Every week this year is an adventure with the theme “The People.” Today we explore….

“The People who love sports”


Andy Farmer is the Minister to Students at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.bio.

A few hours before a hyped playoff rematch with their archrival, I found myself wondering out loud to the local high school football team about Saint Peter’s “breakfast on the beach” conversation with Jesus. I started to settle for sloppy “second chance” comparisons but, by God’s grace, moved on to a different angle on Jesus’ question, asked three times, “Do you love me?”

If we hear the emphasis on the word “me,” I thought, we’re questioned about what we attach ourselves to and not just about if we’re attached (“Do you love me?”), if we’re ready to claim ownership (“Do you love me?”), or how deep we’re in (“Do you love me?”). For those fully devoted – “Lord, you know we are!” – to sports, sports sub-cultures, and certain teams, “Do you love me?” is perhaps the most confrontational way to hear it.

It’s likely I was thinking this way because I’d just attended an entire conference on the role of sports in American life and heard dozens of presentations on implications for people of faith. As it turns out, a passionate group of theologians, philosophers, educators, and ministers are leading the way in realizing that the unexamined (sports) life is not worth living. More than one of them referenced Augustine’s understanding of “disordered loves.”

As we all know, scholars aren’t the only ones wrestling with how to love the right things in the right order. As one of my former coaches might’ve put it, “everybody and their mommas” are trying to reconcile the love of God and the love of sport. That would include teenagers, their families, and the youth workers investing in them.
Youth workers, it seems, are tempted to hone in on one aspect of the church-sports relationship – how to avoid losing youth families to competing commitments – at the expense of a more comprehensive (and compelling) Christian vision of sport. In the conference’s concluding address, Greg Jones from Duke Divinity School mentioned three steps toward such a vision:

1.Dwell first on the goodness of God’s creation and the gift of embodied life. This would include doing things for no other reason than to please God – that is, reclaiming the “purposelessness” of play. Sin is real, but the Christian narrative suggests that goodness, not conflict, underlies all. 2. Then, we need to confront the brokenness and distortion in sport. “Winning at all costs” has cost us a lot. If being Christian involves all aspects of life, we cannot check our ethics at the door of the stadium. 3. Keep the Kingdom of God in mind. In the midst of brokenness, we’re always having to adapt to find the most Kingdomminded form. When recognizing how sports are negatively forming us, what is needed is an improvisational spirit.

So, whether we believe we’re “in a bad place” unique to this age or think that “vilifying sports today as the reason for declining church attendance will do no more good than Tertullian’s objections to the Roman games,” we may be stopping short of Step Three.

At least the second of the articles linked to in the last sentence asks a good question: “What are sports offering that draw people to them?” But even then, it seems to be in the spirit of proposing something. What if we took the first step of actually asking our people that question and just listened for a while? Is an open letter (like the first link) as necessary as the long, hard work of seeking to understand?

I certainly recognize the urge to offer commentary and solutions. Not often do I resist it. In the end, though, having a strong pastoral presence often requires us to be quicker to listen and slower to speak. Doing so would represent a shift in Christian engagement with sports. I serve as a high school football “chaplain,” after all, which isn’t a very precise title. Traditionally, sports chaplains have been less like chaplains, who listen for a living, and more like evangelists. In my case, I spend next to no time in actual conversation with players or coaches. I do get to pray for them when I visit the locker room on game days. For the most part, however, I serve as a pregame speaker.

As churches and chaplain-supplying organizations like FCA continue to practice only the instrumental vision – sports as a platform or tool to be used for good or for bad – and fail to articulate a healthier theology of the body, they risk alienating the people they’re fighting for. As Dr. Jones (and so many others I met at the Baylor conference) suggested, a more hopeful theological framework would include an affirmation of playfulness and a prophetic voice, not one or the other.

The prophecy mentioned here wouldn’t major in uniform condemnation of families choosing sports activities (or watching them) over church attendance. It would focus on speaking up for those marginalized by sport – the children and adolescents left vulnerable by overeager parents, coaches, or communities, for instance. Take your pick – there’s no shortage of sports-related justice issues that desperately need addressing. They include issues related to race, gender, exploitation, greed, player safety and overall well-being, education, poverty, and power. In the current climate, sports are dehumanizing – for those who play and for those who watch – as often as they’re uplifting or “character-building.”

I think I might answer Jesus’ “Do you love me?” question with “yes, even more than sports…or, well, I wish I did, at least.” Could it be that even our most sports-crazed youth and adults, if they had a way, might say the same thing? Could it be that, by God’s grace and with pastoral care, they might get there?