What do mission, church and Jesus have to do with the World Cup currently gripping the globe?

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If you are looking for a religious thread in the World Cup story, your instinct might be to focus on high-profile believers such as Kaka or other Brazilians ready to display messages of devotion to Jesus on their T-shirts in the event of a win. On the domestic front, you might reflect on how many of the Football League’s 90 plus Christian players were displaying their silky skills on the South African fields, and whether the dire financial situation at Portsmouth FC has affected their in-house Alpha course.

If former Chelsea and Charlton star Gavin Peacock is a World Cup pundit, you might wonder how his Bible college training has gone, and whether he will continue to influence a new generation of players.

But there is another story about the spread of football around the world that has to do with mission, poverty, alcohol, muscular Christianity and the imitation of Jesus. The real story of football and the mission of God is not found in the commercial hoopla of the World Cup, but in the origins of football and the motivations of those who pioneered the game, and those who carry on its traditions.

At this moment in time, teams with a Christian ethos can still be found in leagues around the world, with Hallelujah FC making an impact in South Korea, Charlotte Eagles taking football and faith to American ‘soccer’ stadiums, and Crusaders plying their trade in a Northern Irish league.

In the beginning

It all started with the Sunday School movement. With as many

as 85% of children attending Sunday School in the latter part of the 19th century, the Church was in constant dialogue with the community that surrounded it. Britain was, in the estimate of many, the most religious nation in the world at that time.

Outside of the context of Sunday, the Church was the main provider of activity for children and young people, whose numbers in society were at record levels. As people moved from an agriculture-based existence towards living in the most basic of accommodation in large cities, they often sought solace in a ‘third place’. That was usually the public house.

Many cities also lacked any infrastructure for leisure. Haphazard sporting pursuits that had been part of the fabric of many towns and villages for centuries began to be organised into proper sporting institutions with clear rules, organised leagues and a desire to divert young minds from drink, sex and destruction. The vicars, priests and ministers who helped pioneer these new sporting diversions were deeply averse to the idea of sport on Sunday. They also had a very distinct temperance agenda. With the advent of the 5½-day week, Saturday afternoon drunkenness was becoming a problem. The 3pm kick-off was partly a result of the desire of church leaders to keep men from spending an afternoon drinking their wages away. Christianised sportsmanship, with its emphasis on bravery, modesty, forbearance and friendship, and community organisation, enabled sports like football to emerge as national pastimes.

A growing influence

Christians were able to influence these decisions because as organised football grew throughout the 1860s and 1870s, as many as 25% of all the teams playing in a league would have some form of church affiliation. It was this church-based group of teams which took the initiative to form the Football League in 1886. Tired of friendlies against inferior local opposition and the occasional thrill of the cup, William McGregor of the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Football Club decided to see if there was interest in a league structure. Ten of the other teams joining Villa during that first decade of the league were churchaffiliated, with Methodists and Anglicans at the fore.

Many of the church teams had grown out of cricket teams. The Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel had more than 300 children in its Sunday School, and a significant number of young men in a Bible class especially for them. Six young men from the class ‘who scorn the very idea of class distinction, and who recognise that spiritual and social work cannot be divorced’ started a mission work in nearby Portchester Street that grew from 12 members in 1878 to nearly 1,200 by 1888. One of the founders, HS Yoxall, found large numbers of young men playing football on Sundays. He persuaded them to come to Bible class and provided a field for them to play on, on Saturdays. Then he discovered that they were using the changing rooms for drinking on non-match days. Undaunted, he joined the team in order to keep an eye on them, but so impressed them with his skill that they eventually came to trust him, joined the Bible class and gave up drinking.

The same mission started cycling, rambling and angling clubs, and offered classes in arithmetic, writing, shorthand and music. They had several bands, a gymnasium, games room, lounge, library and refreshment bar. They were deeply embedded in their community.

As this distinctive mission work went on, the Aston Villa (Wesleyan) Football Club was gathering pace and grew from its humble beginnings in 1874 to the point where they won the FA Cup in 1887. McGregor had worked hard to curb the drinking of team members, and called a team meeting every Monday in a local coffee shop to help the players discover other social outlets.

On a mission

Again and again as you study the origins of many of the leading clubs in the land, you discover that the church that sponsored a team was itself a ‘mission’ church planted out as the cities and towns grew at breakneck speed. The formation of a football team was part of a commitment to every aspect of the life of the local community.

William Baker Pitt, who started the process that gave us Swindon Town, was noted as a champion of the poor. In the early years, their star player and England international was Harold Fleming. He was famous for refusing to play on Good Friday and for his unwavering sportsmanship. He was also a key youth worker in his church.

