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Sports ministry

There were a number of factors involved in my coming to trust in Christ. Key ones would be family, church youth group, and ultimate frisbee.

You may not have heard of ultimate frisbee—it’s a sport. An actual team sport with its own World Championships. I started playing at university, and through it God influenced my life profoundly. It is no overstatement to say that without this sport I would not be a missionary in Japan.

There was a Christian senior frisbee player on the team, and through him I came to see the difference that a true grasp of the gospel makes on a person’s life. I saw how salvation brings peace on the pitch when things get heated. I saw what sanctification looks like in a culture where peer pressure rules. His witness, and that of other sporting Christians, taught me about mission, fellowship, discipleship, and other aspects of the Christian life that had previously been mostly theoretical phrases.

It’s been over fifteen years since I showed up at my first ultimate frisbee training. And whilst I might have now passed my athletic peak, I am as passionate as ever about the power of the gospel to change lives, and the potential of sport to bring the gospel to those who need it, especially Japanese men.

When I tell people about my passion to reach and disciple Japanese men for Christ, I hear the same question: But how do you get to spend time with them? One answer, which I greatly desire Japanese churches to consider more seriously, is play sport.

Ultimate frisbee is a very minor sport, especially within Japan. It’s no stretch to say that ultimate frisbee players make up a minority group within the sporting world. So it’s not surprising that you don’t find many of them within the Japanese church.

But seventy percent of all Japanese people are involved in sport in some way,1 and so it would be odd if sporting folk as a whole were a minority within the church. And yet they are.

And it’s not as though people who play sport are especially hardened to the gospel or difficult to reach. Quite the opposite.

I’ve played on a few frisbee teams in Japan and have always been amazed at how quickly I am accepted as one of the team. For sure it involves an investment of time, energy, and money (and it has forced me to raise my game with language study). But through this little-known sport that involves throwing a plastic disc around a field, I have more conversations about life, faith, God, and Christ—on the sideline, in the onsen, at the nomikai—than through any other ministry I’m involved with in Japan. It’s not for nothing that the unofficial slogan of ultimate frisbee is, “Sport is the best means of communication.”

I play other sports besides frisbee—long-distance running, boxing, and rugby mainly. I have found the same acceptance and openness in all of these groups. The door is open to make disciples of Christ in the sporting community. And with the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the 2019 Rugby World Cup also being held in Japan, these opportunities will surely increase.

Sports ministry in Japan

So why is sports ministry such a neglected sphere in Japan? Why do Christians who love sport comprise a minority within the Japanese church when so many Japanese people are involved in sport in some form or the other? And more importantly, what can we do to change it?

My dream—and I use the word deliberately—is that soon Japanese pastors will respond with as much enthusiasm at finding out that a new church member is a qualified rugby coach or pro-level footballer as they would if that person were a qualified English teacher or concert pianist.

So how can this happen?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Contact-making: Join a sports club (or start your own )

If you live in one of Japan’s major cities, then it’s almost guaranteed that you can find a club to join in whatever sport you used to play, or have always wanted to play. And if you can’t, then meetup.com is a website that allows people to sign up for and attend groups organized by anyone for anything. I’m planning on starting a group for touch rugby once spring starts.

  • Outreach: Organize some low-key sports events

Football, dodgeball, snowboarding, hiking . . . the possibilities for sporting events are close to limitless. And remember, you don’t have to be a professional athlete to run a tournament, you just have to know the basics. If you have contact with a Christian athlete, then you could ask them to give a testimony after the medal ceremony. If not, give a short talk linking sport to the gospel. Maybe, “What does God think about sport?”

  • Discipleship: Buy some running shoes

Sports ministry doesn’t have to mean organizing  a tournament or joining a sports club. It can be as simple as a weekly jog with a church member. And as you run, talk, pray, or simply build trust as you spend time together. There are some people who will be very happy going out for coffee, and that’s a great way to talk about life issues. But there are others who would be more comfortable going for a jog. (And personally I’ve always found running to the side of someone a much less threatening setup than sitting across a table.)

  • Church: Hymns, psalms, and spiritual chants

If churches are going to be places where sporting people feel able to engage, then we may have to adjust our worship styles. For instance, often people who play sport also watch sport. So they are used to the style of involvement that comes with going to sporting events. At baseball games, you will sometimes be presented with a whole sheet of chants for when players enter the field or when a home-run is scored. These are easy to remember and fun to sing along with everyone. I love hymns, and believe with time so will anyone, but some “spiritual chants” could help people ease into sung worship.

If you want to learn more about sports ministry, then Engage and TUV are some networks involved in organizing outreach for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics respectively. You can look at their websites for details about upcoming events and the like. And if you want to think more about sports ministry, or help your pastor to do so, then I’d recommend the recently published book スポーツミニストリー 〜人口70%への新しい挑戦〜 It’s only available in Japanese, but covers topics from why sports ministry is important right through to guides on what kind of sporting events you could run in church settings.

Getting involved in sport does definitely require an investment of time, and probably also money. But I do believe it is an investment well worth making.

1. MIC (the Ministry of Internal affairs and Communication). Accessed Jan 20, 2017. http://www.soumu.go.jp/english/index.html

Levi Booth is a Brit working with OMF. His passion is to see Japanese men reached with the gospel of Christ. He also plays with Frisbees, hangs out in coffee shops, and reads manga.

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