The Final Word On Sunday Sport














I remember back in 1981 I entered a high school basketball skills competition and after getting thru the school round and the district level went on to the WA final where I came second to a bloke named Eric Watterson. I didn’t know who he was because I didn’t mix in elite basketball circles, but he later went on to play for the Perth Wildcats for many years. As a result of the second placing I was offered the opportunity to train and play with a local district basketball team who were coached by Henry Daigle, an American who had come to Perth specifically to develop talent. He also coached the Perth Wildcats and was the leading coach in Perth at the time.

I was pretty ecstatic as in 1981 basketball was my great passion and this was going to be my pathway to greatness. Then I discovered that the team trained on a Sunday morning and the decision to participate entered a whole new realm of complexity. The 80’s was an era where you could skip church to play sport, but it would still have been frowned upon. I wasn’t that worried about the negative response I may have received – I just wanted to make the right decision. And as a young Christian it was a challenging one.

I didn’t have the cultural savvy and theological awareness to work thru the issue so it felt like I was stuck with choosing to conform or rebel. Not a great set of options for a 17 year old really…

It was easy to choose conformity, but everything in me raged against it. This was a genuine opportunity to move into a whole new sphere of competition and this was ‘my moment’. I tussled with the decision, but don’t remember talking with anyone about it. I’m not sure if I had people in my life who would have enabled me to really think about it rather than just giving me the party line.

Then one Saturday evening while in the throes of my decision I went to the movies and watched Chariots of Fire, a movie I knew little about, but that left a mark like no other. For a kid trying to make a decision about what to do with Sunday sport it was like God had jumped into my world and given me a hero to champion the cause of faithfulness and self denial in the face of great temptation. When Liddell made his decision not to run in the heats of the 100m at the Paris Olympics just because they were on a Sunday I felt my question had been answered directly.

That night the decision was made not to accept the offer to join the Perry Lakes Hawks team (or whoever they were then) and to simply keep on playing church league basketball and going to church on Sunday. I remember feeling both peace and disappointment at the outcome. The boat I wanted to be on had sailed and I wasn’t on it… and I never would be. But I had put a stake in the ground in relation to faith and that was significant.

It was the right decision. But it was my decision made in that context at that point in my life. It was one of the first critical ‘discipleship’ calls I had to make as my faith matured and I still believe it was the right call.

That said I don’t know if I’d make the same call today, or if I’d insist on it for my kids. The line in the movie that carried great weight at that time was ‘He who honours me I will honour’, a verse from 1 Samuel that spoke to Liddell’s conscience decision to withdraw from the 100m. However in recent years as I have watched the movie the line that has impacted me is from the conversation between Liddell and his sister Jenny who is trying to convince him to give up running and become a missionary in China. In that encounter we hear him say:

“Jenny, God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure.”

(I have written more about that in this post.)

If you know Liddell’s story then you’d be aware that he ran for a time, used his running as a platform for the gospel and then went on to be a missionary in China. He kept his bearings in Christ and managed to navigate the challenge of success, achievement and faith.


In our 21st C church context where many are facing the challenge of how to raise kids in an increasingly secular culture the question of Sunday sport is more complicated than it may once have been. We recently had lunch with some good friends who are in the throes of trying to work this one out and the questions being grappled with are complex. There is no ‘correct’ ‘one size fits all’ solution to the question.

Perhaps it is as simple as stating that the gathering of the church community always takes precedence over whatever personal enjoyment I want to have? (Did your heckles go up as you read that statement? If so why?…)

And some parents will make that call. Some will make it and their kids may learn to hate church because it is then seen as the obstacle to their sporting enjoyment. We genuinely don’t want that as an outcome because that bad taste can linger for a long time.

But to ‘compromise’ and allow for no church in footy season or no church when surf club is on, does that communicate a message about priorities? I framed that as a question, but it should have been a statement. I think it does. Kids tend to think in black and white and the nuances of this post may be lost on them. It could simply say to them that ‘we value surf club more than church’ (and that may be true…) and that message will be embedded over a number of years too into the child’s psyche. So when they are adults the church community will be a choice they make if there is nothing else on.

With our friends we discussed briefly the idea of having an afternoon gathering to accomodate those with kids’ sport on Sunday morning, but it was quickly dismissed as ‘please don’t organise the church around us’. True. It would be doing that… Perhaps if it was all pervasive we may consider this, as I know of at least one church in Perth who have consciously made this choice. But that then makes Sunday a very busy day for everyone with sport in the morning and church in the afternoon… farewell to any rest that may have been possible. And how many would actually turn up?

