The dilemma we can't ignore
The dilemma we can't ignore

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 tightrope 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 many of the children and parents we long to see in church, isn’t it crazy to disengage from it? It is a tough dilemma, and this article can’t answer all the issues.

A few years ago 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 was 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 (Revelation 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 disagree with the above conclusion many reach! Why? Because it is too often based on an unfortunate misunderstanding of worship. Worship does include the vital 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 writes in Romans 12:1 (ESV):

“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. 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 truth tells them that Christ is the Lord of all who claims every sphere of life for his own! The world tells them that heaven is an ethereal existence for disembodied spirits. 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 ‘worship’, we need to engage with sport as worship. Have we thought that if we want to prioritise our children’s spiritual development that an important sphere 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?

Please hear the qualification: this is not to fall into the parallel error of thinking the goals of secular sport are somehow seamlessly aligned with Christ, nor is it to say missing all church gatherings and just playing sport is a wise or godly way to grow in Christ. The practicalities of prioritising Christian edification and fellowship and playing sport need to be worked out, but (and here’s the point) from an integrated view of worship - not a false dichotomy. This does not provide easy answers in a tricky area, but it does 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
Pete is one of the pastors at Inspire Church in London and a Christians in Sport Trustee. He is also the co-author of 'Virtually Human', a book about the impact of technology in our digital age.

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