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 fourth post of this series, we looked at the ritual and liturgy both of sports and of church.
In the last month or so, NBC has started airing commercials for the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics. Athletes around the world are dreaming of the opportunity to represent their country on the Olympic stage, and many lesser-known sports (e.g., fencing, badminton, field hockey, etc.) get their chance to be in the world spotlight for a brief moment. For those of us who are not Olympic athletes, we have the chance to marvel at the feats of athleticism, and the perseverance and dedication behind the performance. Every two years (when counting the Winter Olympics!), I am amazed both at the athletes, but also at NBC’s ability to make me care about the outcomes of sports I know nothing about. The stories of individual athletes’ journeys to the Games inspire viewers and provide reasons to care about the outcomes of the competition. This is the same formula that has inspired a plethora of successful sports movies and TV shows: Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Rocky, Rudy, The Blind Side, A League of Their Own, and the list goes on and on. What is behind the success of these movies, television features, and sporting events?
At their heart, these movies and biopics of athletes are a celebration of the pinnacle of human capability. The viewer sees the journey of the underdog working to beat the stronger, faster, favored competitor through the “training montage.” Outside of the movies, sports teams and individuals share their training journey through inspirational social media posts, which allow their fans to see the hard work being put into the game-time performances.
Our human potential, strengths, and capabilities are gifts from God… Yet when we forget the One who gave us these gifts, then we begin to celebrate our human potential in the same way as the builders of the Tower of Babel.
Yet, sports—whether on film or in the real world—are not only a celebration of physical accomplishment, but a celebration of the human capabilities for commitment, perseverance, and a dedication to triumph over the odds. In sports, we see the best of what humanity can accomplish. Organizations like Special Olympics and the Paralympics celebrate these values of sports. Unity, teamwork, courage, determination, inclusivity, and others are recognized as some of the values of sports that transcend physical capabilities. When you consider your favorite movie about sports, the compelling aspect of the story is the emotional and relational development of the athlete or team, which causes the viewer to cheer for them.
In my last post, I looked at James K.A. Smith’s claim that our habits and practices form rituals that point towards an ultimate desire. If the habits, practices, and rituals of sports are forming a liturgy, then it is one that celebrates the fulfillment of human potentiality and capability. The commitment required, the community that is formed, and the practices and rituals all develop strengths and contribute to a fullness of humanity.
Yet, a celebration of human potential and capability starts to sound eerily familiar, like a story we’ve heard before of a tower being built toward the heavens. A group of people united together, started making bricks and mortar, and beginning building a tower. They looked at one another and said, “Let’s make ourselves famous,” and “Look at all we can accomplish” without thinking about God or God’s commands.
A wise pastor I knew once said in a sermon, “Do not confuse the gift with the Giver.” Our human potential, strengths, and capabilities are gifts from God. And like any good gift, we are encouraged to use and steward the gift and not hide it in the ground. Yet when we forget the One who gave us these gifts, then we begin to celebrate our human potential in the same way as the builders of the Tower of Babel.
In a world where youth sports have become a time commitment equal to a part-time job, we, as pastors to young people and their families, have the challenge of handling the double-edged sword of the world of sports. How do we celebrate the way that sports are helping form young people in the fullness of humanity, while also teaching a recognition of sports’ temporality and limits? In my years of coaching and playing sports, the unfortunate reality is that the latter becomes sharply in focus when injury, loss, and disappointment hit. When things are going well in an athlete’s journey, it is much harder to remember that our human capability is fallible and will eventually fall short. Those who work with young athletes—teachers, parents, coaches, pastors —have a responsibility to remind them to give thanks daily for the gifts they have been given, with the recognition that they could be taken away at any given moment.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
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.