Dissertation Introduction

Introduction

As the day breaks, morning dawns on another beautiful Saturday morning. It is the first week of September and everything about the day seems perfect. Around 7 a.m., youth athletes wearing uniforms, long socks, and shinguards begin pouring into the park from every direction. Parents carrying lawn chairs, coolers, water bottles, siblings, cell phones, and blankets follow behind the influx of players. Soon the quiet park is buzzing with people; players, parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins have all come to this park that now looks a bit like a festival. Slowly the park begins to look less like a festival and more like a soccer complex, as games begin and fans find their places on the sidelines. The young players are off and running and the fans are cheering loudly for every effort. However, this picture is incomplete. In this park, as in every other park across the country on this Saturday morning, parents, players, and coaches participant in American sport unaware that underneath the beautiful day in the park lurks a dark and dangerous intensity.

Although many of the players are enjoying ‘The Beautiful Game,’ there are many more complications outside of the game itself. While it may still be fun, there are many other complications for these high school age athletes like scholarships, parental pressure, and an increasing pressure to win. This attitude is not relegated to soccer, but encompasses all American youth sports, from football to soccer to baseball to cheerleading. From a young age, sports become all consuming, often taking up more time than any other activity outside of school. Most serious athletes compete year-round, part of the year spent with a high school team and the rest of the year with one or more club teams. It is an all-consuming passion to compete in this way. Young athletes participate in weekly training sessions as well as sometimes weight room sessions to improve their strength and conditioning and video sessions to review their performance and upcoming opponents. To add to the intensity, many serious athletes are forced to specialize in a sport by age 12-14 because the competitive nature of high school and club sports requires a full commitment.

Aside from this enormous commitment and necessary dedication, the nature of American youth sports is devastatingly intense. Every season news channels report on a story about a coach or parent who abused, assaulted, or murdered a coach, parent, official, or even opposing player after a game. Are most of these parents or coaches individuals with gang violence in their background? While there is no way to make a precise statement about the background of all of the coaches or parents who have engaged in this behavior, many of these offenders are from suburban America, not from gangs in the inner city. This paints an interesting and not entirely positive picture of American suburban and supposedly primarily Christian culture. Some youth leagues have banned all parents from games, arguing that parents are the problem with youth sports.

However some research has shown that this is not the case. An example of this is seen in Stein, Raedeke, and Glenn’s work looking at parental involvement and child enjoyment. They found that children’s enjoyment was highest when their parents were moderately to highly involved in their sports experiences.[1] Clearly fixing youth sports is not a matter of kicking parents out, despite the prevailing media attention that often indicates this is the solution. Without parents, youth athletes would not enjoy their sports as much and would be left without much of the support they need while participating in sports. In order to take a better look at this undoubtedly complex issue, it is necessary to take a step back.

Perhaps the violence problem isn’t caused by the sports, but is really a sign of a deeper problem. Heinzmann indicates, “sports rage” by parents appears to be much overemphasized in today’s media.[2] Parents rage in many places including grocery stores, roads, and at shopping centers across the country on Black Friday. Interestingly, this occurs in a society where tolerance is considered to be the ideal for the vast majority of Americans.[3] So while many complain about the violent and intense nature of American youth sports, perhaps this should lead us to a much larger issue, a national, cultural, and philosophical issue rather than a sports issue. Perhaps the darkness underlying youth sports is not primarily due to the intensity with which it is pursued or its inherent violence but something much more sinister and pervasive. This ‘something’ is the result of a worldview where to hold beliefs that are fundamentally opposed to each other is acceptable. Tolerance can be held as a primary virtue alongside an utter rejection of the rights of an opponent on the sports field. This dualism, birthed out of a fundamental belief in relativism that most Americans have accepted in one way or the other, is an acceptable part of American culture. Unfortunately many Christians involved in efforts to minister in youth sport have failed recognized the connection between culture and sport. American sport culture cannot be separated from the overarching American culture because the two are inextricably intertwined that it is impossible to tell which is the driving force behind the other. Because of this interwoven nature, any discussion about anything related to American sport must begin with a discussion about overriding cultural ideals, beliefs, and themes.

The present overriding cultural philosophy of the Western world is the idea of postmodernism, an overused and somewhat nebulous concept that has recently been used to define many different situations and ideas. A thorough definition of postmodernism is quite beyond the scope of this work, however one aspect of postmodernity that is particularly relevant is the prevailing thought embracing relativism. While postmodernity is undoubtedly much more complex than just an idea or two, the postmodern mind generally doubts two philosophical ideas: objective truth and the notion that there is a global cultural narrative, also called a meta-narrative. Perhaps these doubts actually fostered the development of the postmodern mind, leading to a number of other generally held ideas. Both of these philosophical doubts have serious ramifications for human beliefs and actions. In particular, they are absolutely incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ because of Jesus’ claim to be the one singular path to God.[4] Because of Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God, following his teaching must lead to truth. Therefore, truth and morality must not be relative but rather absolute in the sense that they must conform to what Jesus said. Despite the obvious incompatibility of the Gospel of Christ with a relativistic view of truth, many Christians, suburban or not, have embraced both of these to form a dualism similar to the kind seen on the sports field with tolerance and the rejection of the rights of opponents. This dualism results from embracing postmodern relativism as a core belief. Once an individual has accepted relativism as a core belief, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with adding additional beliefs, congruent or incongruent.

