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Comment: help for parents tackling the Sunday sport dilemma

Should Christian parents keep their children away from sport on Sunday mornings, because it clashes with church? Pete Nicholas from Christians in Sport offers a thoughtful perspective ...

The Sunday Sport Dilemma

by Pete Nicholas, Christians in Sport

Increasingly Sunday sport is becoming an issue for Christian children and parents. 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 the 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 all the children and parents who aren’t Christians, isn’t it crazy to disengage from it? What about our spiritual growth as a family? Shouldn’t we all be at church together, rather than alternating who takes our daughter/son to the game?

These are tough questions. It's a tough dilemma.

Last week Christianity Today, a widely read US magazine, published an article by Megan Hill, a mum who is going through this dilemma in real time. Her son is 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 completely disagree about the conclusions that are reached!

Why? Because the conclusions are based on an unfortunate and far too common misunderstanding of worship. Worship does include the 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 famously writes in Romans 12:1 "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. When I was first shown that I could play rugby as worship to God, it was like an revolution in my heart – and I have seen the revolution repeated every time someone grasps this. Suddenly one of my great passions in life was given a dignity and importance that was transformative. Immediately I started to see how significant my conduct on and off the pitch was – God reclaimed the rugby pitch for his own!

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 tells them that Christ is the Lord of all who claims every sphere of life for his own!
The world tells them that their faith is disengaged and worship is an odd activity for a few people. This tells them that their faith is engaged and worship is the normal activity for those made in God’s image!
The world tells them that heaven is an ethereal existence singing endless choir anthems.
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 Sunday worship, we need to engage with sport as worship. Have we thought that if we want to prioritise our children’s spiritual development that perhaps one of the best training grounds 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? This is not to fall into the parallel error of thinking the goals of secular sport are somehow seamlessly aligned with Christ – our engagement must be transformative – and that will mean saying ‘no’ to aspects of sport; the self-exaltation, the professional fouls, the idolatry.

But it is to 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, Christians in Sport

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