With many of the players in their mid to late teens, football was a place to learn about teamwork, responsibility and administration. John Henry Cardwell, the vicar of St Andrews in Fulham, turned to the then 15-year-old Tom Norman to recruit the players for what became Fulham FC. Over the years, teachers from the Bible classes – and one very able local vicar – stepped out for Fulham

Cardwell believed that the Church often ‘drove the children from our doors’ when they were young, and was determined to reverse the trend. He also felt that people needed to belong before they believed, and was wary of ‘aggressive propaganda’, preferring a policy of ‘making friends first and converts after’. The church fed as many as 160 children daily with free hot dinners. He was joined in his endeavours with the football team by Peregrine Propert, who had been deeply affected by the witness of cricketing legend CT Studd and his friends in the Cambridge Seven. He turned his back on a career in law and politics, and instead came to work in a new mission church in the Fulham area, St Augustine’s.

The church opened a gym, and the genial manner, genuine friendship and sporting abilities of Propert soon won him respect among those whose foul language, unkempt appearance and lack of education was an offence to more class-conscious churchgoers. Propert had to defend himself against those who told the Bishop of London that he ‘was not fit to be a clergyman’. Propert told the bishop that he believed in applied religion, and that he stood by the precedent set by Jesus who said that he ‘came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ (Matthew 9:13, KJV).

Some saw themselves as being in a battle, with football being one of the social institutions that could build community and help the Church find a voice among the local people. Basil Wilberforce, grandson of the anti-slavery campaigner, was determined to ‘plunge into God’s battle’. He started night schools, soup kitchens, clubs for young men and young mothers,and gave his approval to a project of one of his curates – St Mary’s Association Football Club. The team that was to become Southampton FC were keen to aid the ‘spiritual life’ without ‘omitting the many exercises of the physical life’.

Two other teams founded as part of a response to great social need, and because the people involved wanted to enable people to hear the message of ‘Christ, and him crucified’, were Barnsley and Manchester City. Vicar’s daughter Anna Connell started a men’s club as one of her and her father’s many projects at St Mark’s in West Gorton. The area knew great poverty and violence, with organised fights involving up to 500 young men – a practice known as ‘scuttling’. Soon 100 men were attending the men’s club, and a football team was formed to help ‘deepen the bonds’ between them. The first match in 1880 for the team that would become Manchester City was against Macclesfield Baptist.

St Peter’s in Barnsley was a socially innovative church, and deeply involved in the education of the poor and advocacy on their behalf. Their new vicar, Tiverton Preedy, was keen to be involved in sports and to get to know local people, so he joined a local rugby club. He walked out after a while when he discovered they were going to play on Good Friday. Making his way home after this disquieting revelation, he chanced upon a group of young men outside a pub talking about forming a football team.

From that conversation, and despite the disapproval of those who felt that football was a poor man’s game, Tiverton persevered in his quest for sports that would through ‘manliness and fair play’ be a ‘force for moral good in the education of young people’. Barnsley St Peter’s Football Club would later become the Barnsley FC we know today.

Sobering up society

Facing the challenge of heavy drinking in society was never far from the early ‘sports friendly’ minister’s mind. One largescale response was the building of model communities that had adequate housing and proper local facilities. Several of these projects sprung up around London, including the Queens Park estate in West London. Tenants found drunk could be evicted from the estate!

Churches were aware that they should seek to provide social and cultural alternatives for those they were calling away from the public house door. St Jude’s Institute on the estate provided a range of activities, and soon had a football team. Following an amalgamation with another local team, Christ Church Rangers, a compromise name was needed. The suggestion from their curate and centre forward – Queens Park Rangers – won the day. Teetotal Everton players and officials also helped provoke the formation of Liverpool FC. Everton was rooted in the St Domingo Methodist Chapel. The chapel influenced the club and the Football League until the Second World War. The Liverpool split was precipitated when an early patron of the club, John Houlding, a local brewer, sought to raise the rent of the ground, amongst other things. A St Domingo member and key figure in the club, George Mahon, challenged him at a 500-strong club meeting, and carried the day with all but a handful of the crowd. A disgusted Houlding formed a new club, Liverpool FC, using Everton’s old ground at Anfield.

Tottenham Hotspur grew out of the young men’s Bible class at All Hallows. John Ripsher, their Bible class teacher, protected them when the wrath of the church fell on them for card playing during church services. He also actively sought out social space where they could read, play games and relax in an alcohol free context on week nights.

Back to the grassroots

Football as a bridge-builder is not an idea that has remained confined to Christianity. Radical Islam influenced the football-mad fledgling militant Osama Bin Laden through a football and Qur’an after-school club. The recent Sport Relief fundraising marathon featured a football project that helped take children off the streets in a Nigerian city.

