Originally published January, 2010. In this re-posting, I did not change references to the times or events happening at that time.
Scot McKnight discussed this over at Jesus Creed as well. I encourage you to check out his perspective and those of his readers.
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MY SPORTING LIFE
I grew up fully immersed in sports. Sports were a part of almost everything I did, every friendship, most activities. I became a jock. I got pretty good at basketball, and played competitively through my junior year in high school, capping off my career with a team that won the first regional championship in school history.
But I was especially focused on baseball. At the time of my conversion, as a senior in high school near Baltimore, I played for a school with a storied tradition. That year we again had a talented team that won our conference, beating out our rival, the school that would produce Cal Ripken, Jr. a few years later. I was honored as County Player of the Year, and there was little I loved more than baseball.
That was also the spring I met Jesus.
For some reason, at that time in my life, I thought this spiritual awakening meant that my life was supposed to change completely. Not just internally. Not just “spiritually.” Not just morally. Totally. Like the first disciples, I was being called to drop the nets, climb out of the fishing boat, leave the family business behind, abandon it all and follow Jesus.
To me, that meant I was through with sports. I don’t think anyone told me that specifically, but nobody said differently either. When I graduated and started thinking about studying for the ministry, no one suggested I find a school with a baseball team. It was all about the Bible. It was all about following the Lord. It was all about spreading the message. And so I went to Bible college. Our school had a soccer team and a basketball team, but I never seriously considered playing. In fact, I rarely even attended games. Sports were now outside my radically narrowed focus. I was headed in a different direction.
Our first church was in a tiny mountain village in Vermont. My wife and I didn’t have a TV in our home by choice, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because reception was non-existent. Occasionally I listened to the Orioles or the Cubs on the radio when a distant AM station would come in, and once or twice we went to Fenway to see a game, but sports was no longer a regular or central part of my life, my thinking, or my interest.
We continued in this vein when we moved back to Chicago for seminary. Life for us was all about school, work, church, having babies, and learning about family life. While there, we got caught up a little bit in the fun of watching the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl, and we occasionally watched games at friends’ homes, but sports remained on the periphery.
Then our children started growing up. Girl’s basketball games began appearing on our schedule. Then, even more significantly for our future lifestyle, we started Little League baseball with my oldest son. After more than 15 years of living, for all practical purposes, without sports, we entered a season of life in which, for the next 20 years, sports once again became a prominent focus. In fact, it would not be overstating it to say that, except for the church, nothing filled our lives so much as interest and involvement in sports. Whether spending time at facilities cheering on our children, coaching, watching sports on TV as a part of our family experience, or attending professional sporting events as special occasions, we had become a “sports” family.
That culminated this last fall when my son played his final college football game. Our role as “sports parents” is suddenly over. It remains to be seen what will happen with the next generation, our grandchildren. But the lifestyle is still a big part of who we are. We continue to watch sports on TV and follow various teams. Having grown up in Chicago, I remain a lifelong Cubs and Bears fan. Living near Indianapolis, we root for the Colts and enjoy attending games at our Triple-A baseball park. I check scores daily. The remote is used regularly to flip through channels in hopes of finding a good competition to watch. We host or attend parties for big games. As a chaplain, I have found that sports can be a bridge for building friendships and creating opportunities for ministry.
So, sports remains a central part of our lives and daily conversations these days.
Sometimes, though, I feel twinges of spiritual concern.
SPORTS AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
I felt that twinge yesterday, when I read the thoughtful article by Shirl James Hoffman in Christianity Today entitled, “Sports Fanatics: How Christians have succumbed to the sports culture — and what might be done about it.” I encourage you to read it too, and see if doesn’t raise issues for you about our American preoccupation with all things sports.
Americans are consuming sports on an unprecedented scale. The ancient Romans, long considered the gold standard for how sports-crazed a culture could be, were dilettantes compared to the sports fans of this century. The Romans could squeeze 50,000 spectators into the Coliseum for gladiatorial contests — a quaint assemblage next to the 107,000 seats regularly sold for University of Michigan or Penn State home football games. In 2006, Americans spent over $17 billion on tickets to sports contests and $90 billion on sporting goods, over double what they spent on books ($42 billion). Sports magazines take up prime space on bookstore shelves; the granddaddy of them all, Sports Illustrated, sells as many copies in a month (13.2 million) as To Kill a Mockingbird has sold since its publication in 1960. A tenth of The World Almanac is devoted to sports, more than is allocated for business, science, and politics combined.
