Game-changing: sports ministry

Published on: 10 March 2020

As the 2020 Olympics looms in Japan, Ruth Anderson urges us to consider the mission opportunities offered through sport and fitness.

I remember it so well. We had two carloads of people and we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing. As we drove along, early in the morning, we saw more and more policemen and streams of refugees walking along the roadside.

We had just crossed the English Channel and had arrived in Calais on the outskirts of ‘The Jungle’ refugee camp. Our aim was to drive into the centre of the camp and start a football match and then tell people about Jesus – that he loved them and cared for them.

The problem was that several policemen were blocking the entrance to the camp and they obviously were not too keen on us going in. We drove a little further down the road and started to pray. We asked that God distract the policemen or shut their eyes, so they didn’t see us. We turned the cars around and decided to put our prayers into practice. Miraculously, we drove right through the blockade. We were in.

We drove on and on and got to a space where we stopped and got out of the car. We felt like strangers and aliens in a foreign land. We quickly got out the football and started kicking around between us. Gradually a group gathered together. Some of them spoke some broken English. We didn’t know what to say and so we started naming English football teams; “Manchester United, Chelsea…” they responded by naming other teams “Liverpool, Arsenal”. We added “Norwich City” and then put our thumbs up. We had made friends!

We found out there was a grass area about a 10-minute walk away. We left the cars and took our stuff and followed an ever-growing group of people to a massive sports area outside the camp. We started playing a match – 10 aside, 15 aside, 20 aside. It was growing every few minutes. After about 20 minutes, we stopped, made a huddle, and via a translator, we told them about Jesus and offered to pray for anything they wanted prayer for. We learnt some of their stories and were amazed at the journeys these people had been on and what kind people they were. We all left the camp that afternoon changed.

“Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire,” Nelson Mandela once said, “It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Sport isn’t the answer to people’s problems, but Jesus is. Sport is a vehicle by which we can share life and the gospel with people. I love the verse in 1 Thessalonians 2:8 that says, “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share not only the gospel of God but our lives as well”. Sport provides that opportunity and it is also lots of fun.

The Sports Factory

In 2014, The Sports Factory was born out of St Thomas Church, Norwich (STN). The aim was to connect the church and the community through sport and to share the love of Jesus with the people we do life with.

Over the past six years, The Sports Factory has played sport or taken part in fitness activities with thousands of people across Norwich and has told them about Jesus’ love for them. This has been done through schools work – PE and RE lessons, lunch clubs, assemblies and after school clubs, “Legacy” holiday club that takes place during each school holiday, adult sports and fitness sessions and other family events and activities.

Tim Henery currently heads up The Sports Factory for STN and has written a course called ‘Active RE’ which happens in some of the local primary schools. It combines PE with RE and Tim has been amazed at how much the children remember and retain each week. All the children are invited along to Legacy.

Legacy holiday club has over 50 children coming along each day. They play loads of sport, explore a Bible passage or parable and then enjoy a “team challenge” and a “slam dunk moment”. Following Legacy, the church has a celebration service to show a video of the highlights of the week and it’s brilliant to see lots of families being welcomed into church.

On a Wednesday morning, in one of the churches, there is live worship music and Pilates followed by a short thought for the day and prayer. Around 25 people attend each week, the majority of whom would not call themselves Christian. On a Thursday, a similar class is held for older people, called Fab and Fit.

During major sporting events, such as the Rugby World Cup, Football World Cup or Olympic Games, STN has opened its doors and put on opening ceremony community festivals that have drawn in hundreds of people from the local area, as well as doing some big-screen showings of some of the major matches and events.

Starting a conversation

Sport is an easy conversation starter; it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can still enjoy watching a sporting event together. On a Saturday morning, Sports Factory runners are found at the local parkruns with yellow Sports Factory T-shirts saying “We Believe” on the back. They meet to pray and then join the run and see if God provides any opportunities to chat with people about Jesus. The thing I love about sports ministry is that it is simple, it’s easy, it’s really good for you and it works. The Sports Factory seeks to combine the power of sport with the power of God, the one who created it.

In 2019, the Diocese of Norwich employed four Sports Ministers to roll out The Sports Factory across Norfolk: Tom Woods, Vicky Allen, Susie Bratby and myself. The aim is the same as the story that has happened at STN: to love people so much that we are delighted to share not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Across Norfolk, the Sports Factory team and volunteers will seek to get to know people through sport and then provide opportunities to share Jesus’ love with them.

This will mean looking outside the four walls of the church and spending time at parks, multi-use games areas (MUGA’s), in sports halls and gyms. You may think that you are too old to get involved in sports ministry. That’s a myth!

Open to all ages and abilities

When I did sports ministry in Gloucestershire, my main volunteer was an 84-year-old man who turned up to a weekly basketball club to help pump up balls and get to know the children’s names and eventually had opportunities to tell them about Jesus too.

He was an amazing grandfather figure to so many of the children. He wasn’t particularly sporty, but he did have a passion to see children and young people come to know Jesus. One year the town voted him ‘Sports Personality of The Year’ because of all his contributions to sport. He told me that when, in his seventies, his wife died, he prayed and asked God to use him. God definitely did that!

Local partner churches needed

The Diocese of Norwich is looking to partner with local churches who are looking for growth and revitalisation, to think about how to engage with people in a language that they understand.

Sport is the biggest it has ever been. How do I know? Because sport is everywhere, and people seem to love it. For example, the top two most-googled topics in 2019 were sports-related. 900 million people viewed the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 2012. Forty-four per cent of 11-16-year-olds play football at least once a month.

These statistics really challenge me. I imagine what it would be like if 44 per cent of 11-16- year-olds have started attending my church at least once per month? It would be incredible! Sport and fitness are not the answer, but they do provide a whole lot of opportunities to tell people about Jesus.

I wonder if your average week involves any sporting or fitness activities? Could you start seeing this as a mission field? Could you start praying for the people you meet and looking for opportunities to tell them about Jesus or invite them to church or an event the church runs?

I wonder how fit your church is and whether you have ever thought about engaging with your local community through sport and fitness? In this Olympic year, it is a great time to get involved in sports ministry and to share the love of Jesus with the people you do life with.

Ruth Anderson founded the Sports Factory in 2015. She is married to Rich and has one son. She loves sport and fitness and is passionate about sharing her faith in Jesus with others.

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