Sports for The Gospel
What were you doing on Friday, 23rd July 2021? On a typical Friday night, you may have caught up with friends, or relaxed with a movie. But on that Friday night, there’s a high chance you joined together with millions of spectators globally, mesmerized by the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games. Although the stadium itself was conspicuously empty due to the pandemic, the reach and influence of such a sporting event cannot be ignored. The previous 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro garnered 3.2 billion viewers around the world, nearly half of the world’s population. i As Christians, we too ought to long that our evangelistic outreach would have the same audience and impact. Australian athlete Nicole McDermott, who won silver in the High Jump at Tokyo 2020 puts it well:
“Every single time I saw an empty stadium I just reminded myself that one day those stadiums will be filled…that it wouldn’t just be for sporting performances. That maybe they could have revival meetings again like Billy Graham did decades ago in Australia and people would hear things from athletes that would change their lives, not just be spectators. That has been my drive.” ii
Perhaps, the church today should take note of the potentiality of sports – a universal language that connects all regardless of age, gender, culture and nationality – and start thinking about how we can use sports as a platform to advance God’s kingdom. How can sports be used by Christians for the purpose of evangelism, discipleship and God’s glory?
1. Defining Sport
Sport refers to a game, competition or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and / or as a job. It involves all types of physical activity that people do to keep healthy or for enjoyment.iii Many of us are involved in sports in one way or another – either as a workout enthusiast, professional athlete, recreational player or, as a spectator. But when we speak of combining both sports and ministry, iv we intend more than just playing a game. Rather, sports is being used to grow God’s Kingdom through gospel proclamation, discipleship and loving service. J. Stuart Weir, in his article Sports Ministry and Evangelism, gives a few examples of how we can do ministry through sports:
“Ministry through sports is seeing sports as an evangelistic opportunity. This might involve running sports events, with an evangelistic purpose, starting a church sports team to draw in outsiders, operating a fitness centre for the community as part of the church’s program, or distributing leaflets or video material with a gospel message in the language of sport, often using the testimony of high-profile Christian athletes.”v
Thus, sports can be an effective means for us to obey the great commission to make and grow disciples of Christ among all nations.
2. Sports As A Ministry
The apostle Paul gives some helpful principles for how we may engage in sports as a ministry platform in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22:
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.~ 1 Corinthians 9:19-22
- I made myself a servant to all (v19)
It’s crucial to remember that sports itself must never be the end goal. Our ultimate goal must always be to glorify God, by drawing people to faith in Christ. Paul reminds us, that in order for us to win more for Christ, we need make ourselves a servant to all. Servanthood must always remain the foundation of our ministry.vi Otherwise, there will always be a risk that we become so passionate about a particular sport, that we care more about the game, the skills and winning, rather than serving the players and audience whom we are seeking to reach. So we draw people to sports instead of to God. We find ourselves boasting of our athletic abilities or the achievements of our team instead of focusing on their spiritual needs. We seek glory for ourselves instead of glory for God. The only remedy to this ever-present danger is to keep our purpose intact by asking ourselves searching questions like: Am I serving the people I’m seeking to reach? Am I doing this with a servant-heart or from some other ulterior motive(s)?
Sports must be used to serve others.
- Be all things to all people (v20-22)
Echoing the words of Paul, we need to prepare ourselves to say: “to those who love sports I would play sports, in order to win those who love sports”. Our willingness to be a servant of all to win more of them, should make us ready to “be all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”. We may encounter street kids with foul mannerisms, sportsmen who can’t read and understand the Bible or, youths who speak vulgarities.
Are we ready for that kind of ministry?
Of course, “being all things to all people” does not mean that we will be do all that they do, or indulge in their vices. Paul reminds us that even as he reached out to those outside the law, he was never at all outside the law of God (v21). He lived his life under the law of Christ and would never compromise his faith in that manner. Similarly, our efforts to be “all things to all people” should never go the extent of living a life that displeases God “just to save some”. As the saying goes: “the ends does not justify the means”. That means that as we play sports, we promote integrity rather than cheating at all costs to win. We advocate sportsmanship: being gracious when we win and not being sore losers when it doesn’t go our way. We encourage and spur each other forward, rather than casting away lesser players in the team.
3. Why engage in Sports Ministry?
With these principles in mind, let us consider two reasons why sports can be used for ministry.
- Reason 1: Sports as a Springboard for Gospel Conversation
We are often taught in our ministry endeavours to begin where the people are. We seek to connect with them through their vocations, interests, lifestyles or circumstances. We see various examples in the New Testament. Jesus called Simon Peter and Levi at their workplace (Luke 5:1-11, 27-32). He reached out to the Samaritan woman through a conversation about water, worship and marriage (John 4:1-43). Paul in his gospel preaching, often began with a topic that intrigued his listeners: the Athenians’ religiosity (Acts 17:22-31), King Agrippa’s Jewish familiarity (Acts 26:1-29) and the Greek’s obsession with wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).vii Paul even used sports imageries in his letters, knowing very well that these examples were relatable to the culturally-infused Greek believers.viii
The last example rings even truer today as we seek to use sports to relate to our current world. It was estimated that 3.6 billion of the world’s population watched the 2012 London Olympics, the most watched television broadcast of all time. In fact, 24 out of the first 25 spots on that list were occupied by various kinds of sports events.ix Such numbers show us that if there is one thing that captivates the world, it’s sports. Conversations around the dinner table or at the mamak are usually not complete without bringing up the topic of sports. Cheering for a national athlete competing in a final unites the whole country and helps us forget our differences. Even someone who dislikes sports will often spare time for quadrennial events like the Olympics and the Football World Cup. Sports are one of the most effective conversation starters in any group and discussion setting. It’s the hook every Christian can use to connect with his / her unbelieving friends as we seek to be fishers of men. Sports programmes can also be used as platforms to engage the community. Relationships are built through football clinics, connections are made through the frisbee pick-ups, friendships are established through the badminton get-togethers: all these serve as an entry point for gospel conversations and ministries.
