people who have exactly the, in some ways the same struggles, the same issues or same questions, which is great and there's a help to that, but actually the richness of the diversity of the body. We're a body. We're not just a hand. We're not just a foot.
Pete Nicholas: Yeah.
Jonny Reid: I think you could lose that, couldn't you? If you only ever met in small groups, or people who were like you.
Pete Nicholas: Exactly, and I think it is worth saying small group, whilst it is meeting together in a Hebrews 10 way for mutual encouragement, and not neglecting doing that. I would say it's important to say that it's not the full corporate worship of gathered as church experience. But then also, I mean since we're talking about elite sports people, I do know from working with elite sports people, at Christians in Sport, that if they're proactive about it there's lots of actual space for them to, for example, if they went to training and they're overseas, actually just being aware of where they are, and going on to the churches there.
If you're on the golf tour, as you go to different places, particularly cause they're quite repetitive when it's done three, or four seasons, you're in the same places. You can actually build up a relationship with churches there as well. I know it's not the same as your local church fellowship, but it doesn't necessarily always need to be an either or, and certainly I've worked with players who've been very good about being proactive of every time they're back home, they're in their local church if they can be. When they're away, they're trying to connect with the local church wherever they are, and they're also trying to gather around themselves, a body of believers, physically or online who can support them as well, and bringing all those elements together.
Jonny Reid: That's really helpful. Help us... I'm just trying to think of some of the questions, some of the queries we get, where you go-
We're taught the importance of meeting together, we don't want to neglect that. The importance of rest. Not neglecting that either. You could just argue then, well, why would you even contemplate sport as in the equivalent levels being part of the body? If you had an option on 11:00 AM on a Sunday morning, and some people do have the option potentially, why would you go sport still has inherent value? Can sport be put on a par as worship alongside gathering with one another, and singing songs together?
Pete Nicholas: Yeah, and again, that's a really helpful corrector.
I've been trying to be, I don't know whether I've done it, I'll have to listen back, but then you know as we've been talking, I've been trying to be careful with my language, and I do refer to corporate worship when we gather together, the corporate being the kind of body idea, and us gathering idea.
Then I believe in all of life worship, very much in the Romans 12 you know, way of offering your bodies as living sacrifices. That's worship language. That's offering language as a living sacrifice. Holy and pleasing to God.
This is your spiritual, reasonable act of worship. So it's important to say that, actually as we go out to the church, we often do a sending out at our church, and we send people out to worship, and we have a call to worship at the beginning. So, we want the idea that you come from worship into a particular special manifestation a bit, or like of worship or sort of the church, and then we send you out to worship. Now built up to go. Go and worship, and sports is therefore a legitimate area of worship. Of course, I mean, you know, sports is so bodily, and it's interesting in Romans 12 that Paul talks about offering your bodies as a worship.
You know, wherever your body goes, there you can worship. The challenge for every sports person is not worshiping their sport, but worshiping God in their sport. So, I think having that mindset, and also I think it does relate to vocation. You used that earlier, to calling, you know, the church has often thought about the calling in two ways. There's two callings. There is the primary calling, which is when Jesus says, come follow me, Jesus says. There's your first calling, the call on every human being who's ever born to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior, that's the first calling. Universal, everyone, doesn't change. The second bit is then, he says, and I will make you fishers of people. Fish the men. He's talking to fishers of course. Yeah, of course. So, what he's saying there is he's saying you have particular dispositions, passions, gifts, contexts that I've put you in as the sovereign Lord.
Use those dispositions, passions, gifts, and the context, to worship me in a particular way. They're fishermen, so go and fish for people. Many people feel convicted that they are wired to worship in sport. They've got gifts to play, they're born to play, they're passionate about it, they're good at it, the context they can do it, and so you want to say, great. So, that's your secondary calling. As you follow Jesus as your savior, offer those things up to him, and so sport is legitimate and dignified and important, and we want to affirm that whilst holding intention with the importance of church. Of course.
Jonny Reid: That's really, really helpful. Thanks Pete. In some ways we've seen these... We could call them three legs on a stool. The importance of them. We're created a rest, b ut we are born to worship, and we can worship in all of life. Whether we're sitting in the pews on a Sunday, listening to God's word taught, which is great, and it's important and there's a corporate side of that worship, but also we're born to worship as we play sport, or as we work whatever it might be, but then we don't have to neglect that importance of meeting together, and gathering together.
The reason we're recording this podcast is obviously we know it's a tension in today's culture. Sunday's become a second Saturday for a lot of people. It's just another day. It's a day of leisure, day of rest, and we're going, no, make sure commit to resting in Christ, and commit to meeting and corporately encouraging each other. And we'd probably want to affirm, don't we, that a stool without three legs is just going to fall over.
