"I love the sense of satisfaction that I get when I’ve done a swimming workout or race, and know that I gave my whole being and heart to God in every moment of the swim. It’s the best worship I can offer him."
No one can seriously doubt the importance of sport in the modern world. Physical fitness - jogging, going to the gym, aerobics etc - is a modern phenomenon. While for some this can become an unheathly obsession, the health benefits are undeniable.
With the benefit of satellite television, the football World Cup final is viewed by almost half the world's population. Sports stars are icons of the nation, instantly recognized, paid millions and used to sell anything from razors to racing cars, breakfast cereals to window frames. Top sportspeople can become millionaires with their first professional contract. Questions can rightly be asked about fair distribution of wealth and the relative value that society attaches to playing professional football as opposed to, say, being a nurse. However the same issues apply - arguably even more - so to the fat cats of industry whose salaries, benefits and severance packages raise as many questions
Sport is more easily understood than defined. Sport is a hobby, a recreation. Sport is also a job. It is big business It has psychological, physical and recreational value. It can socialise us and discipline us. The modern world has seen the emergence of the sports spectator, whose sporting involvement is inactive and vicarious and the growth and development of marathon running by literally tens of thousands of ordinary people.
The definition used by Council of Europe is, "Sport means all forms of physical activity, which, through casual or organised participation, aim at expressing or improving physical fitness and mental well-being, forming social relationships or obtaining results in competition at all levels". According to the European Sports Conference Charter, sport is "an inalienable right of every person".
A few years ago the Sports Council [now called Sport England] divided sport in four categories: Competitive sport, Physical recreation, Aesthetic activities and Conditioning activities. They further stated: "Sport is its own justification. It is a vital element in our national culture. It contributes to greater fitness, better health and a sense of personal well-being". [The Case for Sport,]
There are a number of references to sport in the New Testament, mainly in Paul's letters. These reflect his readers' familiarity with the ancient Games but do not really help us much towards a Biblical understanding of sport. They are no more a Biblical justification for sport than Paul's references to slavery are a defence of that practice. See for example 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Galatians 2:2, 5:7, Philippians 2:16, 3:13,14 , 1 Timothy 4:8, 2 Timothy 2:5, 4:7, Hebrews 12:1,2.
While Paul saw clear parallels between Christianity and sport, and felt that Christians could take lessons for Christian living from the experience of the athletes of the day, nothing he says provides anything like a theology of sport. The process of establishing such a theology must, therefore, be to take scriptural concepts and principles and apply them to sport.
The starting point is Genesis 1,which reveals God as the only creator of all things. From the universe, sun, moon, and stars, down to the smallest creature - all have their origin in Christ. God is majestically in charge of the whole world. Everything that exists is created by God and is, in itself, good. That must include sport, our ability to play sport and our enjoyment of it.
However we live in a fallen and sinful world. All God's creation has been spoilt by human selfishness and sin and this applies to sport no less - but also no more than to any other aspect God's creation. However, as Christians we believe in redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That too must apply to sport as to the rest of human activity.
Grasping this truth about God as creator and redeemer must also affect our attitude to him. If he is the creator of all things, we have an inescapable obligation to worship him in all things and at all times.
This thought is well expressed in the words attributed to Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic gold medallist in the film Chariots of Fire, "God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast and when I run, I feel his pleasure."
There seem no reason why a piece of sporting skill should not bring pleasure to God, pleasure in something that he has created. Sporting ability is as much a gift from God as other creative abilities like singing, painting and writing and can, by his Spirit, be redeemed in order to be used in worshipping Him. Equally all are capable of being used selfishly and for our own glory.
The last 20 years has seen the development of sports ministry, a strategic for Christian ministry to the world of sport and through sport to the wider world. There is now sensitive and appropriate Christian ministry at almost every major sports event. Local churches are seeing the world of sport as an important part of their mission field as in many towns a sports club, rather than a church, is the focal part of the community.
What the book says about sport Stuart Weir, BRF,2000
Muscular Christianity, Tony Ladd and James Mathisen, Baker Books 1999
Sport and Religion, Shirl J. Hoffman, Editor, Human Kinetics Books 1992,
Sport, the Opiate of the People Peter Ballantine, Grove Ethical Study No 70, 1988 (Booklet)
Sports outreach, Principles and practice for successful sports ministry, Steve Connor, Christian Focus Publications, 2003
Born to play, G Daniels and JS Weir, Bicester 2004
Contemporary Christian Ethic of Competition, Greg Linville, (available from Overwhelming Victory Ministries, Canton, Ohio)
This article, written with Graham Daniels, has been published in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 2006 and is reproduced by permission of Inter-Varsity Press