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!

8 thoughts on “The Final Word On Sunday Sport

  1. Very thought-provoking there Hamo, and something I have also been pondering for a while. I had the same issues as you growing up, though I did end up playing with East Perth through under 18’s / under 20’s on Sunday afternoons. What my Dad did though to my benefit, is that after every game we went straight to our Church’s evening service which kept me engaged with what was going on at our Church. As a parent to a couple of teenage boys who live and breathe basketball, trying out for the local WABL underage teams on Sundays has been an interesting conversation to say the least, many of which have required me to be firm in my stance about what the priorities for our family are. I wonder what your view about participating in fun runs, Tough Mudders etc many of which are also held on Sundays is?

  2. Hi Brendan – I think a ‘one off’ has different implications to a seasonal event. My sense is that it is less likely to displace/disorient a person from faith than forming a new Sunday rhythm.

    I think this is an issue we need to deal with on a case by case, family by family basis. Some families have a rugged faith and can withstand departures to other seasonal activities. Others may depart and struggle to find their way back.

    In all of this our kids are our responsibility – under our care until they are old enough to choose for themselves – and I will always argue a higher priority on their spiritual development than on their sporting development.

  3. Lucas is struggling with this now. He is committed to coaching a team on Sunday mornings but he misses church and will sometimes ask me if he can come to church instead of coaching. It is hard as a team is depending on him but he depends on God too…..I think you were spot on with everything you wrote. It isn’t always black or white or what is more “important”. Coaching provides Lucas with an avenue to share his faith with these boys by praying before a game and teaching them fairness, kindness and honesty. It isn’t that footy is more important or church isn’t as important. When he feels he needs a “faith top up” he will arrange for someone else to coach and attend service. He also chooses to stay committed to Glow on Fridays instead of training with the team. Thankfully we have a “rugged faith”( love your adjective!) that can and will withstand his spasmodic church attendance during footy season!

  4. I have myself struggled with this since as a child when the Pastor told my confirmation class that the one of the Devil’s own devices was to employ Sunday morning football to take families away from Church!.

    As someone who is involved in the Surf Lifesaving community as well as a Church community I will share my own perspectives of my sport conflicting with 1) Sunday morning church attendance and 2) Sunday as a whole day of rest.

    1: What is the Scriptural precedent? …or Did the early Christians really go to “Church” at 9:00am every Sunday morning?

    The early Christians used to meet in houses (or the Jewish temple) and oftimes on the Saturday Sabbath or early in the morning on the First Day (later known as the Lord’s day) to ‘break-bread’ before they went off to work, to slave, or to go-about other activities. It was not until about the second century until the church service was formalized, and certainly many centuries later it became a mandatory Sunday Church service. This means the way we think about meeting on a Sunday morning is based more on the evolution of our societal norms and community traditions rather than being derived sola-scripture.

    Certainly the way modern Christians have observed the Sunday Sabbath as a 9:00am to 10:30am service, followed by a hand-shake and a cuppa afterwards followed by a “family-only” day is more a ‘good’ traditional development rather than scriptural mandate for Christians.

    2: What is meant by ‘keeping the Sabbath’ and why is it important?

    One of the big releases of freedom from the mosaic law that we have enjoyed as Christians, is the requirement to stringently keep the Sabbath. This is both in terms of it being on the seventh day and of the burdens of the “Do’s and the Don’ts’s” of the minutia of The Old (religious) Law.

    I personally see ‘Sabbath-keeping’ as setting dedicated time aside for rest (and also personal renewal) and in commitment to God.

    I love the way Luther puts it out there in the Small Catechism:

    “Thou shalt sanctify the holy-day… What does this mean? — Answer. We should fear and love God that we may not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it”.

    In a nutshell, I think it is necessary that we should set-apart and keep a regular dedicated rest time with God. Nothing wrong with doing this on a Sunday or for that matter a Sunday night or even a Thursday … but it is the time dedicated to God in the Word is the new (and real) Sabbath rest and that is what matters most.

    (Note: I will add that a friend of ours who worked at a very stressful job with a mining company found the additional commitments of Church on Sunday burdensome had complained that her own Pastor had no idea of the stress that the ‘real people’ in their congregation were under. In addition she resented that the Pastor had two full days off during the week themselves for ‘rest, lunching and playing’).

    3: The Discipline is Good – but the Law stuff is Bad. Very Bad.

    Like with the doctrine of Tithing – where there is nowhere in scripture is this OT requirement mandated, however there is endorsement for a new principle of giving generously and proportionally as God has placed on one’s heart. If some Christians as an individually or collectively want to do this as a 10% proportion and call it a tithe that is fine – as long as it is not taught as mandated by scripture and a requirement of being a Christian – so that one must ‘pay their way’. [OK … I just had to get that one in!  ]

    Similarly, there is also scriptural no mandate for the Christian to religiously attend a traditionally scheduled Sunday morning service or to rest from all labor’s (including baking muffins for school) to the letter of the law … However, there is a good principle to habitually (regularly) dedicate time with God and to meet with other believers. Sunday morning meetings in the past may have been a time of convenience for the greater community – but there is no command for this.

    In terms of Church going there is certainly evidence that believers had a rhythm or habit of meeting on the first day of the week (‘aka The Lord’s Day’) to break bread and hold a collection. The principle of meeting on the first day as a habit is endorsed by St Paul (or rather not avoiding this habit) – there is little detail and prescription about the format, duration and time of day: “…So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching …” Hebrews 10:24-25 MSG

    St Paul also warns the Galatians (and takes a similar stance in Colossians) not to risk losing their hard-won freedom by getting all legalistic and judgmental of those who do not keep the specific events, times and days as they hold important: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Colossians 2: 16-17.

