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Sports ministry: Football fishers put up their cages

13 March 2020

In several dioceses, sports initiatives are reaching out to a new generation, discovers Pat Ashworth

Sam Cavender, Diocese of Gloucester

Young people walk through the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, while on a day-long football tournament during the 2018 World Cup

Young people walk through the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, while on a day-long football tournament during the 2018 World Cup

SPORTS ministry to children has taken many forms in the past, from beach cricket at a seaside mission to a game of rounders on a Sunday-school outing. But, with the alarming and continuing decline in the numbers of children attending church — just five per cent have a church connection — it’s becoming a purposeful means of reaching them with the faith.

Team sports, more than any other pursuits, lure children away on Sunday mornings, and churches are making strenuous efforts to retain them and to attract others. Holiday clubs, after-school clubs, weekday services, and special events all help. But a desire has emerged for something long-term and transformational. Sport, in its broadest sense, is recognised as fitting that bill, and big visions are emerging.

The Scripture Union (SU) has always been a leader in the field. Its latest resources include Sweaty Church, said to be particularly attractive to “lively boys”. The SU’s national sports mission leader, Richard Witham, travels the country to work alongside churches and Christian volunteers to spread faith through the language and activity of sport. He believes that these naturally collide.

“It’s very easy to play sport and talk about Jesus,” he says. “Sport creates community, and community then builds relationships through the games we play. That could be a summer’s afternoon where you play some Olympic sport and talk about perseverance to the end.

“Or you might play a netball-style game where the question is, what makes this a pretty unique sport? It’s a game where you can’t move with the ball; so, depending on your cohort and your leader, you can talk about selflessness and how faith makes you selfless.”

Indoor hockey at The Sports Factory’s Legacy Holiday Club during the recent February half-term  

There are numerous models in the triangular approach that is church, school, and communities. “It’s not about saying children and young people need to come to church,” he says — also emphasising that “sport” covers the full range of physical activity, “anything from a kick-about, or a frisbee in the local park, to a fitness session, or some mountain biking.

“It’s asking where are the shared spaces, the opportunities where people can gather without coming on to our turf.”

Mr Witham is also helping to develop the sports strategy in his home diocese of Gloucester, a champion of sports ministry long before its participation in the C of E Sports and Wellbeing initiative, launched last month and involving pilot schemes in seven dioceses.

A partnership between Putting Sport Alongside Local Ministries (PSALMS), the SU, and Gloucester started work in 2016 on developing a models of sports ministry which could be replicated throughout the UK, working with schools, youth clubs, churches, and town councils.

That married nicely with a listening exercise about mission priorities which followed the arrival of the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek. Only one per cent of children and young people in the diocese engage with the Anglican Church, but 44 per cent are engaged in sport. Of 14 areas identified, spreading the gospel to young people through sport came out top among the 6000 responses, and investment in sports programmes to reach young people followed.

They experimented with different programmes that didn’t just engage with young people but shared the evangelised. In schools, this included half-day “Pulse Games” sessions for Key Stage 2 pupils, led by volunteers from 25 churches. In June and July 2018, 1202 pupils in 18 schools took part in it; 84 per cent were keen to attend church events as a result, and every teacher was happy to repeat the sessions.

“Active RE”, which uses sports, games, and physical activity to complement and enhance the primary-school RE curriculum, was also well received. Only two out of the six schools who took part in the 2017-18 trial were C of E schools. It involved 359 pupils, and all the head teachers would recommend it to other schools.

The Sports Factory’s weekend away at Centre Parcs, during which participants shared in various sports and talks about faith  

Out in the community, a Gloucestershire-wide football tournament was played inside the cathedral, a springboard to develop new relationships and invite children not currently connected with any church activity. Speed shooting, cage football, and football darts were associated activities, and the boys’ tournaments were 90 per cent full.

There were community sport sessions, too, and non-residential sports camps run in partnership with churches to build on schools work or complement existing initiatives.

New community models have included Wild and Fit, an all-age, all-ability mass participation workout in the cathedral. New church models include a sports leadership academy for young people aged 11 to 15.


BUT the big-picture vision in the diocese is the OneLife project, headed by the former national SU director the Revd Tim Hastie-Smith, together with the director of sports ministry for PSALMS, Rob French, and Mr Witham.