I know some folks will let their child play sport on a Sunday morning so long as they attend a church service somewhere later in the day, but I think that is missing the point again. I don’t want my kids to lob in with someone other than their own church community just to tick a box. Church then becomes a religious observance rather than the gathering of God’s people.

Perhaps one of the emerging issues in this current context is that of ‘child worship’, where the needs and wants of our children are placed front and central to our lives. This is also known as idolatry – but its acceptable idolatry and for that reason becomes a blind spot for many. As a result some parents become unwilling to say ‘no’ to a child’s wants and this then becomes the shaping motif for the family’s life.

Some may argue that Sunday sport is a mission opportunity… and maybe it is… but I honestly haven’t come across too many who have taken this approach. My hunch is that rationale gets used to defend a sometimes awkward decision. I’d rather people just articulate the challenge of the situation than hide behind a convenient excuse.

So what is my answer?…

Is it ‘he who honours me I will honour’ or ‘when I run I feel his pleasure’? If it were simple then you wouldn’t have read this far.

Currently I don’t have kids wanting to play Sunday sport, but if I did I think it would involve a lot of conversations around the place of the Christian community in our lives as well as helping them work thru processes of discernment to listen to God themselves, however my kids are teenagers and fairly capable of reasonable thought. I imagine that while there was an open and frequent conversation around the challenges of discipleship in this culture I would be willing to negotiate on the outcome. I will always lean heavily in the direction of choosing Christian community (note: not the Sunday event) over and above other pursuits, partly as a theological conviction but also because it has been part of my heritage and shaping, so I see the world that way.

If your kids are small and not at a point where they should be given decision making responsibility then it comes back to you and what you want to communicate to them. On one hand the church as a ‘binding restricting force’ may leave a negative mark while on the other a simple ‘surf club is more important than church’ statement will leave a different mark.

I’d love to hear the reflections and thinking of those who are also grappling with this question because I don’t think it is one that presents with easy answers, so if you are willing to offer your thoughts and insights then please do so in the comments. As a parent my greatest hope is that my kids will own their faith and live lives of strong discipleship and my concern is to provide the soil into which their roots can go down deep and I’m sure that is yours too so perhaps the thoughts of others on the same journey may help you – or your thoughts may help them.

And no – its not ‘the final word’ as the title suggests, but it does make for a more provocative lead in!

Formed to Forming

So 52 years on I’m still in church.  That’s an achievement in itself given all that’s gone down… But more than that, Christian leadership has become a primary focal point of my life.

If you’d told me as a child, while I was counting boards in the roof of the church during sermons, that I’d be a pastor for over half of my life I would have laughed. But life has a way of sneaking up on you and catching you off guard.

This series came out of catching a glimpse of a pastor who took me back to childhood. He had babysat me once when he was dating the pastor’s daughter in our church. I didn’t know him and I doubt he would recognise me in the street. But one face led me to remember another and another and another… and so on.

And I guess that’s the heart of what I’ve observed.


Some faces have encouraged and inspired me. Others have bred a caution in me and a wariness. I’d like to think that generally I think the best of everyone until proved wrong, but some people push buttons way quicker than others. Some folks drag up memories of other people who were manipulative or abusive and I instinctively hold them at arms length. Some folks exude a natural authenticity that I warm to and that immediately connects us. I’ve become pretty good at reading people, but occasionally I get surprised.

But its more than faces – its structures too. Structures form us and give shape to our identity and beliefs. Those early days of church in formal structures formed some more rigid theology in me and some rigid attitudes. I imagine rigid structures still produce rigid people.

I think my connection with ‘lower’ church forms has been an intentional reaction to the churches that formed me early. They taught me facts, but often left me cold. I imagine lower church forms (less formal, more relaxed etc) will facilitate warmth, but the embedding of ideas and information is much harder in a looser system. I am willing to accept with the trade off, but I’d still like to see some better theological reflection and understanding of scripture in my more recent expressions of church.

I could write a list of people who have given shape to my own identity today, but I’d forget some of them… and some of them shouldn’t be in print because the experiences of them were negative.

