I am deeply convinced that sports can be useful for churches and for the revelation of the God that they serve. I believe this and I know this from experience, since I had the opportunity to integrate the experience of sports into different pastoral ministries that I have filled as: a Temporary Supply Pastor at a French Reformed Church in Montpellier, France; a Youth Minister in an Evangelical Reformed Church in Neuchâtel, Switzerland; a Chaplain at the Pomare IV Junior and Senior High Schools in Papeete, Tahiti; and a Pastor of the Francophone Protestant Church of Washington, DC. In these four protestant communities I had the opportunity to use sports culture to proclaim the Gospel within different church ministries such as: worship services, Christian education, mutual ministry, spiritual direction, etc. Below I give some examples that I hope will offer some ideas, or even, dare I say, some “inspiration,” for church leaders.
a) Setting priorities
Let’s begin at the beginning! In my first position as a pastor in Montpellier, I had to learn how to build up their congregational ministry programs. In the month of June, the four pastors of the congregation posted an enormous calendar upon which each person and each group was invited to write the church activities that they were planning for the year. Notably, the first dates that were blocked out with a small oval ball were the dates for the French national Rugby, during the Five Nation Tournament (since then called the Six Nation Tournament). Apparently, it was unimaginable to schedule a church activity at the same time as that event. Praise be to God, the field of competition was small that year and France had to compete in only four matches—all held on Saturdays.
Ten years later in French Polynesia, I experienced the same system of prioritization but in a potentially more volatile situation. On Sunday, July 12, 1998, France was competing at home in the World Cup Final against Brazil. Accounting for the time difference, the game was broadcast in Tahiti Sunday morning at 9am, putting it in direct competition with the Sunday morning service of worship, which invariably began at 10am. How could this conflict be resolved? The Ma’ohi Protestant Church figured out how to be accommodating and most of the congregations advanced the hour of their worship services in order to worship at 8am and allow the congregants (along with the pastors!) to participate in worship and to see the game.
b) Training adolescents and adults
In my different ministries, I found that sports were a way of enhancing the experiences of adolescents. During catechism retreats, for example, we played “African soccer.” This game followed one simple principle: the player who scores a goal switches teams in order to make the two teams equal and the game more interesting. The players understood quickly the joy of playing in a balanced game rather than crushing the other team—which is not really the “other team” any more since everyone could possibly be switched to their side.
In addition, my interest in sports helped me to educate those adolescents about what elite sports are from within, and even how to value “more evangelical” methods of athletic living. During my time in Neuchatel, I invited Roy Hodgson, the coach for Neuchâtel Xamax, the town soccer team (who notably soon after went on to coach Inter Milan, Liverpool, the Swiss national Soccer), to come to a youth group and answer questions. He gave a wonderful teaching to the young athletes, the young believers (and to me I am not ashamed to say) when he explained how, contrary to coaches who “punish” their teams for their defeats by imposing very long workouts or a series of wind sprints, he became much more demanding of the players when they would win games and would relax the pressure when they would lose. “When they win, the players are sure of themselves. They are enthusiastic. They are ready to hear all criticisms, and to put forth every effort. But when they lose, they need to be consoled, and comforted.”
While in Tahiti, I invited Bayard Gobrait, one of the best boxers on the island, to come and speak in front of a class of teenagers about his faith; about how boxing demands a lot of discipline; and how one can be successful and Christian at the same time.
Sports culture also gave me the opportunity to help adults to reflect on connections between sports and God’s ministry on Earth. In Washington, during the Athens Olympics of 2004, I preached about the sports metaphors used by Paul. Later on, I took up those considerations again in order to write two papers on the topic of sport in the weekly French Protestant magazine “Réforme.” One of them ended with the following:
“At the end of his life, Paul takes inventory. He is proud to have accomplished his task. He did what he could, the best way he could. He was not concerned about beating others because he brought about a victory over himself. He rejoices about receiving the crown of righteousness that the Lord will give him. But he is not the only victor. The crown will be for all those who have loved God. It is not about being rewarded for the greatest efforts; it is about sharing the love of God.”
