In the first post of this series, we looked at the history of the relationship of sports and the 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.
When my siblings and I were children, my mom was adamant about following through on commitments. When we signed up for a sports team (or any kind of activity), quitting in the middle of the season was not an option. “You made a commitment, and you’re going to finish the season. After that, you don’t have to do it anymore if you don’t like it.” This wasn’t usually a problem for me, because I single-mindedly dedicated myself to one sport at a time growing up. Live, breathe, eat gymnastics… then swimming and diving… then running… now ultimate. Once I was in, I was all in.
The original question posed by this blog series, “What do sports offer people?” implies that sports are fulfilling some need or are giving something that can be consumed. Yet, in fact, sports are demanding commitment from athletes. Commitment to mastering the skills or fitness necessary to compete. Commitment to teammates who are counting on you. Even the youngest participants of sports — T-ball, pee-wee football, youth soccer — know that practices are important to be ready for the games. My mom can probably tell stories of dragging children to swim practices to help teach them commitment. The games, races, meets are always more fun than practices. And yet, choosing to play sports means choosing the drudgery of practices, sprint workouts, lifting sessions, and healthy diets.
Beside the commitment to personal improvement in sports, in many cases, athletes are making a commitment to their teammates. The commitment between teammates is more implicit than a formal contract or covenant, but it is that commitment to one another and a common goal that drives their practices and their individual workouts. When the tedium and exhaustion of practices start to overwhelm an individual athlete, it is their teammates who can push them harder and farther than before.
When we ask “Why are people choosing sports over church?” this perspective on commitment may begin to answer that question. Sports promise reward — winning, improvement, joy of the game — but demand commitment. In his work on identity formation, Erik Erikson made the claim that adolescents are developing the value of fidelity, or the ability to give their lives to something. Sports demand just that — the offering of time and talent.
And yet, that is exactly what the Christian faith has been doing since Jesus walked on earth: making promises and demands. Jesus promised that he came to bring abundant life (John 10:10). There is confidence that nothing can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39). Jesus promised the presence of the Holy Spirit to be among us forever (John 14:16-17), visibly seen on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). But these promises also come with demands, and difficult ones. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares that the way to life is narrow and difficult (Matt. 7:14), and repeatedly warns would-be followers that being his disciple may mean sacrificing earthly comforts (Matt. 8:18-20, Mark 10:17-22). Yet the difference is stark: Athletes work and make the commitment with the hope of receiving a reward; Christians work and make a commitment in response to a grace that is freely given.
Athletes work and make the commitment with the hope of receiving a reward; Christians work and make a commitment in response to a grace that is freely given.
Once we see this comparison of promises and demands, perhaps the conflict between church and sports is not about program attendance, but about where people place their hope and who or what they follow. When we frame church and sports in opposition to one another, we miss the opportunity to see how the Christian call to commitment can reign over all of the other commitments that we have in life. The church is the gathering of those who have felt Christ’s call on their lives, who sense that there is an eternal joy awaiting their commitment. And that commitment — to follow Christ — is meant to encompass all the other spheres of our life: school, work, sports, arts, family, and more.
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.