Pete Nicholas: Yes.
Jonny Reid: And it's always going to be a wrestle. It's always going to be a tension. Just as we close now, let's put the hats of a parent on. Your a parent yourself. Let's zoom 10 years into the future, your son is playing sport on Sunday morning. He's going, dad, if I'm going to be on this team I need to play.
How are you helping a parent wrestle with this issue? To find a balance is probably not the right word cause we want to hold all three, rightly in tension, but to find a healthy way to live with those three points of tension?
Pete Nicholas: No, I mean I think you've highlighted it, and hopefully it's been highlighted in the podcast, as much as you'd like simple answers in this area, there just aren't. We see it at Christians in Sport, and conversations with parents. You can see them wanting you to give them a simple answer, and their shoulders slightly drop a bit when you say there are no easy answers, but then I think the conversation helps, and being in conversation, and maintain that conversation. I think thinking about the conversation, or three or four directions, a conversation between parents, and their children, really important.
So, for example, I know of one family where one of their three boys was playing very high level sport, but it was impacting the family. The parents weren't putting any pressure on him, they were just in conversation with him about it, and saying we're happy to serve in this way. This is our view of church, and he owned that view of church even though he was, I think only like nine or 10 at the time. Actually, he then as a nine or 10 year old turned around his parents one day and said, look, I love my sport, and I'm still going to play it, but I don't think I'm going to play that part of it anymore, because it's too disruptive to the family. Now, parents probably thinking, oh, I'd love to have a child like that, but I think the reason was because they were in conversation, and they were praying it through them. Talking and giving him the principles and treating him with maturity.
So, that conversation with the children, they see what's going on, and they hear the importance of the different issues and the stools. The different legs on the stool. I think conversation also, not just between parents and children, but between parents and pastors.
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Pete Nicholas: Pastors and parents. Being in that conversation. So, that pastors avoid the trick of thinking they're not committed, actually. Do you know your parents well enough to know that their life's messy, it's complicated, and they're grappling with it. Parents avoid, you know, the danger of my pastor doesn't get me. You know, open up that conversation, and talk to them and explain the grappling, and you know, work it through. You know, in a way as well, and then I think the third dynamic of the conversation is probably with the sports teams as well. And I think there's a great opportunity for witness as we turn around to coaches, and we say where the parents said, or the young people as they get old enough to say, I'm committed to my team.
You know that I love it, but I'm also committed to God, and this is tension for me and I'm trying to work it out. You know, again, I mean that's a real eye opener for coaches.
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Pete Nicholas: And whatever answer you arrive at, again, you want to make sure that they understand what's going on. There's not... You're not committed to the team, but as equally that you do have other commitments as well in life and your primary commitment to God, and you're trying to work that out. So, I think of that conversation three ways, and that's probably why it's time consuming.
Jonny Reid: Yeah.
Pete Nicholas: So, there's no simple answer, but hopefully the conversation is life-giving wherever it leads you.
Jonny Reid: And we can apply that, whether we're a parent, whether we're an athlete, whether we're a coach. Coaches do Sundays as well. So, just chat to people, have that conversation.
Speak with your pastor, speak to your coach. Like you say, it's an amazing opportunity, isn't it? To go, I love my sport, but I need to... I don't want to neglect this. My faith is the most important thing. My relationship with Jesus, as well. So, thanks so much for helping unpack. I'm sure we'll have you on again another time, and chat at different perspectives. We've also got a number of podcasts coming up. Looking really granularity at these issues, so we'll have a conversation with a parent of a top young athlete, and really go, right, how they wrestle with it would be really helpful. We're going to get some pastors on who maybe are not necessarily different views, but have wrestled with this themselves, or maybe set up church's that have been around awhile, which be helpful. Similarly, with elite athletes who really live with this, who have maybe found it difficult to go to church, maybe because they're so famous that they actually struggle to be part of a church body in summary, so, it's a tension that maybe some of us don't quite get.
We know it's an issue and we want to discuss it, and that's why we have these podcasts to help wrestle these issues. Do keep chatting with whoever you're listening to this podcast with. Take some of these points away, have a chat or through, and we do always want to say on the podcast, do send us in your questions. Email email@example.com. We'd love to grapple some of the issues you've got. Not assuming we know the questions you're asking. So, do email us in your questions, or hit us on social media. Hashtag, #AskCIS, and we'd love to be able to answer some of your questions as well. See you next time. Goodbye.
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