In Montreal, I had the opportunity to teach theology in a context larger than the Faculty of Theology, at a university, within the area of athletes and the media as I presented my research on the religion of the Montreal Canadian.
c) In the Company of Athletes
As a pastor I also had the chance to be in the company of some elite athletes. In Tahiti, I served as chaplain for a canoeing team during the largest race in stages held on the Pacific called the Hawaiki Nui. I “blessed” the canoe despite two theological reservations. First, is it legitimate to bless objects? The Ma’ohi Protestant Church expressly saw such an act as liturgical. Secondly, if the canoe sinks, what would be the worth of that blessing I gave in the name of God? When pondering this, I thought about some of the marriages I had blessed whom themselves “sank” and how I didn’t question the usefulness of such a blessing in those circumstances. The act of blessing the canoe wasn’t a magic formula or talisman that would keep away every problem nor every accident. It expressed a conviction—a conviction that God will accompany the rowers and their canoe (the newlyweds and their marriage also), regardless of whatever could happen to them (you will see a little later that this statement was not an easy one to make).
For a week I shared in the daily life of the crewmembers. I prayed with them before and after each stage. However, the exchanges or the effects were never one way, from the pastor to the athletes, from the religion to the sport. I myself had a touching experience, when the balancing pole of the canoe broke a little before the last stage. The small boat and crew were towed to shore. And there, while I wasn’t sure of what I should or could do (I even had the gall to think that I had no responsibility for the accident, since I had blessed the canoe but not the pole which was fixed later), the wise old coach of the team reminded me of a fundamental principle in theology and in sport: “Just because we had to give up does not mean we should not thank God!” And then, all together—the crew, the coaches, the supporters, and the pastor—we formed a big circle in the water up to our thighs. Holding each other’s hand (imagine a dozen big guys doing this), we began to pray to God…
d) Making my church shine
I will add one final area where I clearly used a sport to increase the radiance of the churches where I worked. In Switzerland, I organized a penalty shoot-out competition between the teens from local soccer clubs on the hand, and on the other, two of the best Swiss players as the time: Joël Corminbœuf and Christophe Bonvin, respectively the goal-keeper and the striker of the Neuchâtel Xamax Team. This match only had as its goal, to have fun, to allow the young people to meet the players that they admired; to try and measure up to them (I do not even remember who won as the outcome was not important); and to increase my church’s notoriety and my own “celebrity,” since I was able to get these players to come.
Also in Switzerland, with a catholic colleague, we invited the Swiss skier Pirmin Zurbriggen the Olympic and multi-time World Champion, to testify about his faith on a Christian broadcast that we produced and aired on a local community radio station. I remember we had to wait an hour for him and his testimony was not much more than confusing small talk. Nevertheless, we were probably the only ones on that radio station to have obtained a long interview with such a star!
In Washington, a friend told me that in town was the “untameable lion” (past member of the Cameroon soccer team) Émile MBouh. I invited him to two events: to speak at a luncheon on the subject of “soccer madness in Cameroon,” at the Francophone Protestant Church of Washington, DC; and to give a free soccer clinic for children during our congregation’s “Bazaar” festival. The presence of this player allowed our church to gain notoriety in the Cameroonian community and to attract children who play soccer and their parents to our annual sale.
And, last but not least, my research in Montreal on the religious dimension of the Montreal Canadians, the local Hockey team, allowed me to increase my own notoriety—along with the influence of the Faculty of Theology and the Sciences of Religions at the University of Montreal—well beyond those communities traditionally interested in Christian theology. One example of this is the fact that in my classes, in my books, in my presentations, I was able to help hockey fans and philosophers to consider biblical texts and to discover Protestant Theology—a feat of which I am quite proud!
Translated in English by Charles Atkins from Bauer, Olivier (2011) Une théologie du Canadien de Montréal. Montréal : Bayard : 155-160.
- Lire ce texte en français: 4 manières d’utiliser le sport dans des activités d’Eglise