Closer to home, KickLondon have pioneered work in nine boroughs and aim to be in all 33 and reaching 30,000 children a week by 2012. They seek to transform young people’s lives with God’s love, through football, combining football and life skills, underpinned by Christian values (www.kicklondon.org.uk).

On a global scale, a publicity-shy Christian sports coalition, whose main resource is a downloadable PDF about how to do Christian-flavoured sports events, has seen events take place in 170 nations, many in stadiums – with a crowd of 70,000 in one Middle East nation being of particular note.

So, as some of you immerse yourself in the World Cup 2010 feast of football, perhaps you might like to ponder what the Church’s role in the roots of the game says to us about identification with the poor, the Church as a community hub, male spirituality, and the discipleship impact of the pastor/leader who participates in the mundane life of his or her community.


Four ways your church can link into the biggest sports event of 2010

Cup Final Celebration

On Sunday July 11th at 7.30pm our time, billions around the world will be watching the World Cup final. Why not make this a special church night by organising a large screen to watch it on? It’s important that the sound and picture quality are up to scratch – people are not prepared to put up with naff sound or a small or out of focus picture. You will also need to ensure your church has a valid TV licence. You could hold a service beforehand (make sure it finishes in good time!). This could be a great event to invite neighbours along to – particularly if the pre-service is designed like an Alpha supper which is visitor friendly and promotes a course which explores and introduces Christianity.

5-a-side Tournament

Organise a 5-a-side tournament on World Cup final Sunday afternoon with a BBQ and free soft drinks. Invite locals to form teams. Ensure you have a good ref handy and clearly marked pitch and goals. Buy a good trophy and individual medals to give to the winning team. You could conclude by inviting the teams to stay and watch the final in the church hall on a big screen. This requires significant organisation to be done well but it would be a good way to promote and launch a church football team or mini league to start in September.

Meet the Neighbours

Are there people in your street who come from Ghana, Germany, Greece or another of the qualifying countries for the finals? If so, why not organise a special party in honour of their country? You could hold it in your home, invite them and other neighbours, eat food from the country (ask their help and advice – they may be prepared to do the cooking!), decorate the house in their national flag/colours and then sit down to cheer on their team in one of the qualifying matches. An alternative food option is to buy ready-made mini pizzas and then decorate with cheese, tomato, onions, peppers, meat slices etc to look like their country flag. Or you could make a pizza for each country – England is easy – lots of cheese with a tomato or pepperoni cross in the middle!)

Home Group Viewing

Organise a social for your home group plus one other in your church. Invite them around to watch the match in someone’s large living room, along with food and drinks. Make sure there is at least one other room to chat and chill in for those less keen on watching football or for those who are enjoying chatting more than the match!

The birth of Barca

One of the most famous football clubs in the world was founded by an evangelical Christian Hans Kamper was born in Switzerland and educated in England. He travelled to Barcelona on business in 1898 and fell in love with the city. He went on to learn the Catalan language and even became known by the Catalan version of his name: Joan Gamper. An evangelical Christian and keen sportsman, he founded FC Barcelona in 1899, which grew to become one of the most famous clubs in the world. During the Franco dictatorship the club became a focus for the Catalan language and cultural identity at a time when Franco tried to stamp out Catalan independence. Their rivalry with the other big Spanish soccer club Real Madrid took on a deeper significance during this time. Real Madrid stood for everything that was oppressing the Catalans. The anonymity of the stadium allowed the fans to chant and sing in Catalan, forbidden and oppressed in their daily life. This led to their adoption of the logo ‘more than a club’ which is emblazoned across the seats covering one side of their cavernous stadium.

Unlike most other clubs, this one is owned by the fans who elect their choice of club president. With more than 100,000 members Barcelona also runs a wide range of other sporting clubs including basketball, tennis, women’s and youth football. The stadium itself is a massive tourist attraction and boasts a huge series of trophy cabinets to house all of its glittering silverware. My youngest son Jeff (above) and I enjoyed a visit earlier this season. The stadium also houses a chapel where players are encouraged to pray and gather their thoughts on a match day. John Buckeridge

World cup resources

Kaka on film - Thinking of hosting a football-themed outreach in your church around this year’s World Cup? Get hold of the Onside DVD produced by BMS World Mission and Verité Sport. It’s presented by BBC commentator John Motson and features world-class footballers like Kaká, Marcos Senna and Cyrille Dormoraud talking about the difference their faith in Christ has made in their lives. You could show it at half time or after the match. bmsworldmission.org/onside2010

Read all about it – Get the whole God and football story in the excellent Thank God for Football! by Peter Lupson (London: Azure, 2006). Pocket guides – the Deo Gloria Trust has produced Twenty-10, an evangelistic booklet including tournament schedule and testimonies from top players. deo-gloria.co.uk/resources_twenty-10.php Sports Ministries – check out a wide range of initiatives at uksportsminitries.org