In 2009, quarterback Tim Tebow led the University of Florida Gators to victory in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). Before the game, in a locker room huddle, Tebow offered this reassurance to his teammates: “We’re going to win because we’re going to handle it the right way; we’re going to be humble with it, with God leading us.”
Since his first year on the team, Tebow has become a sort of superhero in the world of college sports, garnering attention—and devoted followers—on and off the field because of his outspokenness about his faith. In addition to the standard “I ♥ Tim Tebow” message, the 17,000-member Facebook club dedicated to him features such laudatory remarks from fans as, “God is good. Timmy is good too” and “For life! Tebow rules the world.”
Although some people might chalk this up to typical flattery, a deeper current runs through the comments. The almost mythic stature of Tim Tebow sheds light on the mores of North American society and its understanding of faith and sports. For many, the relationship between the two has grown so strong that they are virtually indistinguishable, and the world of sport has become a religion itself.
The religion of sport
The United States, often characterized as one of the most decidely religious nations in the West, leads the way in transforming sport into “one of the most pervasive forms of religion—implicit and often explicit—in the modern world,” writes Michael Grimshaw, professor of religious studies at University of Canterbury in New Zealand. As anyone who has ever watched a major sporting event such as the Super Bowl or March Madness can hardly deny, athletes have become objects of adulation and even worship.
The religious parallels extend to other aspects as well. Rituals, traditions, and sacred stories are embraced by eager fans and passed on from generation to generation. Communities of people gather to share their common love for a team or sport. Ardent devotees take pilgrimages to the hallowed spaces of Lambeau Field and the old Yankee Stadium. Objects such as the Lombardi Trophy, the Stanley Cup, and the Grey Cup are reverently adored.
Perhaps most troubling, the religion of sport has all but claimed the Sabbath day as its own, even in the lives of many Christians. Whether it’s the kids’ soccer game or NFL playoffs on TV, sports often dominate families’ Sundays. Rather than a day of rest, the Sabbath becomes yet another day of surrendering to the life-consuming nature of sport.
A healthy perspective
In light of these struggles, many Christians question how they can successfully be in the world but not of the world in this arena. Assigning sports their proper priority is a good place to start. It is the responsibility of each believer to recognize when their healthy appreciation for a player or team or their own athletic participation has crossed the line into idolatry. Setting boundaries and time limits can help Christians enjoy sports while keeping them in perspective.
Once we have committed to keeping athletic involvements in their proper place, we can appreciate the many ways sport can enrich our faith and lives. The numerous parallels between athletic and spiritual development can help both spectators and athletes cultivate a better understanding of their spiritual lives. For instance, an athlete’s success in sports depends on delayed gratification—denying oneself in the present to attain a future goal—which is also a central tenet of Jesus’ teachings. Perseverance is another attribute that is highly praised by coaches and the writers of the epistles alike. And Paul uses multiple sports metaphors to explain the spiritual journey to his readers.
Yet playing and enjoying sports can also be an end in itself. Athletic ability, just like any other talent, is a gift from God, and the cultivation of that talent is an act of giving back to Him in gratitude. But we should be willing to accept trials as well as success. Struggling through a college volleyball season riddled with countless injuries and hospital visits, I constantly reminded myself and my team that God was infinitely more concerned with who we were becoming as His children than our victories on the court.
On the (mission) field
Even as involvement in sports can inform the personal faith lives of sports enthusiasts, it can also provide opportunities for them to use their talents and interests as a direct means of spreading the Gospel. One way to do this is by participating in or supporting organizations, such as Athletes in Action and Push the Rock, that specialize in sending athletic teams overseas to serve with churches and missionaries in their local communities. In this context, Christian athletes bring a skill set that allows churches to reach people they would have no access to otherwise. On trips to largely atheistic Siberia and to the religious war zones in Israel and Palestine, I have witnessed firsthand the openness of our fellow athletes’ hearts to the message of the love of Christ, simply because they respected our team first as volleyball players.
In a similar way, Christians involved in team sports have a unique “mission field” open to them at a more immediate level. On a team, people from diverse backgrounds come together and commit to shared goals. These relationships allow a Christian athlete to consistently display the image of Christ to the members of their team through their humility and the respect and consideration they show for teammates, coaches, officials, and athletic opponents.
Even on a team composed solely of Christians, ministry plays a vital role. This small community of people can serve as a microcosm of the body of Christ. Each team member has a singular role and contributes to the goals of the team in a specific way. Because of the sheer amount of time spent together and the periods of stress endured as a unit, it is also an ideal environment for learning how to serve and love others. In this way, team members encourage and minister to each other.
An instrument of worship
As active participants in God’s redemptive work in the world, Christians are called to engage the North American culture of athletics. This doesn’t mean that we accept our society’s elevation of sports to a religion. On the contrary, we must advocate that athletics, rather than a subject worthy of worship in itself, is actually an instrument of worship to our God.
Sports provide another means of modeling devotion to our faith in the midst of a society that so quickly settles for substitutes, athletic or otherwise. They enable us not only to glorify God, but to learn more about Him and share His good news with others. Instead of distracting us and others from our spiritual lives, sports can be utilized to enrich them. Given today’s atmosphere of sports fanaticism, this kind of change in perspective will likely require sacrifice, practice, and perseverance. But, as the Apostle Paul and those involved in sports can attest, it is precisely this type of perseverance that builds character and leads to enduring hope on and off the field.