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The World Cup and the Kingdom of God

Three things the soccer pitch can teach the church.

I have spent many hours on makeshift soccer fields around the world. No matter where I go, the game and its beauty remain the same – on a grass-pitch in Canada, a sandy lot in Ensenada, Mexico, a dusty alleyway near Cartagena, Columbia, a red-sand park in the Outback of Australia, or even a farmer’s field on the tiny island of Ovalau, Fiji. Soccer gives me the ability to immediately converse and interact with anyone, not with the words of my lips, but with the focused thumping of a ball from foot to foot.

Whether you believe that soccer originated in England in 1853, in Japan during the 16th century Tsu’Chu dynasty or with the Greeks nearly eight centuries ago, futbol is steeped with tradition and history. It goes beyond cultural barriers. I believe that soccer is a transcendental language spoken by a world-wide community of fans and players. It’s a conversation in which no words need to be spoken. An exchange where neither party needs to prove themselves through impressive rhetoric, where even exchanging one’s name and vocation are not required. If you can participate in this pattering of feet against the ball, you’re unconditionally included. It isn’t about who you are, it is about what you can contribute to the game.

As I write, the World Cup is underway. One month every four years, individuals from nearly every tongue, tribe and nation participate in this conversation. Talented players compete on the perfectly trimmed fields, while dedicated fans fill “temple-like” stadiums to “worship” their teams. This worship is manifested in the incessant cheers in every tongue, thousands of painted faces that mark colours of each tribe, and child-like joy and dancing in front of rigid plastic seats.

Soccer is marked not only by its beautiful diversity but also by its ecclesiastical unity and effortless inclusivity. Thus I think there are three things that the Church can and should learn from the World Cup if we are going to become a more Christ-centered body that seeks justice and welcomes everyone.

Places of connection

First, the World Cup celebrates a true team sport. Whether you are a player who has already scored 40+ goals or one whose name has never been read by the commentators on national television, you are as important to the tournament and to your nation as the Ronaldos and Messis that share that same perfectly manicured green grass. Christ never identified people on the basis of their vocation; he never judged them by their past, nor did he lean into the stereotypes and negative treatment that society would expect. Jesus always offered his olive branch of unconditional love, seeing each individual – regardless of their infirmity or social status – as an important contributing part of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). The Church must continue to lavishly encourage and empower all people, regardless of their spiritual maturity, to seek Jesus Christ through participation in his body.

Second, the World Cup teaches us about interacting and relating with those who are different from us. Too often church can become an insular group of believers, doing the same comfortable things they’ve always done. This is not inherently bad. However, we often miss out on the riches that can result from unlikely relationships. For it is when we brush shoulders or pass the ball around with those who are very different than us that we will start to become the multi-faceted Kingdom community God has called us to be. How can we continue to meet behind the closed doors of our churches and talk about how to interact with the LGBTQ+ communities, if we haven’t befriended and loved them first hand? How can we continue to learn how to best serve and include the growing Muslim populations in North America and beyond, if we do not first walk with individuals whose lived experience is drastically outside of our own?

I believe that the World Cup challenges these phobias and human-made walls. In soccer, stereotypes, religious differences and sexual orientation are not important. As a church, we often wonder how to live and love brothers and sisters from all walks of life. That’s a lot easier to figure out once we get on the field alongside them.

The beautiful Church

Third, the World Cup is a glimpse into the “already, but not yet” Kingdom of God. Revelations 7:9 describes great multitudes waving celebratory flags, and cheers marked by joyful dancing. It’s an image much like the World Cup stadiums, where multitudes of fans from every nation, tribe, people and language all come together in one place.

The Church is called to be a glimpse of a very similar promised eschatological gathering of believers standing before the throne of God. We too come before the throne, together. Friends, this is why soccer is the beautiful game. It gives people the opportunity to participate in something bigger than themselves. It gives players the gift of contributing to a team, of finding meaning in their God-given capacity, and in conversing in a way that words cannot do. Today’s Church has a very similar, and I believe convicting, calling. I pray that we too might become a beautiful church, not marked by disunity and political quarrels, but by an unconditional inclusivity that empowers all players in both their gifting and identity as beloved children of God so that our churches can be filled with every tongue, tribe and nation worshipping at the Throne of the Lamb.

Author

  • Zack is a Christian Reformed Pastor and Chaplain at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ont., where he lives with his wonderful wife Malorie.

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