- Reason 2: Sports as a Need Fulfilment for the Community
One of the most frequent commands in the New Testament is to remember the poor.x This was crucial in the early Church because poverty was common among the Jews under Roman governance, and they were neglected by the society at large. Besides helping the poor, the apostles also performed miracles: healing the sick and casting out evil spirits (Acts 5:12-16). What were they actually doing? It was a simple task of meeting needs – whether it was financial (poor), social (outcast, slaves, sinners, women), physical (sick, lame, blind) or spiritual (demon-possessed). As they reached out to fulfil their needs, many of them were eventually added to their numbers by The Lord (Acts 5:14). The outflow of their Christian love opened doors for evangelism. It encourages us to always seek to take care to meet the needs of those we are seeking to reach.
How then does sports play a role in meeting needs? As the “Great Lockdown” took effect across the world with the onset of Covid-19, one would have thought that physical activities like sports would have taken the biggest hit. How could we possibly play sports together when we are stuck at home? However, just like other industries, fitness programs also pivoted virtually. Friends would come together on video calls to do Tabata workouts (it was a 2020 craze, remember?). Marathons were converted to virtual runs and even extended to walking, cycling and rope-jumping. Why is it so? Studies show that sports and fitness workouts help people to cope mentally and emotionally.xi As mental health declined rapidly during the pandemic, workouts were no longer only for the health and sports enthusiast, but a necessary means to guard one’s mental health.xii Although sports remains a leisure for many, it has also slowly become a recreational need for the holistic well-being of society. As Christians continue to reach the world by meeting their social, financial, educational and emotional needs, we can also be pro-active in reaching them through sports. And by meeting their physical needs, we can lead them to the ultimate solution of their spiritual need – the gospel of Jesus Christ.
4. All for the Sake of the Gospel
As Paul reached out, he was always clear of his ultimate goal:
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.~ 1 Corinthians 9:23
At the end of the day, the most important question to ask is this: why do we want to engage in sports ministry? There can be only one answer: we must do it for the sake of the gospel (v23). The gospel becomes both our motivation and our message. As recipients of God’s grace ourselves, the gospel should motivate us to bring the message of salvation to those still in desperate need to hear it. Like Paul, our hearts should burn for the salvation of the lost, and be willing to do what we must to connect with those we are seeking to reach. But not only should the gospel motivate us to reach out, it should also be the message we proclaim. Reaching out to the world through sports does nothing for lost souls if our efforts to connect are not accompanied with the preaching of the gospel. As we keep this clear gospel priority in mind, we can engage in sports, because the world itself is interested in sport. We can use sport as our means to meet the needs of people. We can become all things to all people in the spirit of servanthood, that we may save some, all for the sake of the gospel.
iv Tim Keller proposed four “fronts” to ministry: (a) connecting people to God (through evangelism and worship); (b) connecting people to one another (through community and discipleship); (c) connecting people to the city (through mercy and justice); and d) connecting people to culture (through integration of faith and work). Therefore, when discussing sport and ministry together, we are looking at how we can use sport on these four ministry fronts. Excerpt taken from Tim Keller, Centre Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 293.
v J Stuart Weir, Sports Ministry and Evangelism. Take from Lausanne Movement website: https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2014-05/sports-ministry-and-evangelism-how-an-incarnational-and-service-emphasis-underpins-effective-evangelism#end7
vi Jesus calls us to be a servant of all (Mark 10:42-45; John 13:12-17).
vii For more examples of Paul’s speeches, refer to Tim Keller, Centre Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 111-114.
viii 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 2 Timothy 2:5; 4:7. Other verses include the imagery of running (Galatians 2:2; 5:7, Philippians 2:16; Hebrews 12:1) and prize/wreath/crown (Philippians 3:14; James 1:12; 2 Timothy 4:8).
x Here are some examples: Acts 2:45, 4:32-37, Acts 20:35, 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, Galatians 2:10, Ephesians 4:28, 1 Timothy 6:18, Hebrews 13:16, James 1:27. Commands by Christ in the Gospels, and other general commands to do good were not included.
Get articles delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for our mailing list here.
Follow us on:
Lue Jun Yi worships at Shah Alam Gospel Centre and currently leads the Sports Ministry team at Scripture Union Peninsular Malaysia. He came to know Christ at the age of 13 through his home church’s evangelistic sports outreach, and has been actively serving in both sports and youth ministry ever since. Apart from playing and watching sports, he enjoys writing reflections about everyday life, Christian living and satire.
Bethel Church in Redding, California, is becoming increasingly influential amongst churches in my own city of Sydney. This is partly due to its promotion by Hillsong and also because of its influential music label. So I’ve set myself the task of reading through some of Bethel’s books in order to understand their theology...
Does Jesus really expect believers to raise the dead as part of “normal Christian life? Stephen Tan considers two unhelpful responses. In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs a series of signs to show that he is Israel’s long-awaited Messiah. In John 11, he performs the climactic sign, raising to life his friend Lazarus, who had been dead and buried four days.
The world tells us many things about what makes a good leader. Leadership traits that are often commended include a charismatic personality, the ability to influence others, clear and compelling communication, good people skills, and an overall aptitude for the task at hand. Whilst these are good traits to possess...