Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland

Date posted: 22/02/18

Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland


Maccers and his fellow leaders at Sports Plus Belfast 1 in 2016

Although Christians in Sport was founded in 1980, the work in Northern Ireland only really got going at the turn of the millennium. Since then, it has been so encouraging to see sportspeople, churches and schools really grasping the vision to reach the world of sport for Christ.

With 23% of adults belonging to thousands of clubs, Northern Ireland is a country that lives and breathes sport. Just consider the fact that school sports competitions, like rugby union, are shown live on BBC TV! If you love Jesus and your sport, what a mission field you have in front of you.

Known as Maccers, Keith McIlwaine is the assistant pastor at Hamilton Road Baptist Church in Bangor. On hearing of Christians in Sport as a student in 2002, he joined the Queen’s University, Belfast group and has seen this growth at first hand.

“I loved what they were about. I continued to go to the Pray Play Say group at university, and signed up for the first Sports Plus in Armagh in 2004. This was so good, I’ve gone every year since, and it’s only got better. I then got involved in adult work, finding player gatherings really helpful.”

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Now a church leader, Maccers has a bigger picture of how the gospel is bearing fruit in the world of sport across the country.

“The number of young people attending Sports Plus has increased by 600% - that’s encouraging! More people are joining the dots between Christian faith and their sports at an earlier age which is wonderful.

“Filling leadership roles hasn’t always been easy, but God has provided each year. Going forward, the challenge is to really root the core values of Christian in Sport in the Northern Ireland context. Thinking a bit more widely, I guess the big challenge is the Republic of Ireland, and impacting Gaelic sports in the north and south.”

Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland


The Northern Ireland team (from left): Jenny McClaughlin (Staff Worker), Russell Bowers (Elite Sport Team), Allen McCluggage (Staff Worker), Phil Small (Intern), Rachel Aicken (Regional Co-ordinator)

Numerically at least, our works seems to have grown more in Northern Ireland than other parts of the UK. For example, Sports Plus Belfast traditionally fills up in a day.

“It’s hard to pinpoint why,” said Maccers. “But (Northern Ireland Co-ordinator) Rachel Aicken (née Young) was a major catalyst in the early years, working hard at preparing the ground. We might have more of a ‘Christian culture’ than other parts of the UK; and it helps that everyone knows everyone, so you could be serving together at Sports Plus and playing against each other throughout the year, creating a network amongst volunteers.

“One club I played at had so many Christians, we had a weekly prayer time after training. God has certainly blessed the work. It gives us a great opportunity to witness to our teammates.”

At its heart, our work is about helping Christians live for Jesus in their clubs and teams. With thousands of sports clubs in NI, there is a huge opportunity and need for Christians to get stuck in.

“I owe Christians in Sport a massive debt for the investment they placed in me as a person, especially during Sports Plus. From here I was encouraged to go back to my rugby club and represent Christ there.” Keith McIlwaine

“The teaching was straight out of God’s word and straight into my rugby club, helping me to connect the dots. What I found really helpful over the years were events to bring mates to. This has ranged from the Sports Quiz, to Twenty20 cricket matches and a week in Lanzarote at Club La Santa.”

Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland


Schools outreach

Partnering with local churches is vital to our work, making sure our focus is on sportspeople of all ages.

“Many churches have benefited from the impact of Christians in Sport, being able to send young people to camps along with youth leaders,” said Maccers. “The key so far has been good connections with youth workers who now trust and know Christians in Sport.

“The challenge is moving beyond young people and figuring out the best way to support local churches with adult sportspeople, without adding another meeting to the schedule!

“I think training and evangelistic events are the key to this. Rachel and staff worker Allen McCluggage have been great at partnering with churches, and hopefully there is more to come in the future.”

Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland


Allen McCluggage leading Pray Play Say training at Glenabbey Church

Partnership in action

Glenabbey Church is among those we are partnering with.

"We organised three ‘Pray, Play, Say’ training evenings to envision and equip sportspeople within the church to reach the world of sport for Christ in their local clubs and teams.

"Around 50 sportspeople from a range of different sports attended and now gather every month to pray and encourage one another as they look to share Christ with their teammates.

"Following this, we held two evangelistic events to reach local clubs and teams through a Sports Quiz and youth sports tournament."

Chris Cooke, church leader

Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland


The inaugural Northern Ireland Sports Plus camp at Royal School Armagh in 2004


2002: First Christians in Sport weekend

2004: First Northern Ireland Sports Plus camp at Royal School, Armagh

2008: First staff member appointed to work full-time in Northern Ireland

2011: Second Sports Plus camp launched at Campbell College

2014: Both Sports Plus camps now at Campbell College

2016:  First Northern Ireland Intern appointed

Gaining momentum: Sports mission in Northern Ireland 

Clubhouse Xtra Northern Ireland student conference 2017


• Numbers attending Sports Plus have increased from 33 in 2004 to 198 in 2017

• There are Christians in Sport University Groups at Queen’s University, Belfast and Ulster University, Coleraine

• 13 churches hosted Christians in Sport events in 2016-17

• We know of around 1,200 Christians in sport looking to represent Jesus in their clubs and teams across Northern Ireland



Check out the video highlights the 2017 Sports Plus Northern Ireland camps - Belfast 1 and Belfast 2.


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