    [I might add that, many Church Leaders are fearful to let go of the ‘Doctrine of Tithing’ and similarly some are nervous to let go of compulsory Sunday morning church attendance for fear of what the impact may be on Church finances and attendance. But, would it not be better to have fewer people coming and fewer dollars given as those attendees and those dollars given are by those who want to come along and those who want to give – rather than people who are compelled to give and to come to Church? I also think it is the theological integrity that God will honor (‘he who honors me I will honor’)].

    4: It’s all really a matter of conscience…

    As said above, St Paul warns the Galatians not to risk losing their freedom by getting all legalistic and judgmental of those who do not keep the specific events, times and days as they hold important.

    He also underscores this when he tells us it is all a matter of conviction and not to judge about the if’s, how’s and when’s others keep the Sabbath:

    “Rom 14: 5 “…Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience. 6-9 What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake…”

    5: Sabbath Rest – More than Going To Church … Time to Sharpen the Saw

    Jesus summed up that that ultimate obedience means keeping the most important commandments: Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’ 38-39 This is the first and greatest commandment. The second most important is similar: ‘Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.’40 All the other commandments and all the demands of the prophets stem from these two laws and are fulfilled if you obey them. Keep only these and you will find that you are obeying all the others.”

    How can you love God ‘wholly’ if you are not adequately fit in all of the dimensions of your life?. Surely, the Sabbath keeping (rest) principle also means much more that resting from our working labors and going to Church?. Stephen Covey (I am aware he is a Mormon) rightly pointed out there is a need to Sharpen the Saw through renewal across all dimensions of our life – Spiritual, Mental/Emotional, Relational and the Physical.

    I have found that I have been in the worst physical shape, mental/emotional (depressed) shape when I have been working long hours and more heavily involved as a Church volunteer. Unfortunately, in an age of sedentary lifestyles – it has been said that more “Christians are looking more like “little Buddha’s” than “little Christ’s” . It was upping my own involvement in surf-lifesaving and getting physically active that in many ways ‘rescued’ from this downward spiral.

    The world also has greater respect who look like they have the self-discipline to look after themselves through the discipline of keeping physically fit. This brings increased credibility of Christians without-siders. Often it is better to do this through competitive sporting activities that you love “…an hour on a basketball court (i.e. engaging in a sport you enjoy) feels like 15 minutes … while an hour on the treadmill feels like an hour in traffic school!”.

    Unfortunately Basketball / Football / SurfClub training conflicts with Sunday morning 9:00am Services – but

    Possibly spiritual renewal can also be found relating to God doing wholesome recreational stuff – I often feel as close to God when I am scuba diving or surfing as I do on a Church pew.

    6: Community Matters … and Communities Matter!

    I think it was Steve Biddulph that said that Youth who have more reference groups are less likely to have mental issues or commit suicide. Obviously this is because the kids that have friends in school, and sporting group, and church and family can move between groups for support when their world falls apart within one reference group. It is the same with adults too. When Church life fell apart for me a number of years ago (due to a significant breach of trust by Church Leaders) it was involvement in surf club that was a large part of my community sustenance until I was ready to reengage with a Church community.

    Whilst I do not see myself actively ‘proselytizing’ at surf club, I am a Christian planted there and it is an opportunity to express my faith through community service and making lasting friendships.

    In Conclusion

    I find it important to be part of multiple positive communities. Part of my discipleship is physical training at Surf Club; part of my worship is meaningful service patrolling on the beach during the summer months. Part of my outreach is being planted in communities that extend beyond Church. In terms of ‘recharging’ spiritually, it is important to regularly spend time with God (at some point during the week) and to engage (gather with other believers) on a regular (weekly) basis. I put this into action by giving a priority commitment to getting myself and my family to a Church regularly. I am fortunate enough to have found a theologically sound Church community that my kids love attending and meets on a Sunday evening – and this allows me to be involved in my beloved surf club on a Sunday morning with no issue of conscience.

  5. Your welcome … did not have time time write a short response. 🙂

    BTW – if you saw the size of the surf yesterday morning – I was wishing I was sitting comfortably in Church rather than doing the Club swim! . 🙂

  6. Great post hamo. Brings back good memories of Chariots. Isn’t it amazing how movies can be used of God to speak to us? I agree that it’s important to have these conversations with families. I had a conversation with a dad recently whose kids are into sport on Sunday’s (not every Sunday). While I didn’t discuss their decision to attend church irregularly, I was able to express the desire to stay connected with him (them). I think there is room to take community to families who are not as involved in the church community as we would like. Last thing we want to do is ostracize and condemn. Love, understanding and the work of God can go a long way.

  7. Interesting things here, both Hamo and Lionfish.

    I’m facing the ‘challenge’ of being in a church stream that’s changing from a conventional house-church format (Sunday worship & teaching, midweek housegroup for pastoral care & relationships) to one that has missional communities at the core. This seems a chaotic system, with irregular rhythm that sometimes skips Sunday get-togethers, lack of teaching & discipleship and lacks a cohesive sense of family and unity.

    My personal concern is that I’m just getting older and want to hang on to my particular set of traditions, rather than adapting the the latest version of church. Your posts have both given me things to consider in how we work out our meetings together.

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