This is an almost embarrassing question to ask but I am sure this weekend many Zambian Christians asked themselves this question and even concluded that they would skip church and go to watch football instead—with a clear conscience. It is sad but true.
For those who are regular readers of my blog and live outside Africa I will need to explain. Zambia, like most African countries, is a one–sport nation and it is football (what Americans call “soccer”). It is the main game that is played in villages with balls made from clothing and plastic materials. It is also the main game played in our stadiums with leather balls.
When the Zambian national football team is playing, that becomes the chief talking point for the whole nation. The adrenaline of the entire nation rises. Social media is abuzz with excitement as goals are scored. The goal scorers literally become the heroes of the nation. If the national football team wins a regional or continental cup, the whole nation goes agog. When our entire national football team perished in an airplane accident, the whole nation came to a stand still and mourned. That is how attached Zambia is to football.
Here is the catch. Every so often, the big matches are played on Sunday and Christians miss church in order to watch the games on television or out in stadiums. This is what bothers me. How can Christians fail to see that this is wrong from every conceivable angle?
Desecrating the Lord’s Day
The greatest tragedy is a failure to keep the Lord’s Day. The God whom Christians worship says in the Ten Commandments, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex. 20:8–11).
Once upon a time, when Christianity was stronger than it is now and believers were taking their faith seriously, this is how they interpreted this command. I quote from the Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly of the 17th century.
Q. 57. Which is the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment is, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labour, and do all your work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God: in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that is within your gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
Q. 58. What is required in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment requires the keeping holy to God such set times as he has appointed in his word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to himself.
Q. 59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath?
A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.
Q. 60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified?
A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.
Q. 61. What is forbidden in the fourth commandment?
A. The fourth commandment forbids the omission or careless performance of the duties required, and the profaning the day by idleness, or doing that which is in itself sinful, or by unnecessary thoughts, words or works, about our worldly employments or recreations.
Nothing can be clearer than that. In the book of Isaiah, God made this promise to his people, “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13–14).
Sadly, we have lost all this. It is very clear as I read postings by Christians and church pastors on social media that there is not the foggiest sense of guilt that God’s people have desecrated the Lord’s Day. I would not be surprised if some churches cancelled their worship services because of the football match today. What I know for a fact is that many churches end up with skeleton congregations and haphazard preparations for worship when the Zambian national team is playing a major match on the Lord’s Day. Sadly, pastors accept this.
I have never forgotten, one Sunday in the early years of Kabwata Baptist Church when we were still meeting in the Kabwata Community Hall, the Zambian national football team was playing a decisive match at world level. When I got to church, nothing was ready. The building was open but the place had not been swept and the pews had not been arranged. By the time the church service was supposed to start, even the hymnbooks had not yet been brought. We started the service very late. By the time I got into the pulpit to preach, I failed to preach and started crying. I wept because my own church members had voted with their feet. Football was more important than the worship of the living God. How could I simply continue with the sermon that I had prepared to preach? I could not. I could only weep.
A form of idolatry?
Zambian Christians need to ask themselves a heart-searching question: “Could it be that football has become our idol?” An idol is not necessarily a carving made of wood or an object of metal. Whatever competes with God’s place in our hearts is an idol. When we spend a whole week anticipating a football match instead of the worship of God on the Lord’s Day and then when the day comes we abandon the worship of God in order to shout and jump and scream in a stadium (or at home in front of a television set) with the energy that would make the makers of Red Bull feel their product was redundant, is this not a form of idolatry? I opine that we have merely exchanged a carved idol with one that is made of leather and air!
What breaks my heart is when I think of the price that was paid by God to bring us our salvation. As Dottie Rambo sang: “[Jesus] left the splendour of heaven / Knowing his destiny / Was the lonely hill of Golgotha / There to lay down his life for me.” More than that, God moved men and women to leave the comfort of their developed countries in the West to come to our dark continent when it was infested with untreatable malaria and ferocious wild beasts at great cost to their lives and their families so that they could bring us the Christian faith. Many of them never saw their relatives and friends again. Many died in their prime. Now that the baton has been passed on to us, we are willing to abandon the worship of the true God because twenty-two men are kicking a piece of leather across a field for ninety minutes. This is heart breaking. Our pioneer missionaries should be shifting in their graves—to use a well-known expression. Is this what Christ died for? Is this the gratitude we show those who sacrificed their lives? Or, as the apostle Paul would argue, did football die for you? Sadly, it is a well-known sin of the fourth and fifth generation. They take their religious inheritance for granted and will not sacrifice anything for it—not even football on the Lord’s Day.
I know that someone will charge me with being legalistic. I only ask those who want to do this to show me anywhere in history where believers have gone sport-crazy and the cause of Christ has gone from strength to strength. It is the cause of Christ I am concerned about. Is it glorifying to God when a congregation that is normally 100-strong suddenly reduces to half its size when there is a football match in town? Or are we supposed to “look elsewhere” and pretend this did not happen in places where God, our universal Benefactor, is worshipped?
To my fellow pastors
I have much more to say about this but let me end with a word to my fellow pastors. We are the ones who grieve God the most because we ought to know better and we ought to guide God’s people. In the book of Malachi, God was displeased with the priests. He said to them, “A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honour? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favour? says the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 1:6–8).
If we who are pastors do not stand up and warn our generation that the abandoning of the true worship of God whenever there is a “major” football match being played on the Lord’s Day is sinful, God will hold it against us when he brings judgment upon the church. Sadly, on social media the only denunciation I am hearing from the lips of pastors is against the Senegalese team for its alleged use of witchcraft in the game. Even pastors whose church doctrinal statements categorically speak about keeping the Lord’s Day holy are mute about the sinfulness of the trend that has engulfed us. The silence is a betrayal of Christ! Are we afraid of upsetting our paymasters? God forbid! We must be a prophetic voice in our day even if our message is rejected. God will honour us for our courage on the day he rewards his own. On the other hand, if we are the very ones leading the pack into the stadiums to desecrate the Lord’s Day, what hope will there be for today and tomorrow’s church? None!