One of my favorite authors, GK Chesterton, once said that he was all too ready to write books upon even the feeblest of provocation. (Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Part I. INTRODUCTION IN DEFENCE OF EVERYTHING ELSE, online here) . I must admit Jim Elliff’s recent repost, “When Ball becomes Baal” over at "For the Church" has provoked some thought and passion in me as well. With a wonderful and catchy title, Elliff has pressed some appropriate buttons of sport culture in our society. Yet at the same time, I do think there is a bit more that can be said. So I’ll do my small part to say at least a bit of that.
Let me first put my cards on the table as to why I take interest in the matters of sport, idolatry, church attendance and worship. First, I am a Christian whose hope and desire is to live all of life to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31) Second, I am currently a pastor and a servant within church planting circles. Third, both my wife and I were Division I college athletes in our respective sports and our family spends much time around the pitch, on the courts and the wrestling mats. Our lives have overlapped the athletic and Gospel communities for many years with even with my own conversion coming through the Ministry of Athletes in Action. Kasey and I spent eight years on staff with that organization in our early married and ministry life.
I want to state at the beginning that I appreciated Pastor Elliff's concerns and his identification of a certain problem in American life and culture. The idolatry surrounding sport, youth athletics and family dynamics should be a deep concern for the people of God. Furthermore, a concern for central church rhythms of worship and rest, along with regular gatherings for Word and Sacrament, should be commended by every Christian, and certainly by pastors.
That much stated, I also had some burning concerns as I read the suggestions offered in the latter parts of the essay. There are central and important concerns for the church related to sports culture and not all of them are on display in Elliff's warning and exhortation. In some ways, if his prescriptions were followed by all in the church, we would essentially cede a massive portion of life and culture to the world leaving it with little gospel witness and mission. In other words, what it takes to become an accomplished, even elite athlete contains a certain lifestyle and rhythm. This cultural world of sports in which some people live and move and have their being, is a place that should be engaged by a robust Christian witness and by Christian people living out the life of a sportsman to the glory of God.
My wife, the true talent in our family, played soccer at the highest of levels in her college career. She was on two national championship teams with one of the most storied women’s soccer programs in the country. She was even a teammate of Mia Hamm. During the same season I beat my own body to dedicate myself in amateur wrestling on a top 10 program with numerous state champions and even a multiple time national champion in our room. Our assistant coach at the time won a gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Let me just say that this world is one of great need for gospel witness and incarnational life and mission. We both sought to share the gospel in these places and we realized that sport is a subculture and tribe with great gospel needs. It is a place where Christians need to be present, identify with the people and contextualize the unchanging gospel in order to connect and communicate. For me this simply begs an important questions. If Christians cannot participate in sports culture at a committed level and cannot be at the practices and on the high level teams, who will be there in order to work to redeem some of it excesses and idols? If we are not there, are we not ceding major ground to the world and simply abandoning it to the devil?
Elliff’s suggestions are indeed thought provoking and a wise parent should read these sorts of things and consider them well. However, his suggestions would not work for any athlete with a love, ability and desire to engage with a sport at a high level of competition and commitment. So I offer these suggestions in hope that other ways through the halls of balls (and baals) might be found for the sake of both worship and mission.
Some suggestions and questions for those engaging the intersections of sport, church and mission:
- Acknowledge that sport idolatry is very real and as a parent you are serving Christ not your child’s so called sports career. To ignore such a strong cultural and personal idol would be foolish.
- As we witness to the gospel in words and good works we need to live as followers of Jesus in this arena and not give way to the possible syncretism in sports culture. How would Jesus have you interact with parents, coaches and the other team’s fans? Are you acting crazy about sports and not an actual witness in the arena?
- We must compete, train and dedicate ourselves with focus to every task including that of sport. In our lives whatever we are doing we are ultimately serving the Lord Christ. Furthermore, the New Testament actually uses the dedicated athlete to exemplify Christian commitment. The language in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Philippians 3:14, 1 Timothy 4:6-10 and 2 Timothy 2:5 is derived from the sport culture in the ancient world.
- Recognize that it will be a strain on your family and it will take faith to balance church life and high-level athletics. I have two daughters who play high level soccer in New Jersey and my wife is also an Olympic Development coach. I've also been the local township wrestling coach. I'm also a pastor who has important weekend duties. It is very difficult to line-up and manage. Count the costs.
- Disciple your kids to follow Jesus first and then understand what this specifically means as an athlete. If God has given them the ability, mentality and desire for a sport, we should teach them how to compete differently as a Christian athlete. We have also found that our kids seldom wish to skip worship gatherings on Sunday because they love the church and her King. This has also meant we have come to worship in at times in uniforms (our soccer kits) and we've taken great advantage of our church having two gatherings. We also see youth groups etc. to be optional things for kids as discipleship is centered in the home and not at the same level of importance as Sunday worship gatherings.
- To constantly miss Sunday worship to chase a ball is no path that I recommend. I also think there are times where chasing the ball, sharing with parents on the sidelines and being with people through crucial transitions of life is also as sacred a place as the facility used for the ecclesia.
- Finally, make use of the good resources and thinking about sport/faith put out by groups like Athletes in Action and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Shout out to my friends over at FCA Wrestling.
The gathering of God’s people for Word and Sacrament is part of the quintessence of Christ's Church. It should not be discarded as we chase silly glory through our child's athletic pursuits. It is also true that Christ has called and sent his church to live wise lives of witness among the lost people of this world (Colossians 4:2-6, 1 Corinthians 9:19-27, 1 Peter 2:12, 1 Peter 3:15-17, the life of Jesus displayed in the Gospels).
The early church expanded through the ancient world through the witness of Jesus's people living everyday lives on mission. The gospel spread through the pathways of commerce and community in the major port cities of the ancient Roman empire because the people took seriously Jesus's commission to make disciples in their world. (See Rodney Stark, Cities of God (New York: HarperOne, 2007) Today I suggest that we are to continue to do likewise. This will involve prophetically critiquing but also engaging with people in areas of contemporary culture. This also means that some may be called to live in it and minister to and through sport culture to the glory of God.
Are there risks in such missionary endeavors? Can motives and affections get mixed and misplaced? Of course they can and they do. This is why repentance and faith are necessary to follow Jesus as missionaries in whatever corner of culture in which we find ourselves sent. We also must remind ourselves that if our kids never play a sport or retires from the rec soccer league at age 8 we can simply rejoice that there are other places to live and serve the living Christ. If you happen to be a coach or see your kids want to put in the time, discipline and sacrifice to become an elite athlete, may you follow Jesus in obedience within these endeavors.
Our need is to remain captured by the Lord’s grace and to share the hope of the gospel with churchless people in places far from the walls of the church. Are there dangers, toils and snares that accompany youth sports? Absolutely. Can it also be a place for the grace and glory of God? I say yes. Yes indeed. We are ever thankful to a God who is faithful to help us and hold us in his hands.