One of the major shifts in the last 15 year of life particularly, has been the transition from church forming me to me now ‘forming it’ more consciously and thoughtfully. In the early years of pastoring I was still ‘falling in line’ and playing the game. But those days are long gone. I’m sure some of what happens in me is still a instinctive response to a past experience, but I’d like to think there is a bit more intentional leadership and a better thought out understanding of what church is and what its purpose is.

And in that is the hope that those who are part of communities I am involved with leading will not see their church experience as a time of dread and boredom, but may even be encouraged to see life in the church as inspiring and life giving. Well, that’d be nice…




End of the Road


With Upstream winding up I was looking for something to do. I had begun my retic business, but I knew that running a business wasn’t my primary calling in life. I had been doing some preaching at Quinns to help them out while they sought out a pastor, and that is always easy. You can run thru your ‘greatest hits’ from the previous 10 years and give the appearance of being a much better communicator than you really are. You also get to go home after the service and think nothing more about the church community. Its easy and enjoyable at one level, but equally unrewarding at another level, because you only involve yourself in one small aspect of the community life.

When we agreed to join the church for a trial run we had no idea there were a couple of factions set on a collision course. I don’t think the people in the church even saw it that way, but the ideas we came with and the fairly direct approach with which we offered them certainly unearthed those issues very quickly. There was a very conservative, almost fundamentalist contingent and a more relaxed and earthy contingent. I didn’t come in gently because I wanted to leave no question as to who we were and what we were about and within a month we had stirred up a hornet’s nest.

The church had polarised and we were the catalyst for that. The next few months were painful and difficult as we worked in an increasingly untenable environment. We had people supporting us, but this rift was exactly what we were worried about when we indicated we weren’t a good fit. Things were unravelling fast and tempers frayed often.

Again this isn’t the time and the place to revisit the ugliness of that period. The short version was that we left for our lap of Oz in April with people due to vote on our appointment around July. One afternoon while walking the Strand in Townsville we got a call to say that the church vote had gone against us and we weren’t going to be re-appointed to Quinns leadership. While the support was about 50/50 there were enough voting members for us to be out the door. This event co-incided with news of a big financial hit that we hadn’t seen coming. So now we were a quarter of a million bucks down and out of work. We pondered whether to head home or keep travelling. We kept travelling and that was a good decision because it would have been another blow to have to cut our trip short.

While we travelled, the church had some further conflict that saw those who voted us out leaving, and then we had a phone call saying we could return. We really didn’t want to. We didn’t want to say that either, but we just didn’t like the tone of the whole situation and we were reluctant to re-enter a place we had been so badly treated, even if those who disliked us had gone.

But we couldn’t escape the sense that God was saying that he wanted us to do it. We also felt a sense of allegiance to those who had stuck their neck out for us. So whether it was a ‘god thing’ or a ‘duty’ thing, I don’t know for sure. But in the absence of anything else to do, we just went with it.

That was how things started and they got worse from there for a while, with more strained relationships, declining numbers and morale bottoming out.

It can only get better from there hey?…

The focus of these posts is the way in which the communities I have been part of have helping shape who I am today.

Quinns didn’t begin well and the way in which I was formed initially was into a guy with his guard up everywhere he went. I had a couple of good relationships, a whole bunch that were ambivalent and some that were still vehement and hostile. It was hard to relax. I didn’t lose confidence in who I was or what I was about, but I began to lose interest in simply being bothered. Within a year I would have happily left – even with nothing to go to, except that I would have abandoned a few others who had worked with us to try and restore health. So we stayed – that sense of duty, mixed with divine calling, but never really able to discern which was which. But I know for a period there I entered relationships cautiously – guardedly and of course that didn’t work well.

Simply enduring the struggle and absorbing the pain was in itself a formative experience. I had seen other people suffering in churches and I’d been part of churches where dumb stuff had taken place, but now I was leading one and on the receiving end of that stuff. I hadn’t been here before so I needed to learn how to process all of it.

Again hindsight is a wonderful teacher and I would have to say that my direct and at times intentionally provocative approach to leadership was a factor in my own struggle. I didn’t want to be misheard – to be seen as returning to a typical pastoral role – but in being blunt I also came across as somewhat arrogant and uncaring. In those days I don’t remember really getting to know people. I remember trying to both lead and survive at the same time and building friendships (we did have some good ones) was a bonus.

