Sports ministry: Making the vision a reality
Let’s commit to using sports to make disciples who can make disciples in Japan
One of my favourite Japanese songs is 栄光の架橋 (Eikō no Kakehashi; Bridge to Glory) by Yuzu. It became popular in Japan during the London Olympics. You’ll understand why if you listen to it. It’s the perfect song to go with a montage of sports footage: a dejected and broken-hearted athlete after a disappointing result; an alarm clock showing 5.30 am; slow, painful, but gradual improvement; a stumble and fall; childhood flashback; determined closeup; increased training . . . finally the athlete with tears streaming down their face as they receive the gold medal.
Maybe that’s what you feel like you need after reading about the 10×10 vision (see pages 8-9 in this issue) for sports ministry and the opportunities the Olympics and Paralympics will offer. An inspiring song played over a training montage and your church is transformed from a gathering of weary Christians into a band of determined underdogs, ready to win Japan for Christ.
A crucial mind shift
But this is real life, and we don’t just get an inspirational training montage for the win. In fact, tales of church growth around the world can make us feel frustrated and defensive. So how can we make the 10×10 vision a reality? Indeed, can we even hope for it to become a reality? Ten million Christians? In Japan? Does sports have that potential? I think it does, but we first need a mind shift—a small but crucial one.
Here it is: sports ministry is not just about evangelism, it’s also about discipleship. It’s about using sports to make disciples of Jesus who can make disciples of Jesus.
The harsh reality is that we are almost certainly not going to see nine million Japanese come to faith during the Olympics and Paralympics, no matter how many teams come to Japan, how many tracts we distribute, or how many outreach events we put on. Will those things have an impact for Christ? Absolutely, but it won’t be enough to see the 10×10 vision reached. Nine million is just too many to reach. And when all the overseas outreach teams have left, the buzz of the Olympics has died down, and opportunities for large-scale outreach have gone, what then?
But what if we don’t just focus on using sports to help churches hold outreach events or as opportunities to hand out tracts? What if we encouraged them to turn their regular involvement in sports into a bridge for them to show what it looks like to follow Jesus—through all the trials and triumphs of life? What if we equipped Christians to be able to share the good news with their teammates and training buddies? And what if we trained them to take opportunities to talk about their faith, share their testimonies, and invite their friends to read the Bible with them—in other words, to make disciples? And what if we helped Christians who love sports to have the competence and confidence to then equip those new believers to pass it on?
If we do that, the 10×10 vision would indeed become possible.
And you probably don’t even need to look further than your church to begin! Find the people in your church who love sports and equip and release them to make disciples through sports. Let’s say there’s only one such person in your church and it takes them two years to reach a single teammate with the gospel and train them to do the same: after two years, one becomes two; after four years, four; after six years, 12; after 8 years, 36; after ten years, 108. That’s not just a ten-fold blessing, it’s 100-fold!
Needed: realistic optimists
OK, so how do we do that? By coaching people, by cheering them on, and above all by pointing them to Christ. As the writer of Hebrews puts it: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” He exhorts us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Finally, we are to “consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1–3 NIVUK).
There’s something called the Stockdale paradox. It’s exemplified by British prisoners of war who endured the prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War until they were rescued at the end of the war. Researchers discovered that those who held out to the end were those who were both brutally honest about their current situation and yet hopeful of certain rescue someday. In other words, they were both realists and optimists.
Christians who play sports live in that paradox—especially those in Japan, where they will probably be the only believer on their team. It’s tough to persist in praying for your teammates and to play in a way that honours God. And speaking the gospel in the face of the pressures you face when you are off the field requires strength of character beyond anything that athletics demands.
So we need coaches: people who will be the realists and show us the situation as it is, and keep us disciplined and focussed on playing for and speaking of Jesus. And we need cheerleaders: people who will be optimists and tell us what could be, and keep us from discouragement. And we need Christ: the one who helps us hold both these things together in tension. The one we keep our eyes fixed on as we keep on running the race marked out for us with endurance.
It’s simple, but it won’t be easy. It will cost time, energy, and money, and we will face criticism. There’ll be comforts to forsake and conveniences to give up. This is sports ministry—we’re not playing games here. Making disciples is hard work, and it can’t be done from a safe distance.
To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t also use large-scale events. We’ve got teams coming from all over the world and great quality resources being made. The team at Japan International Sports Partnership (JiSP; www.jisp2024.com) will happily help you to run sports clinics, public viewings, festivals, etc. And if you feel that you need resources or training for discipleship, JiSP will happily help in whatever way we can. That’s why JiSP exists: to equip and encourage Japanese churches in doing sports ministry.
But however big your church is, discipleship through sports is something you can do to prepare for those outreach events and to keep on moving towards the 10×10 vision after them. If you’re into sports, find people to be your coach and cheerleader, and to point you to Christ. If you’re not, then find people who are that you can coach and cheer on. We don’t need to watch an inspiring sports montage; we need to commit to together using sports to make disciples who can make disciples in Japan. And if we do, then the 10×10 vision for Japan can—whisper it with me—will become a reality. And when it does, we can either be reading about it from the comfort of our sofas or we can be part of the crowd storming the pitch with our arms held high and tears streaming across our face as Jesus receives the glory he is due.