I once had a high school football coach tell me, “You play football, then life sucks, and you die.” Though I don’t think my coach knew what kind of existentialism he was engaging in with that statement, I realized when I got to college he was not the only one who subscribed to this philosophy. I played college ball at a private, Division II school just outside of St. Louis, MO. It wasn’t a beacon of academic superiority by any means, but the athletic scholarships were plentiful and the food wasn’t half-bad. So it was a relatively successful institution.
Sanctified by Blood?
I grew to have an ambivalent relationship with college football, however. College football, at least the college football I participated in, implicitly aided in a practice of dehumanization. First, in a contact sport like football, we were taught to be violent. Our offensive line handbook carried phrases like “We are the aggressor. Soft play, soft minds, and soft hearts are unacceptable,” and “Embrace the violence! Revel in the violence! Love the violence!” Though a necessary component of the game, it led many among our ranks to become emotionally hardened. Second, when we signed our name on that dotted line of our scholarship agreement, we were reduced to investments. Our output and work capacity were calculated against the amount of scholarship money being invested in us each year. When our recruiters and higher-ups became so far removed from the actual players on the field, it was easy for them to lose sight of the fact that we were a bunch of kids just trying to figure it out.
If our kids are constantly absent from our church-sponsored events in favor of athletic commitments, we need to ask why. Do they believe, “You play football, then life sucks, and you die?” Or are they putting into action what they’ve been taught at home and in their churches about Jesus?
Being a Christian in the midst of the profit machine that is college sports was frustrating on a personal level. But it gave me complete, unrestricted access to an entire array of people I would never find myself spending time with otherwise. And that was nothing short of a gift. The locker room, on any given day, was filled with guys who grew up on the streets of Chicago and Baltimore; guys who had been stabbed or shot at one point in their lives due to gang activity. But it was also filled with guys who had a privileged upbringing and every advantage from a very young age. And these people, who grew up in good situations and had supportive families who helped pay their way through college, never spoke of football the same way my high school football coach did. It was always the other side of the spectrum; the guys with the rough upbringing who had to become an adult at a very young age and provide for their families or protect themselves from who or what they might run into while walking to school the next day.
This Is Mission Work
It took me a while to finally figure out why football was so important to some of these guys: they found salvation in football. For some of my friends, football was the only thing that got them out of their situations back home; it was the only thing that offered them an opportunity at something more than just subsistence. If it weren’t for football, many of them, statistically, likely would have succumbed to drug addiction and gang involvement, and ultimately found themselves in prison. And when I realized this, my perspective of college football began to change. This wasn’t just a sport I played. This was my mission field.
It stopped being that thing I dreaded and became something with a purpose. It was no longer about run-game yardage production or the perfect defensive line stunt pickup. It was an opportunity to share my faith with the guys I cared about most. And I held myself to two rules: first, I would never be the first one to start talking about my faith. I wanted to preach the gospel through my actions; through how I cared about the guys around me and defended them and how I loved and respected my wife. I never wanted my guys to think that I viewed them as projects or merely as objects of evangelism. I never wanted to be the guy on the street corner who Jesus talks about in Matthew 6 who prays in a loud voice so everyone hears me. I wanted my friends to notice something different about me and ask me about it when they were ready.
Second, I would never hold someone to a biblical standard who didn’t care about the Bible. I never judged my friends who loved to glorify and revere themselves instead of Jesus. I never judged my friends who were addicted to porn or constantly peddled stories of their sexual experiences. My friends had a certain perception of reality created for them in which these things were okay. And that wasn’t something for me to combat or critique with a book which wasn’t a part of that reality.
A Missionary’s Life
With this new perspective, sports became an integral part of my Christian life. It consumed more of my time than any church programming and missing out on church functions became a normal routine for me. I didn’t attend the Wednesday night college groups or short-term mission trips over spring break. I frequently missed corporate worship services and small groups. But the beautiful part was that never once did I feel convicted about that—I was investing time in my mission field. Instead, my own spirituality was being sustained through my academic life.
I studied theology during my undergraduate years and found wonderful Christian community amongst my professors and colleagues. My prayer life largely took the form of reading theological tomes and worship became discussion and debate with others in the department. These were the ways in which God related to me individually and through a community, and I came to understand that this was okay. This is where I found meaning in Paul’s words that “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). The Christian life cannot be contained within the stony confines of a building or reduced to time spent with a specific group of Christian friends.
We cannot adequately measure the success of youth programs and small groups just by measuring attendance. The Christian life eludes this sort of quantification. If we tell the kids in our small groups that church programs are more important than soccer games and football practice, then we risk communicating to them that God can only be found within a church—therefore anything or anyone who doesn’t fit into our ecclesial bubble cannot be serving God. Conversely, when we communicate that it’s okay for families to be absent from church functions in favor of other obligations, we risk communicating to the youth in our congregation that the church’s community life is insignificant.
We need to change the way we think and approach the dichotomy between athletic and church commitments in the lives of our youth. Playing sports is not necessarily more or less important than attending youth group or worship meetings. Instead, we need to realize that maybe our kids are doing better work for the kingdom by simply having friends who aren’t Christians. Or modeling a personality which is counter to our hedonistic and legalistic culture. This might be more important work than attending church activities for no other reason than the fact that they are church activities.
If our kids are constantly absent from our church-sponsored events in favor of athletic commitments, we need to ask why. Do they believe, “You play football, then life sucks, and you die?” Or are they putting into action what they’ve been taught at home and in their churches about Jesus? If it’s the former, who are we sending to show them the love of Jesus? If it’s the latter, then our young people have become missionaries, and instead of recalling them from the mission field, we need to ask how we can support them.
How are you ministering to and supporting your young people not at church-sponsored events? Don’t forget—they need Jesus also.
J.T. Young is a M.Div. Middler at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is married to Amy (who is way out of his league) and has a son named Boston (who gets all his good looks from his mother). Aside from all his nerdy theological interests, he is passionate about chocolate milk and cheesy dad jokes and dreams about living somewhere where it is cold year-round.