For God through sport
For God through sport
1 March 2016
In early January 2010, Bill Hunter was restless. He was about to celebrate a “milestone” birthday and had spent some time reflecting on his life.
Bill had been a physical training officer in the Queensland Police Service for 21 years, had run marathons and supported athletes with disabilities, both in Australia and overseas. He was managing a successful family business in first aid training and, after 16 years, continued to serve as chaplain to the Brisbane Broncos rugby league team.
“I was thankful to God for the life he’d given me and the fantastic experiences I’d had,” Bill says. “But now I was approaching 50 and I told God that he had to give me something new to keep the excitement levels up in my life.”
Two weeks later, Bill was sitting in The Salvation Army's Centenary Corps in Brisbane which, with his family, had been his church home for the previous 22 years. He felt God telling him that it was time to make some changes in his life.
“I went home, lay down and heard a voice tell me to start a sports church,” Bill says. “I thought this was crazy stuff and I went to get up but I was paralysed. I simply couldn’t move.”
Bill agreed to do what the voice had told him, but only if God made it very clear that he wanted him to be a “history maker”. Bill thought he would be safe, that he wouldn’t see any history made, and he could just forget about it.
A few minutes later, Bill got out his Bible. Underneath it he found a piece of paper with words on it he had written three years earlier, when the corps officers at Centenary had asked everyone to record what ministry they would like to be a part of in the future. Bill had written: “Give me the strength to be a history maker in sports ministry.”
“From coming home from church to lying down on my bed, my life had been turned upside down,” Bill says with a laugh. “Even my wife, Michelle, when I shared it with her, told me to do something about it and not just stand there talking!
“Through it all, Michelle has been my rock and support and I could not have done this without her.”
Bill thought his two biggest problems would be lack of support from The Salvation Army and finding a location for the church. Again, God made it very clear to Bill that he had everything under control.
The Army's South Queensland Divisional Commander at the time, then-Major Wayne Maxwell, loved the idea and encouraged Bill to plant the mission. An Anglican minister friend who pastored a little church in the shadows of Brisbane's premier sports complex, Suncorp Stadium, was also enthusiastic, told Bill to start immediately and offered his church as a venue. And so God's Sports Arena was born.
God’s Sports Arena kicked off in March 2010. A typical meeting starts with the blow of a whistle and each “side” shaking hands with the other. At “half-time” the congregation swaps sides and eats oranges to continue the sporting analogy. People are also put in the “sin bin” for infringements such as a mobile phone going off.
“These are just words to have fun with in church, but we are a church,” says Bill. “We sing, have a Bible reading, a message and we pray.
We have fun in a relaxed, informal way, but it’s still all about God. It’s about passion, the love of Jesus Christ and the love of sports.
For the first three years, around 30 people attended the weekly Sunday service. Feeling that the vision wasn't progressing, Bill again went to God with his dream, asking what he wanted him to do.
Since then, attendance has increased to between 70 and 80 people each week, with around 20-30 regularly coming forward for prayer. Subsequently, the God's Sports Arena prayer team has grown to 10 people.
An increasing number are also participating in the encouragement session of the meeting. “This is like a traditional Salvation Army testimony time, but I ask people to specifically encourage others and give them good feedback,” Bill explains.
God’s Sports Arena has a different guest speaker each week, including Salvation Army officers and pastors from different denominations. Occasionally, there is a non-Christian guest, such as inspirational speaker Dean Clifford, or a high-profile sports personality.
Major Sue Davies leads the singing, Captain Phil Staines and his wife, Sherene, assist in running the meeting, and new adherent Tony Kerridge facilitates the encouragement session and prayer time.
Rod and Pauline Collins, who also attend Carindale Corps, bring home-cooked food to serve after the meeting and Greg Dhnaram, Bill’s neighbour who came back to church after 20 years, blows the whistle and sets the tone for the meeting.
Tony and Bill also train the God's Sports Arena touch team which plays in a local competition.
“God is moving,” says Bill. “He is encouraging us to remain patient, faithful and consistent.”
People from a variety of backgrounds attend the church, many of whom have gone through challenging life experiences. There are Christians and non-Christians, the unchurched, Salvationists, clients from Brisbane Recovery Services Centre (Moonyah), graduates from Moonyah, and people from the community.
Several more non-Christians who have found God's Sports Arena through Facebook have told Bill they want to come to church there.
“This church stands out; it’s the most non-judgmental church I’ve ever been to,” says Sarah Jane Alley, who is passionate about sports ministry and co-ordinated The Salvation Army’s involvement at the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.
Another regular attender says, “I was hurt and damaged by church as a young man and I was never going back, but I love this church”.
Life these days for Bill is full. He runs God's Sports Arena, oversees the family business and continues his long-distance running and involvement supporting athletes with a disability.
“God has answered my request big time,” he says with a laugh. “The excitement keeps coming. I’m not an adrenaline junkie but I like to stay on the edge and keep it happening. I’m a better evangelist that way.”
Bill continues his chaplaincy with the Brisbane Broncos and off the field he maintains close relationships with players such as Darren Lockyer and Justin Hodges. He performed the weddings of both players and christened Lockyer’s’ three sons.
In October, God's Sports Arena is sending a team on a mission trip to Papua New Guinea and is currently fundraising and preparing for that.
To help its people reach out to others who are struggling, the church will continue to enter teams in Relay for Life to raise money for cancer research, and the annual Bridge to Brisbane which raises money for the runners’ specified charities.
Bill, his daughter Alyce, Sarah Jane, and Ben McLeod from Brisbane City Temple, are also running in the Brisbane 2014 Oxfam Trail Walker 100km event to raise money for charity.
“I am a dreamer,” says Bill emphatically. “God can do wonderful things and I know that one day he will pack this arena with 50,000!”
Bill would also love to see more lay people step up and make changes for themselves and their church.
“Either people don’t know they can step up or don’t think they can,” he says. “I did something I didn’t think was possible and God blessed it.
“Think about what God can do through you, and step up to the plate!”