As the number of television stations, websites, and every other diversion increases, it gets harder and harder to find cultural references that most people in your congregation can connect with. "American Idol," most people are familiar with even if they have no idea who's the current frontrunner; but "True Blood"? Is that the one about zombies? Or melodramatic phlebotomists?
Thank goodness for the Olympics! Finally, a concept of which people nationwide—nay, worldwide—tend to have a decent grasp. And as a result, it makes the perfect theme for late summer, when the thrill of summer vacation is gone but school's not quite back in session to bring everyone back for intensive fall activities. From worship to fellowship, there's lots of stuff in the church we can do using the London Games as a launching pad. Some connect with spiritual metaphors as we "run the race" and "press on toward the prize," and others are just for fun.
The opening ceremonies are Friday, July 27, so time is short to plan a full series now, but if you are still planning the next few Sundays, consider the following Olympic-inspired themes, even if just for a single sermon. These could also inspire timely devotions for a youth group or small group gathering.
Olympic Events: Explore lessons from some biblical heroes using various events as a vehicle. Wrestling (Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32), Shooting (David taking down Goliath in I Samuel), Weightlifting (Samson in Judges 13-16), Swimming (Jonah!), Rowing (the disciples sailing in the storm, Mark 6 and elsewhere), etc.
Passing the Torch: Focus on training future generations for kingdom work by examining stories of torches that were passed—from Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, Paul to Timothy, etc. Combine with the above, and this could be the 400 Meter Relay! (Inspired by Pastor Joe's Blog, from Horizon Church)
The Games: Faster, Higher, Stronger: Athletic themes abound in Paul's letters, from training and endurance to teamwork and striving for an ultimate goal. Challenge people to a plan for disciplined spiritual formation. Check out I Corinthians 9:24-25, Philippians 3:13-14, Hebrews 12, and I Corinthians 15:50-58 for inspiration. (via Church of the Resurrection)
Make your point with a relevant story or quote from Olympic history. Here are a few from the Sermon Illustrator, a free resource in the Ministry Matters Library.
- In the 1992 Olympics, Janet Evans won the silver medal in the 400-meter, freestyle swim. She had the lead right up to the finish, but her hand touched the wall four-tenths of a second too late for first place. The television announcer explained to the puzzled viewers that Janet looked back right at the end, and that glance backward cost her the gold medal.
- When Kristi Yamaguchi fell to the ice in the 1992 Winter Olympics, the crowd groaned. Everyone thought her chance for a gold medal had been destroyed by the fall. But Kristi quickly got to her feet, flashed a smile, and resumed her program. She received high scores from the judges, despite the mistake, and she won the gold medal. It happened because though she fell, she didn't stay down—she got back on her feet.
- The ancient Greek athletes used to run races almost completely unclothed. They wanted nothing to hold them back in their race. The writer of Hebrews had this in mind when he spoke of "laying aside every weight."
- Six young men were slated to compete against one another in Seattle, Washington. The event was the hundred-yard dash. The men lined up, waited for the starting gun, and took off in a sprint. About halfway down the track the man in front stumbled and fell, skinning his hands and knees. The other five men stopped and helped him up. After they brushed him off and were sure that he was unhurt, they decided to finish the race together, holding hands. None of the judges could tell who won the blue ribbon; none of them could see through their tears. No one in the stands that day would ever forget this demonstration of compassion. As the race ended the crowd stood and cheered for ten minutes. These young men were competing in the Special Olympics, and they showed that they cared more for a fallen friend than for winning a race.
Whether it's youth soccer, gymnastics classes, field day at school, or just a game in the backyard, kids have experiences they can easily connect with the sports themes raised by the Olympics. A few starting points:
- Have children demonstrate a short relay with a baton or Olympic torch, and talk about the wisdom we receive from our parents, grandparents, and other saints who have come before us.
- "Practice makes perfect" is a good mantra not just for sports but for our Christian life. We only get better at sharing, caring, obeying, etc., by practicing those skills and making them habits.
- Talk about some of the team sports the children may play or may be watching on T.V. during the Olympics and how everyone must work together to achieve the goal. Connect with the church family or the entire body of Christ working together for the kingdom of God.
Whatever you do, keep these 6 Tips for Children's Sermons by Sarah McGiverin in mind.
Just for Fun
Bring Olympic fun into your fellowship time with themed snacks, games, and crafts for the kids. Check out my Olympics 2012 board on Pinterest for links to recipes, children's activities, and more. Imagine a pot-luck lunch to which everyone brings their favorite British recipe (feel like you're there in London for the games!); a youth group game night with relay races, balance-beam walks, and "beach" volleyball; or a children's church lesson in which children craft flags for various countries while learning about God's love for all the different people of the world.