It is an amusing fact of Australian history that even before we federated, we had a national cricket team. In fact, the historian John Hirst famously remarked that Australians were much more likely to know who Don Bradman was than what was written in their Constitution, the founding charter of the nation.

And with whole public holidays dedicated to sporting events, it’s fair to say that sport runs deep in the Australian psyche, sometimes reflecting attachments that appear quasi-religious. Many sermons have noted how sport is, practically speaking, our national religion. But what is it about sport that we love so much? Can Christians speak meaningfully into this space? And what does sport have to say to us?

Dr Stephen Reid is a senior researcher with both the Christian Research Association and the National Centre for Pastoral Research (an arm of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference). He has been playing sport since he was a kid, everything from cricket to AFL. For the past 35 years, however, he has focussed his energy on athletics and long-distance running. With three children who have played multiple sports over the years, it’s safe to say that sport is in the family.

His interest in sport also led him to write a doctoral thesis exploring sports chaplaincy, looking at what it is and why, paradoxically, in a country in which religious affiliation is on the decline, requests by sporting clubs for chaplains are on the rise.

Sport and spirituality

While he is wary of ‘romanticising’ sport, especially because of the negative aspects that sometimes play out on a professional level, there’s no question in his mind that sport speaks to something deeply human. Sport can act as a kind of ‘mirror’, he says, revealing the kinds of creatures we are through the polarities on display:

It’s mass exhilaration and depression. There’s security and insecurity. There’s pride and humiliation. There’s the bonding and alienation part of it as well.

Sport involves an intensification of all these things, making it a powerful feature of human life.

But sport can also be a ‘spiritual pursuit’. While Dr Reid believes that ‘sport has replaced religion as a spiritual passion’ for many, it does have a legitimate place as ‘part of our spiritual being,’ he says.

‘I think sport can be a deeply spiritual undertaking. It can certainly help us understand more about ourselves as being part of God’s creation and as individuals,’ he says. ‘I’m a distance runner, so I go out for a run, and for me, sometimes, that hour or so I spend running, I’ve really sensed that there’s more of a connection to God.’

It is a concept that calls to mind the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. At one point in the story, Eric Liddell, the athlete born in China to Scottish missionary parents, tells his sister, who disapproves of his running, that he will return one day to China on mission—but not before running some more.

In a famous scene he says, ‘I believe that God made me for a purpose … but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.’

The relationship between religion and sport shouldn’t surprise us though. Dr Reid reminds us that the early Greek Olympics were also deeply religious ceremonies. ‘Even if you think of the modern Olympics,’ he says, ‘the opening and closing ceremonies could be framed within the line of a liturgical event.’

In fact, it was the ancient Greek games that St Paul often drew on to make his point. Take this example from his first letter to the Corinthians:

Do you know that, though all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, only one of them gets the prize? Run like that: to win. Every competitor is self-disciplined in all respects, but they compete in order to win a wreath that will wither, whereas our wreath will never wither. So I do not run without a goal, nor box buffeting the air. I punish my body and make it serve me so that, having been a herald to others, I should not myself be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).

While Christians can quite happily bring their faith into their sport, they can also draw inspiration from sport for their faith—from the sense of struggle, the training and the pursuit of victory, and from the need for resilience, even in the face of potentially crippling failure.

‘We should be training ourselves,’ Dr Reid says, reflecting on St Paul’s writings. ‘We should be training ourselves in a godly life.’

This isn’t the only occasion St Paul drew on sports metaphors either. On several occasions in the New Testament, the language of ‘running the race’ is prominent. Paul used it as a way of inspiring those he was writing to, encouraging them to fix their eyes on the goal and give everything they’ve got for eternal life.

Connecting parishes and sports clubs together

In his research into sports chaplaincy, Dr Reid says that chaplains are an opportunity to be a ‘bridge’ between the parish and the local community, a chance for the parish to be present ‘for the sake of the sporting community’.

‘Sporting clubs are a microcosm of wider society,’ he explains, ‘and go through all the different issues that most other community groups would go through.’ There are certain ‘critical incidents’ that can occur within sporting groups—the ones most often reported in the media typically involve substance abuse or career-ending injury—and these especially highlight the need for chaplains. These are opportunities for clubs to pause, reflect and take stock, and having somebody who can help them through these situations is vital.

Dr Reid’s work alongside Sports Chaplaincy Australia—an organisation responsible for training chaplains and placing them in the clubs—has also convinced him that there is more demand for sports chaplains than there are people currently qualified to step up and meet it. When clubs see chaplaincy working effectively elsewhere, they start wanting the same for their own team, Dr Reid says.

‘To have someone there that’s able to walk alongside people in the clubs, it’s an opportunity,’ he says. ‘It’s an opportunity for people in the churches to put their hand up.’

It’s not just about addressing questions of faith, either. It’s about building relationships and connections, about having a trusted person to talk to. ‘It’s about being Christ within that community.’