None of this has been lost on evangelicals, who have been quick to harness sports to personal and institutional agendas. Less than a century ago, major segments of the evangelical community considered sports a cancer on the spiritual life; today their denominational progeny lead the parade to stadiums. The cozy coupling of sports and evangelicalism shows itself not only in the outsized athletic complexes that are common features of church architecture, but also in the ease with which sport and its symbols show up in the sanctuary. Pastors incorporate pithy sports metaphors into their sermons. Famous athletes are invited to pulpits to tell how their faith helps them compete. Some churches celebrate Super Bowl Sunday by canceling the evening service and assembling in the sanctuary to watch the game on large-screen TVs. “Faith nights” sponsored by local baseball teams draw entire congregations to the ballpark. Evangelistic organizations that center on the public’s fascination with sports flourish.
However, Hoffman later opines:
Variously described by those inside and outside as narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic, big-time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians for centuries have understood as the embodiment of the gospel. There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative — with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination — while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle. If evangelical ethicist R. E. O. White is right to assert that self-absorption is behind all wrong social relationships and, for this reason, self-denial is the first ethical condition of discipleship, then elite athletes immersed in the self-consumed atmosphere of sports, where self-denial is a recipe for competitive disaster, face a fundamental problem.
…If indeed sport is marching toward Gomorrah, it seems to have escaped the attention of large portions of the evangelical community, which continue to bask in the reflected glory of Christian athletes. Much evangelical commentary glorifies athletes and sports, but becomes timid in situations that warrant indictment. Rarely does the evangelical press ask touchy questions about tensions between the moral culture of Christianity and that of big-time sports. The silence is deafening.
In its vision of sports, bolstered by the large number of Christian athletes who have joined professional and collegiate teams, the evangelical community has yet to ask how the influx of believers has affected the morality of sports. There may be no more vivid illustration of historian Mark Noll’s “scandal of the evangelical mind” than the way the community has neglected to think Christianly about sport, or has excused itself from crafting a sensible philosophy that will help them mine the spiritual riches that sport has to offer. [emphasis mine]
Back in 1976, Frank DeFord wrote a series of Sports Illustrated articles called “Religion in Sports,” in which he asserted, “Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting.”
In those articles, he coined a phrase, “Sportianity,” to describe a “new denomination” of Christianity that has embraced sports, has intentionally infiltrated its arenas for the purpose of evangelism, but which may have become, in fact, sports’ handmaiden.
Unlike DeFord, I am not qualified to speak on the complex relationship between sports and religion in America. My concerns are much more personal and pastoral. It seems to me that sports represents one of those areas of American pop culture that has simply inundated Christianity and left us helplessly going with the flow.
- Now churches schedule services and programs around sporting events and calendars, not vice versa.
- Now it is common for individuals and families to miss services and church activities to be involved in sports, whether simply watching or participating.
- In many minds, any specialness which Sunday maintains is usually more related to sporting events that are taking place that day than to Lord’s Day worship.
- People who would complain loudly of “legalism” or authoritarianism if the pastor suggested we dress up a little bit to honor God when we come to worship have no problem with wearing jerseys and other sports gear to church to show allegiance to their teams (picture the 80-year old woman wearing her Colts jersey, face paint and team-colored ribbons last week in our service).
But wait, isn’t most of this just harmless fun? Am I being too hard on God’s family here?
I am aware of the good aspects of sports, and I fully affirm them. After all, sporting fields and stands have been the context where I have sought to live out my faith over the past 20 years. But somehow, I wonder…
- Have we lost some perspective here?
- Was I completely wrong to have relativized sports, to have set it aside as a less worthy pursuit, when I was in the state of first love with Jesus?
- Has the Sportian lifestyle swallowed up a distinctive, counter-cultural Christianity?
- Do we live in a day in which it is simply impossible for pastors to admonish their congregations about a devotion to sports that has crossed the line, tying up their time, emotional energies, and finances in something which is not, in the final analysis, all that important?
Sportianity’s Holiest Celebration
And now we have come to Holy Week, which culminates on the holiest day of Sportianity’s year: Super Bowl Sunday. Here in Indianapolis, where we have a rooting interest in the game’s outcome, it’s just about all anyone is talking about.
- We’ll have our daily devotions listening to messages from sports pundits and talk-show hosts.
- We’ll have a special season of fellowship with our friends and coworkers, praising our team and encouraging one another with new insights into the game.
- We’ll share the good news with neighbors and coworkers that our team is best and will certainly win.
- We’ll utilize apologetics in commending our team against unbelievers, giving a reasonable defense as to why they will triumph.
- On game day, we’ll gather before the sacred flat screen altar, share the holy appetizers, and participate in the liturgy of watching the big game (and especially the commercials) with exclamations of praise and/or lament.
- We’ll go forth into the world on Monday to talk about our experiences and rejoice that we were together.
Then, on to spring training, the Final Four, the NFL draft, the start of baseball season, the NBA playoffs…
…with ESPN at our side, for he hath said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
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