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Sport: Connecting your church and your community

We’re a month into 2017 and if Father Christmas has left you the gift of extra centimetres around your waist, then you’ll be thinking about joining many people in the race to get fitter. Joining a gym or starting some sort of fitness regime again appears at the top of most people’s New Year’s resolutions. Whatever your objective is - taking part in the London Marathon, trekking in Peru or simply regaining your physical fitness - it’s important not to overdo it but resume sports activities regularly and in a very ordinary way.

Recently I took part in my first Parkrun, having missed joining in for quite some time because of my hectic schedule. I’m a competitive runner and have a thirst for competition and winning. It was a really cold, clear and crisp winter morning, and while I was driving to my local park I had a real sense of excitement at what I was about to take part in. It may sound silly but it was like that moment on Christmas morning when you wake up and think: “Yes it’s finally here, I can’t wait to get involved.”

Parkrun is such a simple concept: turn up every Saturday and run 5km, (or 2km every Sunday if you’re a junior). It doesn’t matter how fast you go. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. All that matters is taking part, competing and getting involved.

When I arrived and was mingling with people pre-race, I could feel a real sense of community and togetherness. Some people were arriving tired, some were clearly very focused and in the zone and one group of lads were laughing at their mate who had turned up in summer sports gear on what was definitely not a hot summer’s day: fortunately he saw the funny side!

The conversations before and after the race were really great at creating new relationships through simple: “Have you had a good week?” and: “How’s your weekend looking?” conversations with fellow runners. Equally important were the volunteers making drinks and marshalling. These folks weren’t runners but still wanted to be involved - a great example for those of us that see the value of sport, but don’t consider ourselves ‘sporty’.

“When I run I feel his pleasure”

Parkrun is all about inclusiveness and wellbeing. They want as many people as possible to feel part of a real local community, as well as a global Parkrun family. That for me for was the most important thing, people from all walks of life, varying in age, ability, size and shape being ‘together’ and enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company in an ordinary park in beautiful Suffolk. Then, as is often the case, in a concentrated moment while I was running, I could feel God’s presence, and my mind took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go, Chariots of fire.

I wasn’t running on the beach with a large group of well-trained athletes, but in a leafy, muddy park. Even so, I was reminded of what Eric Liddell said: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

In that moment I think I knew what he meant as I took that into my own race that morning. God made me me, and when I run, I feel the Holy Spirit flowing through me and at work in me. God, at work, in ordinary me.

Physical fitness can inspire us to push our own spiritual fitness. In 1 Timothy 4, from The Message, Paul says: “Exercise daily in God - no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.” Just as we have bodily (physical) exercise to help build up our physical bodies, we have some spiritual exercises that build up our spiritual body. The spiritual exercise that we have that builds up our spiritual bodies is called godliness. Godliness means to live or exercise the life that God commanded you to do.

Are you willing to go and be those Godly people and listen or tune in to what God is maybe trying to have a conversation with you about? This could be about sharing the good news, through any sport, with the whosoever, in the very ordinary contexts that you find yourselves in.

“Sport can help address a need in children and young people’s lives”

Impacting your community

I’d like to set you a challenge to go and ‘make a positive difference’ in the community you live in during 2017. And in the spirit of a post-festive fitness regime, why not think about doing that through sport and play? Every day in my ordinary conversations with people, I am encouraging them to look for and think about ways that they can use sport as an arena for mission. I’m trying to empower volunteers to connect their passion for Jesus with their love of sport, which provides fresh opportunities of ministry, opens new doors and develops new relationships with all kinds of people: what is going on in your community; in the square mile that your church is in; the green spaces; recreation grounds and parks; at all-weather pitches and on the running tracks? What is going on in these places? Have you gone out of your way to find out?

It is hard to find a village or city where there is no sport or play. Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport is a language that is understood, experienced and enjoyed.” So the challenge and opportunity is to raise up people to transform each village, town and city using sport. All of us - children, young people, vicars, children’s workers, youth workers, older people, armchair sports fans or people who go to bed when Match of the day comes on - we all have a part to play in making disciples for Christ in sport and play. What does that mean though? What could it look like?

As you seek to serve the need in your community, sport can help address those needs in children and young people’s lives, whether it be fatherlessness, children having to deal with their parents separating resulting in broken homes, lack of leaders, boredom for young people who just hang around on street corners or in recreation parks, community dislocation or addiction. Sport has a unique way of bringing people together and through ordinary activities can provoke change in attitudes, lifestyles and relationships.

A former leader of The Salvation Army, General John Gowans, once wrote some poetry that still remains true today: “I believe in transformation, God can change the hearts of men.” I believe he can do this through sport.

There will be many opportunities to connect with people through sport this year, but during 2017 what are the ‘best choices’ you are going to make in your children’s or youth work contexts? Here are a few ‘top tips’ to help you in your thinking:

  • A great way to reach and connect with children, young people and their families is through hosting sporty holiday clubs, going into schools and speaking in assemblies or after-school clubs with a sporting theme.
  • Look for key events in the sporting diary throughout 2017 to kick off your sports mission, such as the FA Cup final or the Six Nations. Why not plan a few days of activities which run alongside the day or event, such as a sports quiz, a film night, or a sporty social evening. Be very specific about the age group this is for and flyer the local schools and colleges plus other churches - this is a brilliant and easy way of getting to know people on your own patch and them getting to know you too.
  • Another fantastic way of connecting with people in your ‘square mile’ is by hosting a big event for all of the family that will put the church at the heart of the community. Why not really try to connect with young people and their families in a new and vibrant way this year by using the Wimbledon tournament to do this? You could show the popular games on a big screen and in doing so create fun for children and young people by having activities, competitions, face paints and sport-based games. A good end to the two weeks would be to host a huge BBQ for the whole community and follow this up the next day by inviting people to a Messy Church at the same venue.
  • Run some sort of sports tournament for children and young people of different ages within your community, whether it be football, rugby or even ultimate frisbee; this could provide you with a platform of ministry that could connect you with young people who are totally unchurched, unloved and searching for something more.

Sport has a unique way of connecting people; wherever you are, this could create an environment for the people to come together, to play and discover more about faith, using sport as an access tool to start the process of making disciples. People all over our world are committed to making disciples who can pass on their faith actively and genuinely, and through sport there is huge potential.

“Sport has a unique way of connecting people”

I recently came across an idea from the LICC’s Mark Greene which said that we could revolutionise discipleship, evangelism and culture-shaping if Christians saw their lives not as oranges, made up of compartmentalised, separate, sealed segments - some important to God and some not as much - but rather as peaches, a single non-compartmentalised fruit, with God at the core, where all of life is important.

Let’s remember this analogy in our conversations with people, particularly sporty young people who have a faith but have not yet considered sports as mission as they may have never connected their sport with their faith. Most people play sport because they love it, are good at it or both! They may have never considered combining their love of sport with the unique opportunity sport provides for worship and mission. So be bold in your thinking and, as you contemplate the how to, be assured that God will bless you as you share the good news, through sport, with young people.

Be warned though, this ‘sports stuff’ isn’t as easy as some people think it is, it takes long-term commitment, it takes masses of energy, in fact it can take years for your visibility and action to have an impact, but within your community keep planting those seeds of hope through sport, that could eventually bear fruit. Sport has the potential to kick start amazing change in our communities. On your marks, get set… go!

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