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A year without sport

The 1st of January was one of the greatest days of my life. I’ve never been a massive fan of New Year – in fact most years I am to Hogmanay what Scrooge is to Christmas – I go to bed early and try to sleep through the gunpowder explosions going off outside my bedroom window. 2016 was different because, for me, 2015 was different. 2015 was a year without sport.

Towards the end of 2014 I was reading some AW Tozer and some lines hit me in the face like a football from that lad at youth group who loves to try and take people’s heads off by booting one at you (Praise Jesus if you haven’t experienced this). The lines said, ‘it will require a determined heart and more than a little courage to wrench ourselves loose from the grip of our times.’ In that moment I knew that the thing that ‘gripped’ me was sport. Being an all-or-nothing type I decided a yearlong fast was what God was calling me to do.

And it was horrible. The most barren of deserts. No playing, watching, checking or reading about sport. My relationship with Football Manager, Sky Sports, 5Live, BBC Sport App, FIFA, Test Match Special and the Aston Villa Ticket Office was, like Ross and Rachel, on a break. But it was the right thing to do and I made it through the wilderness. And here’s what I learned about youth ministry through the experience.

You don’t need to be cool to connect

In the last few years I have entered that stage in my relationship with young people where I have less in common with them than more. A decade ago I listened to Radio 1 and could ask 14 year olds if they liked the latest Gnarls Barkley tune. Those days (much like the days of Gnarls Barkley) are gone. But where I was lacking in pop culture, I could rely on sport as conversation. In 2015 I could not. What I have learned is you don’t have to look like a teenager, use the ‘chat’ that is ‘on trend’ nor turn up on a skateboard snapchatting on your iPhone 9. You just need to be interested in them and ask them questions.

It’s easy to exclude

I am not for a minute suggesting I am always in the ‘in crowd’. I realise that I am often outside the circle of fun, but I am aware that conversation can so often be focussed on topics which some in the crowd have no interest in. There were many moments last year where I felt like the social sporting leper, unclean by self-selection and aware that I was uninvited to work socials to watch fixtures and the silencer of corridor conversation about the weekends action. How often must we be the same in our youth ministry, with chat or activity around an area of interest that excludes? I am trying to teach myself to be aware of when this happens.

Friendly fire is always the worst

Reaction to my decision was hilarious. From the demeaning, ‘You’re an idiot,’ to the encouraging, ‘Fair play’ (note unnecessarily insensitive use of sporting term), to the really concerning, ‘I could never do that.’ The latter genuinely did concern me. How have we got to a stage with anything that it masters us to that extent? The worst reaction was however the Pharisaical questioning of potential breach of the rules… I was rebuked for cycling to work, kicking a ball to my 3 year old, running up stairs and brandishing a pan ‘like a cricket bat,’ and mostly from Christians. In 14 years of youth ministry, some of the greatest pain I have felt has been stinging feedback from people who I love. I’ve unhelpfully dished some out as well at times. Let’s continue to strive to be youth workers who continually build one another up, be always open to criticism in a teachable spirit and offer critique in a helpful way – and never straight after someone has done something!

I’ve had a lot of fun reintegrating into a world of sport. In truth, it’s been amazing. The fast is over. However I am asking again, what are the things that grip me, and how do I wrench myself free from them. Our freedom is intrinsically linked to those we serve. Let’s all ask, for their sake, how we might do the same.

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