‘Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. 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.’ Nelson Mandela
Over recent years Scripture Union (SU) has been trialling, growing and replicating an effective Mission through Sport initiative in England and Wales, in rural, urban and inner-city contexts. SU always work with local churches to connect and share faith with children and young people who are far outside of the churches current reach. At its simplest level this is about providing opportunities for the language of sport and the language of faith to collide naturally. It has been thrilling to see Mission through Sport not only grow through our own movement but also spread to many other international movements across different continents.
We urgently need to get out of our church buildings and join in with our local communities. Then we will be able to offer hope, build meaningful relationships and share God’s good news. Sport helps us to do that.
The secret to success
The secret to the success, which has been built on trials and research going back to 2013, is its simplistic approach. In recent years many churches have retreated back into their buildings but we’re committed to helping churches be a visible part of their local community. We produce training, resources and ‘How to’ guides, and help churches to go into their local parks or multi-use games areas and run weekly sports projects and non-residential sports camps, and sometimes even residential sports camps. These projects are positive, exciting, simple, and safe — and importantly, they happen in the public domain.
There are two other key approaches to Mission through Sport. As well as encouraging working in a community space we also encourage work in schools and churches. In a church context we see some traditional activities ‘sportified’, for example, holiday clubs, youth and children clubs, as well as seeing new approaches to church services being developed. In a school context we are able to build on our strong history of the world of education. There are resources for collective worship, lunch time clubs and cross-curriculum activities where sport and Christian faith is explored. As a result, tens of thousands of children have explored sport and faith in their primary school.
Another key factor has been a partnership with other organisations like Christians in Sport. It has been encouraging to see so many new Mission through Sport projects grow as new approaches to connect with communities are developed. Some are run by volunteers, others by church-based youth and children workers.
The challenge is clear – if we are serious about being missional to children and young people we need to be part of our communities.
There is still much to do. There are, of course, projects to join and new projects to explore but we also really need people who will support this initiative through prayer, talking to their own church, and supporting the work financially, as we seek to invest in more grass-root sports projects and resources.
As well as simple replicable models that can be adapted and changed for different contexts, a final key element to the successes found in this approach is in ‘invitations’. Where churches are able to connect with children, young people and families in their communities, it is vital there is something suitable to which they can be invited next.
The final word should go to a small handful of the people involved in some of these sports projects.
- A young person in a FE college:
The most positive thing I can say is that you really showed me how you can dedicate your life to Christ, yet still be one of the guys and not an unapproachable weirdo.
- In Liverpool:
A lad called ‘B’, who I see in a school lunchtime sports’ club has been struggling with his weight but enjoys coming along and joining in. His mum came to chat to me because ‘B’ has been telling her how much he enjoys it. She wanted to know why we were doing it. We had a great chat about why the church does mission and she is hoping her and ‘B’ will come along to our church soon.
- In north west England:
One church ran a SU Sports’ project in a church, located in a deprived neighbourhood in the centre of Widnes. Two years ago, only a couple of children were regularly attending Sunday services. Then, with the minister’s help, church volunteers launched a table tennis session on a Sunday afternoon, and invited all the children in the neighbourhood to come along. It’s all very informal and casual – there are no leagues or divisions, and no obligation to be there every week. Immediately after the session, there just happens to be a church service, but there is absolutely no pressure for any of the children and young people to attend. They can stay or go home; it’s their choice.
The extraordinary thing is that 90% of them do choose to stay on and attend church. The number of young people and children coming along to church on a Sunday increased tenfold, to around 30 a week, and made up over half of the congregation. Most of them were aged 10-15, the very age group that many churches struggle to attract.
‘M’, aged 11, has been coming along to the sessions since they started. Often ‘M’ would stay on for church. As he got to know the church better, he would ask lots of questions about spiritual things. Eventually ‘M’ invited Jesus to be his Lord. He and his family now attend the church regularly. He brings his mates along to a midweek sports’ club and many of them have started coming to church too.