In the first post of this series, we looked at the history of the relationship of sports and the church.
In the second post of this series, we looked at the demand for commitment and promise of reward from both sports and church.
In the third post of this series, we looked at the community of CrossFit and compared it to the church.
In the fifth post of this series, we look at the celebration of human capability as worship of the ultimate Giver.
Don’t mess with an athlete’s lucky socks. Or try to cook a new meal for a runner the night before a big race. Every player has their own set of pre-game rituals that they cling to in preparation for game day. Whether or not athletes are superstitious, their rituals extend beyond lucky socks to the hours of practice spent before the game. For every highlight reel play, there are thousands of repetitions of those movements in drills and practices, preparing for the game time moment.
After making the commitment that sports demand and becoming part of the community who practice together, athletes give themselves over to both the physical practices and drills as well as the mental rituals of preparation of their sport. There have been wide studies done on the power of visualization for sports performance, and sports psychologists work with athletes on their mental focus. This combination of physical and mental practices often begins to affect how an athlete lives their everyday life, whether it’s choices about nutrition or activity, or spending time off the field thinking about their sport. And in all of those small habits and decisions, formation is happening.
The challenge for the church, for youth ministries, and for young Christians is to thoughtfully (and honestly) engage with this formation happening in sports. To disregard the importance of athletic formation, or to demonize it is to do a disservice to young people who are deeply involved in sports.
James K. A. Smith makes the claim, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, that our habits and practices work to shape what kinds of people we are (p. 82). Not every habit is “thick,” or meaning-filled, but even “our thinnest habits and practices ultimately get hooked up into desires that point at something ultimate” (83). This desire for the ultimate, Smith claims, is at the heart of our humanity. For Smith, we are not primarily thinkers or believers, but embodied creatures who first and foremost are lovers, desiring some good or end that is the object of our love. He defines these loves as, “that to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world—in other words, what we desire above all else, the ultimate desire that shapes and positions and makes sense of all our penultimate desires and actions” (50–51).
When considered in this light, it becomes apparent how quickly a love of sports—particularly with its aspects of participation, ritual, and community—could eclipse other loves in someone’s life, especially a young person who is searching for ways to define self and answer the question, “Who am I?”
The challenge for the church, for youth ministries, and for young Christians is to thoughtfully (and honestly) engage with this formation happening in sports. To disregard the importance of athletic formation, or to demonize it is to do a disservice to young people who are deeply involved in sports. There is plenty of good being instilled through athletic formation, and plenty of formation that is not innately evil. Instead, there is an opportunity to place this formation in proper perspective. Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian, once wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Christ is sovereign over the church and over culture, including sports.
How do we help young athletes name how Christ is being glorified through sports (and where we, as humans, are failing to glorify Christ within sports)? Is it as simple as “Tebow-ing” after a great play? Or perhaps allowing sports to be subject to Christ’s sovereignty means changing how athletes approach competition—Is it win at all costs, or is it showing love and respect for an opponent throughout the game?
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.