The project views sport as a platform for new worshipping communities to emerge, and seeks to set up a pioneering network of sport and well-being centres primarily engaging with children and young people, their families, and young adults. They are envisaged as Christian worshipping communities providing a wide range of sport and physical activities for their areas.

One man with an enthusiasm for this is the diocesan secretary, Benjamin Preece Smith, who is the father of four young children. “One of the challenges is to think how we have churches shaped around these young people, and their enthusiasms, and their lives,” he says.

Sam Cavender, Diocese of GloucesterChildren take part in a day-long football tournament in Gloucester Cathedral during the 2018 World Cup  

There is to be significant investment over the next five years in building relationships, and translating that engagement into genuine enquiring communities. The first £250,000 was released last June.

Many unused or closed sporting facilities offer an opportunity, as do new housing developments, which must incorporate sports facilities and will be looking for someone to run them. The C of E is considered well placed to do that. “If you like sport, we think we can engage with you, create local community, and share faith,” Mr Whitham says. “For those who don‘t do much physical activity, we believe that the Church should be in that sphere of helping people to be healthy, and meeting that need.”

In a diocese made up of roughly a half urban and a half rural parishes, a model seeking to effect a whole-diocese transformation must work across the breadth of communities. “Sport generally has that breadth,” Mr Preece Smith says. “I’ve been here 15 years, and a lot of ideas come up for mission. But this is the one that does feel the most genuinely transformational. There’s always the question ‘Will it actually work?’, but, in terms of its scale and ambition, this genuinely feels that it might, which is quite exciting.”

Growing leadership is a crucial element. Mr Witham reflects that the Church is successful in engaging children while they are little, and in their primary schools; “but, once they become teenagers, we don’t think they want to be babysat. We’re saying that sport works, but how do we train and equip them for leadership?”

One solution is Game Changers, which teaches young people what it is to be a leader, to look to Jesus as a leader, and to do it as part of a Christian community.


GLOUCESTER is not, of course, the only diocese using sports ministry to reach children and young people. Birmingham, Blackburn, Guildford, London (Kensington Area), Norwich, and Rochester are also part of the national sports and well-being initiative, in partnership with Christians in Sport, Sports Chaplaincy UK, the Scripture Union, and Ambassadors Football. The Professor of Sports Ministry at Ridley Hall, Professor Andrew Parker, is providing training in sports and well-being ministry for lay and ordained leaders.

Sometimes, it is an inspired individual who makes huge advances in this field. At St Thomas’s, Norwich, Ruth Anderson’s vision of linking church and community through sport resulted in the Sports Factory, which now has a team of seven working from St Thomas’s.

“I had a passion for sport and a passion for Jesus, and these came together when I was 18,” she says. A former basketball player with Youth for Christ, when she moved back home to Norfolk, she expressed her desire to do sports ministry in and through a church in the area.

Sam Cavender, Diocese of GloucesterA Wild and Fit event in the nave in Gloucester Cathedral last year, incorporating holistic exploration of fitness and faith  

With the blessing of St Thomas’s, in 2015 she started doing a few things. “Some were complete failures: I hired a sports hall on a Wednesday evening for a whole term, and just one child came,” she remembers. “But then, on Monday night, I hired a football pitch, and about 20 adults came along. . . Then I did a sports holiday club, and about 20 kids came along. I got the opportunity to tell them about Jesus, and I thought, ‘Wow!’

“And then somebody gave us a football cage, and people would come and play in it. . . Then somebody wanted to come and do an internship. . . Then we got involved with two schools. . . Then we started an academy which trained people to be sports coaches and tell people about Jesus. . . Then the holiday clubs and the schools work grew.”

Money for salaries came in almost miraculously from people who had caught the vision. A successful bid to the Strategic Development Fund has ensured the continuous development of the work.

It embraces everything from netball and holiday clubs to community events, sports-coaching academies, social sports, detached sports outreach, football-cage activities, and work with disengaged young people.

“They all have the same DNA,” Mrs Anderson says, crediting Christians in Sport as “hugely influential” at university. “They taught me how to be a sports player, and to move in a sports culture, but to represent Jesus’s doing it.”

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