One of the reasons a good friend gave for staying at Quinns as a church was that he saw it as a ‘fixer upper’ and somewhere he could make a contribution rather than warming the pew of a larger church. He was right. We were a fixer -upper but I had never perceived myself as a renovator. I liked to start things – not fix them.

It was time to learn some more new stuff.

After a rocky start we prayed hard and some new faces joined our community – healthy, positive energetic people who came to build up and help us ‘renovate’. In time the culture began to change, I began to drop my guard and warmth began to spread rather than caution.

As much as I had been in the team leader role at Lesmurdie for a period and also at Upstream, this was a different situation. I didn’t have a ‘Garth’ who’d been around a while to help me figure out the situation and this wasn’t a bunch of long term friends like Upstream. It was a new environment and one that had begun badly.

As I write this tonight I can’t imagine any church I would rather be part of now other than QBC. I love who we are and I can’t think of where I’d fit if I ever left. I’m sure it wouldn’t be that hard, but I could actually see myself staying here until I hang up the paid ministry boots. I guess the question is how did it get to this from where it was?

Initially when we came back to QBC it was with the hope of moving the church in a very focused and creative, missional direction. In the midst of conflict and tension the ideas that accompanied that began to sound unnecessarily disruptive and misunderstood so we ended up shelving big dreams and instead sought to just survive.

That was disappointing, but I’d run out of energy and couldn’t be bothered any more. That’s not a good place to be, but I gave myself permission to just coast for a bit.

Slowly we gathered good friends and began to see a community form. It was a new community within an old one, but it was feeling healthy. We began to invest our energy here and it was rewarding.

One thing that happened in this time – and how QBC shaped me – was that I became better at being  a ‘pastor’ – an actual pastoral kind of person. That was what was needed in that time and I began to pastor more and lead less. (Yes I do see them as different skills and gifts).

As things began to get healthy again I moved back into leading and giving direction, but from a place of seeking communal discernment rather than the ‘visionary leader’ approach. In the last few years one of my most valuable learnings has been around the importance of the community in the kingdom of God and the way we have individualised faith so much in the western world. In QBC I gave myself to intentionally trying to figure out what a more substantial communal expression of church looks like. That doesn’t come naturally to any of us, but I sense we have made progress.

Being a part timer hasn’t always been intentional, but at QBC it has always been my preferred mode of operation. In the past it may have been a concession to a lack of funds, but this time it was a way of keeping myself earthed in everyday life, of allowing us freedom to employ a diverse staff and also a way of making sure that as a church we are never backed into a corner by rich people and their $$. The part time experience has been one of the most valuable learnings of the last 7 years and I reckon many more pastors should give it a go. It not only frees your church to have a range of staff rather than one paid guy, but it also gives you another string to your bow if all goes belly up. I know too many people who have no other options and that is a horrible place to be when church life is up the creek.

Having to work within the part time constraints also forces you to focus on the main tasks – the core things you need to do that no one else can do. I lead, teach, meet with blokes and do some admin. That’s pretty much it, but all those things are things I can do well and that add to who we are.

Then there’s what I call the ‘dad’ factor. Around the church I feel a bit like ‘dad’… and maybe its a reflection of how I have led for the most part. Dads care for their families, make decisions based on what’s best for them and they miss them when they have to go away. A family also notices when dad isn’t around… Beds don’t get made, dishes don’t get done quite as well… everyone is a little less at ease until dad comes home. I’ve  noticed that when we have travelled people have always expressed that it feels ‘safer’ when we are around and I guess that’s a part of the dad factor. I wouldn’t want to overstate that, but I sense it as a very real thing.

In all of that is a very settled sense of personal identity that allows me just to be myself these days and without the need to impress or wow. It means that if I have 8 hrs for a sermon and it isn’t ‘polished’ then I go with the raw version and hope it does the job. I know people love us and they would rather hear from our hearts than have slick, carefully crafted stories that have taken days to create.

How has QBC formed me? In a nutshell I feel like its given me a very diverse range of experiences, from the ugly and abhorrent to the rich and inspiring that have allowed me to learn to lead in a range of situations. If the time comes one day to move churches again then I know I will go with a sense of confidence in who God has made me to be and a settled knowledge of what I have to offer.

Perhaps this will be the last stop on the way to ‘retirement’ (whatever that word means) and we will enjoy the next 13 years with these people. Then again, I never predict the future any more because I am infamously bad at it.

I’m going to wrap this up later in the week with some final broader reflections on this idea of how communities form us and why they matter.