In the second post of this series, we look at the demand for commitment and promise of reward from both sports and church.
In the third post of this series, we look at the community of CrossFit and compare it to the church.
In the fourth post of this series, we look at the ritual and liturgy implicit in sports and church.
In the fifth post of this series, we look at the celebration of human capability as worship of the ultimate Giver.
It’s that time of year again. In many parts of the country, Friday night lights rule the town. Soccer camps, lacrosse camps, and cross country two-a-days have already dominated students’ summers. And if you work with a youth ministry at a church, you may have found yourself or others grumbling about how sports take away from the time you could spend with the young people in your congregation. Recently, I was with a group of adults who were bemoaning the rise of Sunday youth sports, remembering the “good old days,” when sports never even conflicted with Wednesday night church programs. Yet, in the middle of what was soon to be a downward spiral of complaints and regrets, one voice spoke up and asked, “Maybe we should ask a different question. What are sports offering that draw people to them?”
Rather than vilify the evils of sports, this blog series will attempt to answer this question: What deep longings are sports meeting? Where is there hope, redemption, and grace in sports? I will admit my own bias here — I play elite-level ultimate frisbee on a club team, and I coach a college women’s team as well. It is safe to say that I see value in sports, believing that they are not incompatible with Christianity!
But in today’s post, as a way of introduction, I want to examine the myth that today, in 2015, sports are a new challenge for the Christian church.
“History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NLT)
Christianity has had a rocky relationship with sports, games, play, and leisure since the church was born. Many of the classical games, races, and even the Olympics, became traditions while celebrating religious festivals. And yet, readers today point to Paul’s letters for his implicit acceptance of sports and competition. He uses sporting metaphors to exhort Christians to “run with perseverance” (Heb 12:1), to “run in such a way to win the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24-27), and to “fight the good fight” (2 Tim. 2:5). Even as Paul was writing though, the classical games and sporting events were giving way to spectacles of bloody combat in the Roman arenas. Enrollment in the gladiators’ schools was often the fate of criminals, prisoners of wars, and later those accused of high treason — including Christians. It is unsurprising that the early church fathers such as Augustine and Tertullian spoke vehemently against these games. Beyond the bloody and murderous nature of the games, Tertullian expressed concerns about the riotous actions that a mob mentality could lead to, not excluding drunkenness, gambling, and other vices (Ellis, 12).
As the Roman Empire was Christianized, games were prohibited on Sundays, and eventually ceased altogether, which may have been due to the Christian influence or the change in economic and cultural circumstances. However, as Christianity spread through Europe, the practice of playing games on holy days and Sundays continued, even as the games changed depending on the locality. Again, the church’s ambivalence continued, with an acceptance that games of all sorts would continue to be played, but a condemnation of the behaviors around them — violence, drunkenness, gambling. Through the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, there began to be a split in Christianity in regards to sports. On one hand, the Renaissance brought a new appreciation of the human body. On the other, the Puritans, whose influence was increasing in England, condemned the enjoyment of earthly pleasures on the Sabbath, a day for reflecting on God’s Word. Through the 17th and 18th century, this tension continued on both sides of the Atlantic, depending on which region one lived in, and the level of Puritan influence there.
Through the 19th century, the movement known as “Muscular Christianity” came to see sports and games as an arena for character building and moral growth. Perhaps one of the clearest manifestations of this movement was the development of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). With its emphasis on “body, mind, spirit,” the YMCA saw sports as a tool for “the sake of the gospel.” James Naismith, a YMCA coach, created basketball to provide an all-weather sport for the energy of the young men. With Muscular Christianity also came a redefinition of masculinity. Sports demanded duty, sacrifice, and effort, much in the way war and battle had demanded male honor.
The 20th century has seen the rise of sports evangelism in the United States — church-sponsored sports leagues such as the Upward basketball leagues, parachurch organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes dedicated to sports chaplaincy, and professional athletes using their celebrity and interviews to give glory to God. Meanwhile, we have also seen a growing split between recreational or amatuer athletes and the professional sphere, creating two very different sports cultures, each with its own unique characteristics.
The particularities in the struggle between church and sports may have changed over the past two millennia, but there is no doubt that both have survived all kinds of cultural upheaval, and will continue to co-exist as long as humanity does.
Vilifying sports today, in 2015, as the reason for declining church attendance will do no more good than Tertullian’s objections to the Roman games — which Christians still attended! Instead, this blog series will propose ways that participation in sports (not focusing on the spectator aspects) are forming people today, and try to answer the question, “What are sports offering that draws people to them?”
Robert Ellis, The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).
Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).
Shirl James Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010).
Kristin Franke spent 5 years as the youth director at Union Church in Hong Kong. She graduated with her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in May 2015, and currently works at the seminary. In her free time, she plays and coaches Ultimate Frisbee.