Sporting Clubs and the Church: A Comparision In Initiation

Reflection 13-3-16

I am always amazed by the sophistication of sporting associations and their capacity to form and shape their players.
(See this article here They put new players through a formation regime that would show up the best order of monks, let alone the Church in general.

First of all, I ask myself, how can it be that these clubs can carry through on such rigorous formation programmes of young players?

The first ‘hold’ on young players is their own drive and desire for whatever it is that the promise of sporting success offers. There is the immediate endorphin rush of physical activity, there is the added endorphin rush of this activity being conducted as part of a team. There is the promise of socially recognised glory. (Even though more people go to Church on Sunday than to sporting events, the ‘glory’ of going to Church does not capture as much media attention or adulation). There is the prospect of making a lot of money. There is the joy of serving a bigger reality “The Tradition of the Club” These are powerful ‘draw-cards’ for a young man or woman.

Yet being a Christian has all these qualities, except for the money and public adulation. Some Churches do promise that you will get rich by going there, but not many. The Archbishop of Canterbury has begun a programme of inviting young people into a quasi monastic life at Lambeth palace for a year or so. I think that this is a good start.  I think that if we offered a demanding spiritual practice of our members (as do the Buddhists and some others) we might be in a better place to say ‘Who would true valour see, let them come hither.’

But the other thing is that sports people are asked to perform. Whether or not they are selected for the team depends upon their performance. But I do not think that this is a version of ‘salvation by works’ that ought to be rejected by the Church. Sporting teams employ lots of sports psychologists who help sports people be ‘in the zone’ or in the right place in their minds, as they perform. They say ‘Sporting performance comes from the inside out. If you want to perform well, you have to be relaxed, you have to be confident in your ability. You have to forget about the ‘results’ as such, and enjoy the process of playing the game. Then you will play at your best’.

This is what the Church says too. We say “It is not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out. Christian life is lived from the inside out. It is where you are up to with God that drives your behaviour.” We say “If you are driven by the Spirit, then live by the Spirit.” So Church and sporting clubs share the idea that performance comes from the inside out . Where I think that Churches fall down is that we mostly ask people just to ‘show up’. The ‘performance’ of Christianity is not often an issue among congregation members, even if the church’s hypocrisy is a source of criticism from those who do not come.

So with ‘performance’ of the sport being the goal, clubs go about the business of forming their players. Here is the beginning of the process. One coach, reporting on the process says that he “sits them down and fires off the questions: How long have you played footy? How long have you trained for it? Did you play any other sports? How about your parents? What sort of injuries have you had. “They’re general questions that probably sound like conversation. But it’s all part of the screening process and once you’ve been able to eyeball the guy, you can go out and actually get a look at him,” the coach said.

Any formation process begins by looking at and acknowledging  where a person has come from.

But then the unpicking of the old player begins. Here is the coach’s comments on the need to reform bad habits. “It’s a time when you learn technique,” the coach said. “That’s running technique, or kicking technique, or diet, or being in the gym doing your weights. The sooner you get the right patterns ingrained in them, the better their long-term future will be. You get them in, and you re-program them.”

Being a Christian is like that too. Instead of just being ‘some members of society who turn up to Church’, living the baptismal life is about learning to unpick ‘un-Christlike ways’ and learning ways that are ‘of Christ.’ Again, I do not think we do very well at this as a community.

But what happens when we fail, which we often do? This is a problem for many Christian communities. Sometimes people who fail in the eyes of their community are then asked to leave the community. This is then simply: “We cannot tolerate behaviour X, so you must go.”

But looking at sporting clubs, I think that we can learn something from them here too. I have seen many a story in the news paper where a footballer who is mostly in trouble for drugs is ‘owned’ by the club, and supported in their return to playing. The Rugby League in Australia employed a consultant to work with footballers on their attitudes to women. Football clubs have at least the intention and the programmes for holding offenders, and reconciling them to the club again.

The Church used to do this. Just look at the ideas of Lent, and the fact that repentant sinners were re-admitted to communion at Easter, after a period of ‘re-setting the clock’ during Lent.  But the Church, by losing its capacity to form people in the ways of Christ, has lost its capacity to hold and re-form those whose ‘performance of the faith’ does not resemble Christ in some way.

But we do have within our earthen vessels all the processes of reconciliation and healing that are needed.  At an individual level confession is a good beginning. At a corporate level, the general confession, followed by the ‘peace’ is the ritual means of doing the reconciling that can go on at the level of human relations. “Love” does not mean “never having to say sorry.” Love means always having to say sorry.   “Sorry” ought to be the most often heard word in the Church.

But then sporting clubs with ‘supplements programmes’ or through over working their players, end up abusing the people who dedicate themselves to the enterprise. This the Church does as well. The worship of money and fame that leads to abuse in sport is the same kind of worship of other gods, other than Christ, that leads to the Church being a haven for abuse. We are all in need of the reconciling forgiveness and transforming power of Christ.

Because both sporting clubs and Churches are involved in producing an ‘alternative body’ of people. We share many of the same processes. I think sometimes that we could learn a bit from the sports players.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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