Have you ever sat back and observed a child? Children move. A lot.
Children want to run in hallways and around kitchen tables. They want to run downstairs. They want to run in backyards and front yards. Down sidewalks and driveways. In grocery stores and church sanctuaries. Children want to move. They want to run and jump. They want to, in the core of their being, play.
You don't have to tell a child how to play. If you give them a ball, they'll do with it all they know to do: kick it, hit it, bounce it, lay on it, throw it in the air and catch it, toss it against the wall and watch as it bounces back to them, chase after it, and hold it. Children want little else in this world other than to have fun. This is why they play.
Eventually, these children grow up and parents sign them up for organized sports: basketball, soccer, football, swimming, volleyball, tennis, etc. The list can go on and on. But why do parents do this? What about sports entices Christians to be involved in them?
A recent study found that over 36 million children between the ages of 5-18 play sports in America. 66% of America’s boys and 52% of its girls are on a sports field or court on Saturdays and/or Sundays playing. The numbers are evidence of a young person’s desire to play and have fun. It’s not detailed how many of those kids come from Christian families, but one can assume many of them do.
While the foundational purpose for playing sports may be to have fun, there are unique parallels between it and the Christian life. In Paul’s letters to the early church, he talks about the training of the athlete in comparison to the discipleship of a Christian: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
Involvement in sports develops us in ways that translate in many other areas of our lives. Playing sports disciplines us to improve. In the same way, we can only get better in basketball by practicing our dribbling and shooting, we can only grow in our faith by spending time in prayer, reading Scripture, and being involved in a community of believers.
Sports also teaches us teamwork. Kids learn from an early age how to work together with others who are different. As we get older, we learn to respect others in spite of our differences. Playing on a sports team allows us to put into practice selflessness, another key virtue of Christianity.
There is a spiritual component to the joy one feels playing sports. God created us in his image, and we know that he believed his creation to be good. God feels joy over his creation. Why would he not want us to be joyful? Kids are happy when they’re playing sports. When they’re kicking the soccer ball, or shooting the basketball, or swimming laps in the pool, they’re having fun. It’s when parents place conditions of that happiness on whether a team wins or loses that the joy is tainted. It’s great for Christians to be involved in sports as long as they have the right perspective. It’s a tool to get better at something and have fun while doing it.
Two years ago I watched my beloved Clemson Tigers play Alabama for the college football national championship. They lost in a close game. Then this past January I watched them play, for the second straight year, Alabama for that same national title. This time they won. One year? Heartbreak. Next year? Great joy.
What I realized from those two years is this: in the sting of loss and the joy of victory, my life didn’t change. I still woke up the next morning and went to work. I still kissed my wife and hugged my kids when I came home. The world didn’t change after either game. As much as I love Clemson football, it doesn’t run my life. I don’t worship it.
In many parts of the world, sport is a god. Millions of Americans spent Sundays watching the NFL. Untold amounts of money get wagered weekly on how many points Team X will win by over Team Y. And if you think America is divided over politics, go browse through a college football message board.
The reason that tension exists between Christianity and sports sometimes is because of how unflinchingly loyal many can be to, of all things, a football team. The term fan is short for fanatic, and that fanaticism tends to spend more time thinking about, talking about, and tweeting about a sports team than anything else.
Engaging the Sports World
Can a Christian enter the world of sports without it consuming them? The answer, of course, is yes. And with as much attention paid to sports these days (for a variety of reasons), it’s creating opportunities for conversations about a number of issues central to the gospel.
A sports team may not be the center of your life, but it is for others. Christians have a great opportunity to enter the fray and, instead of shunning those who play and/or watch sports on Sundays, to connect with them and love them.
36 million kids under the age of 19 alone are playing sports. That tells us we have an opportunity to make a tremendous impact on families across the nation. The sports world isn’t for everyone. But to look past it is to ignore a large group of people that God loves.
Whether you’re a hardcore sports fan who can name every starting quarterback in the NFL, or you never pay sports any attention (why do teams never get a fifth down?), the original intent of sports was to train us for life and to bring us joy. In the same way a beautiful piece of music or an incredible acting performance moves us, the same happens with an amazing buzzer-beater to win the game. Millions of kids and their parents experience that joy each week. We as the church should engage them and help them discover the love of Christ.