IT was during the Sydney Olympics in 2000 that sports ministry came into its own in Australia.
Christian Churches and organisations, spurred on by a number of Christians with sporting backgrounds, came together to promote the Gospel through sports ministry during the two-week event.
They hosted sports clinics and staged community events, outreach programs were held in the streets and at stadiums, Christian homes were opened to help accommodate athletes’ families and more than a quarter of a million pieces of Christian literature were distributed.
The venture was so successful Church leaders decided to use the same strategies for the Rugby World Cup which starts on October 10.
Rugby has been described as the game played in heaven, so a Christian involvement seemed logical.
In Brisbane, nine matches, seven pool games and two quarter finals will be played at the 52,500-seat Suncorp Stadium at Milton.
The Brisbane combined Churches committee will co-ordinate a range of activities during the series covering two areas – Christian witness at selected Rugby World Cup related events and hospitality to players and their families.
For its part, the Archdiocese of Brisbane formed a committee about a year ago to work with these ecumenical initiatives and arrange specific Catholic focused events.
Committee chairman Chris Ehler, from the archdiocese’s Church Life and Mission vicariate, said the Rugby World Cup outreach project would be a good way for Christians to participate in the excitement of the World Cup.
He said there were two angles to holding outreach ministries during the series.
‘One is the opportunity to engage with sports people to be comfortable about sharing the fact that they happen to believe in Christ,’ he said.
‘Young people see them as a great sports person and a role model, but they also see them as a great Christian, so it goes beyond the sporting achievement, more about their faith.
‘The second aspect of this sports ministry is to use sports as the medium for sharing the Gospel.
‘We are not trying to evangelise the players and spectators, but to push the Christian message.’
A ‘True Colours’ Mass will be celebrated in St Stephen’s Cathedral on October 16, two days before Australia takes on Romania at Suncorp Stadium.
During the Mass, Archbishop John Bathersby will pray for God’s blessing on the World Cup and the welfare of players and supporters.
People planning to attend the Mass are being encouraged to wear team jerseys or scarfs to add to the joyful atmosphere of the occasion.
Prior to each of the nine matches, the Anglican Parish of Christ Church, which sits in the shadow of Suncorp Stadium near the southern entrance, will be the site for a ‘True Colours’ Outreach Festival.
On offer will be live entertainment, face painting, giveaways, refreshments, player signings, video highlights of Christian testimonies by international rugby players and prayer time in the heritage-listed church.
The Bible Society has produced two special publications for the series, a Gospel of Mark World Cup ‘Souvenir Edition’ booklet and a Rugby League and Union New Testament.
Both carry testimonies from players like England’s Jason Robinson, Australia’s Nick Farr-Jones, South African Andre Voss and tournament medical officer Dr John Best.
Ten thousand copies of the Mark’s Gospel books have been ordered for the Brisbane games.
Chris said it was a simple gesture to the community.
‘But it’s also an opportunity to connect with people and say if you’ve never ever heard of the Word of God, in terms of Christian beliefs, you are welcome to take one of these bibles.’
He said volunteers would turn up at the church about three hours before kick-off for a prayer service and a briefing.
‘We should have about 50 volunteers, in teams of four, two (teams) covering each entrance, at every match,’ he said.
‘Two and a half hours before kick off they will be at the entrances.
‘As people start to move in they will offer free face painting, answer questions and hand out Christian literature.’
Organisers are also hoping to give one of the New Testament books to each player as a memento of their time in the country.
Another side to the outreach ministry is home hosting, which was very successful during the Sydney Olympics.
Chris said the idea came from the Churches and was supported by the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG).
He said most of the volunteers for home hosting in 2000 came through the Churches.
‘They actually registered through the Churches and they found it was a tremendous way for people to share their faith with one another -particularly with people who came from other countries and who had never had an experience of living in a Christian environment.’
He said with the World Cup many of the teams’ families faced financial difficulties with travel and accommodation.
‘So this is a way of making sure that those family members don’t miss out.
‘If they can afford the airfare we are prepared to offer a home to stay in.’
Chris said they had already been asked by the South African team for a number of homes to stay in Brisbane.
Rugby World Cup organisers are still seeking home hosts for members of the official Rugby World Cup Choir, which is made up of two representatives, one male and one female, aged 18-26, from each of the 20 nations.
The two singers will follow their respective teams to different stadiums and sing their national anthem.
The 40 representatives will also form a combined choir to sing at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Chris said the choir members have opted to be billeted in homes wherever possible rather than in hotels.
Their stay in each location will vary from two to 10 days.
Parishes are also being encouraged to hold gatherings where people can watch games on a big screen or hold rugby skills sports clinics inviting a high profile rugby player to share his story of integrating his Christian faith in his life and sport.
In Brisbane, 96.5 FM Family Radio is the official Rugby World Cup Ministry Outreach project radio station and will have regular on-air reports and interviews during the tournament.