Thousands of Christians around the UK play sport every week. Just think of the numbers involved: 15.74 million adults play sport weekly - that’s about a third of adults in the UK. The number is higher in the young-adult bracket where 55.2% take part in at least one session of sport a week, and even higher among 11-16 year olds where it is 86.6%!
If the church is even partially a representation of these demographics, then it would mean that sports players are arguably one of the largest groups in any church.
But how many of these Christians playing sport are Christians in sport? In other words how many Christians don’t just play sport but actually see that their sport and faith are integrated? Not separate areas - “I go to church on Sunday and play sport during the week” - but integrated - “I play sport as part of a whole life view of worship”.
To see how someone can move from being a Christian who plays sport to being a Christian in sport let’s see what the Bible says about sport.
It may be a surprise to you, but sport is part of God’s good gift of creation. Sure, human beings are the ones who invent sports, but where does our playfulness come from? The creativity, the desire for human relationship, and the instinctive desire to play that all people, of all ages, across all cultures have, are all part of what it means to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
God is the Creator and so being made in his image makes us creative with the talents to strike a ball, see a pass, or swim quickly. Equally God is a relational God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so our desire to play with others pushing them on in competition comes from him. Sport is not some area outside of God’s good creation, it is an integral part of it, a gift to be enjoyed to his glory.
“But” I can hear you say, “if sport is a gift from God, then why is it often so bad, full of drugs, professional fouls, violence and cheating?”
Like any aspect of God’s creation, sport has been distorted from its original purpose because of our sin. Sin is not something ‘out there’ as if sport is the problem, sin is an internal disposition we all have to reject God and to distort his good creation. We use our talents to seek our glory rather than to play to God’s glory. We damage our relationships through cheating instead of playing fair. Sin infects sport just as it does every area of human life.
It is striking how much sport draws on religious words, ‘Messi the messiah’, ‘Usain Bolt the saviour of athletics’. Well the truth is there is only one messiah and saviour - Jesus Christ. God doesn’t want sport to remain tainted by sin, so he sent his Son Jesus Christ to be a substitute (a concept every sports person gets). He steps in to take the penalty we deserve, he is punished so that we can go free. He is sent from the field of play so that we can get back in the game.
Now risen from the dead Jesus Christ calls us to play to his glory. Romans 12:1-2 urges us to:
‘Offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship’.
That means that sport is an area of life that can be offered to God as an act of worship.
Just think of the difference this makes when someone grasps that their sport can be worship - perhaps you are realising this for the first time now. God is not distant from the thrill you get when you play sport. He is not remote from the highs and lows of the competition. Your beating heart is his beating heart, your joy is his pleasure. After all he is the one who gave us the gift of sport.
So are you a Christian who plays sport or are you a Christian in sport? That all depends on the way you play. Play hard, play fair, and play to his glory - after all, it is worship.
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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