This tragic system of incongruent beliefs has led to a dire situation in the American Church and American Christianity. In several ways, the American Church appears to be dying, stumbling on towards extinction. Youth are leaving the Church in large numbers, fleeing to many different religions or beliefs ranging from Islam to agnosticism to Buddhism to mysticism. Some believe that Christianity is ‘not working’ when the rubber meets the road. Others believe that there are many options so restricting oneself to just one is incredibly foolish and simplistic. Many see Christianity as a collection of bigots, people full of hatred towards anyone unlike themselves, especially abortionists or homosexuals, who ascribe to with different beliefs or values. Christians have not done themselves any favors in this regard because many professing Christians who have not been washed under by the wave of relativism are part of the Christian sub-culture that is completely disconnected from the non-Christian world. They have no idea how they are viewed and are completely oblivious to the changing cultural values around them. Because of this the Church is experiencing a dichotomy with some members disengaged from Christian objective truth and some members disengaged from American culture as a whole. These attitudes have created a situation in the Church were many people are incredibly disconnected and the Church is much weaker as a result.

It is in this culture that American sport serves as a bastion for the majority of Americans. In 2010, over 106 million people watched the Super Bowl, making it the top-rated telecast in United States history.[5] This, along with the amount of money spent on sports in America reveals how much Americans love sport. The sports industry in the United States is estimated at being a 414 billion dollar industry, making sport a significant player in the American market.[6] Not only is this a huge market, but it is a significant cultural aspect of American life. In order to minister to this large sports population, numerous sports ministries have developed in the past century. Organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and many others have been trying to reach out with the words of the Gospel to this population. There are many para-church organizations like these that are focused on sports ministry, but many have different methods. Some organizations have been very successful in identifying high profile Christian athletes and encouraging them to utilize their platform as an athlete to speak to other athletes. This is how Athletes in Action (AIA) began as a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ in 1966; the original focus was to create a basketball team that shared Christ at halftime. AIA still forms basketball teams who travel around the world with the purpose of witnessing to their opponents and fans. Other organizations have characteristically focused on sports camps, using these as opportunities to engage athletes spiritually and physically. Still other organizations engage students in small groups in high schools or colleges in an effort to impact them for Christ. One such organization is Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Their stated mission is, “To present to athletes and coaches and all whom they influence the challenge and adventure of receiving Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, serving Him in their relationships and in the fellowship of the church.”[7] Within the Church itself, some churches and denominations have sports ministries to reach the athletic in their congregation. Often these include softball teams, flag football tournaments, or soccer and basketball teams for children.

The obvious question is that of their success: how successful have Christians in the United States been at reaching the athletic realm for Christ? As with any question, a proper answer to this involves a mutual understanding of the definition of the terms involved in the question. One sports ministry leader hinted that the sports ministry movement had been successful, quoted by Hubbard as saying, “The image of Christianity in America used to be that it was for a bunch of old ladies. Now athletes are being Christians. That is saying it’s cool to be a Christian.”[8] But is the ‘coolness’ of Christianity a measure of the success of the sports ministry movement? Shouldn’t the real measure of success be something much more real and much less nebulous than ‘cool?’ Shouldn’t the real measure of success be the degree to which sports culture looks more like God’s culture? Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (New American Standard Bible). The Church’s job is to know what has been bound or loosed in heaven in order to bind and loose those things on earth. Jesus’ instruction on prayer supports this view by revealing a desire for heaven to be reflected on earth. He taught, “‘Pray then, this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’’”[9] This is also seen in Jesus’ submission to the Father’s foreordained will in preparation for His death on the cross.[10] If this is Jesus’ intention for the church, why would it be any different for sports ministry done in His name? Success from God’s viewpoint does not involve numbers or speeches. It does not involve the ‘acceptability’ of Christianity within athletic circles. Success in Christian ministry of any kind involves the transformation of sinful individuals into Christ-followers who know God, understand the kingdom of God, and make earth look more like heaven through their lives. It is by that definition of success that any program, church, or individual must be judged. Anything short of that can never be called true success.

This paper will argue that by this definition of success, American sports ministry is failing, much like the American church is failing. The Church can never make its goal to be cool or popular or accepted because this was never Jesus’ goal in his ministry. The Church in general and sports ministry in particular must follow Christ’s example in all things, including making disciples of all nations. Disciple-making has become an afterthought, almost a footnote in many sports ministry books. Twenty chapter books often dedicate one or two chapters to this task, even though it is the most important aspect of what Jesus did on earth. This argument for evangelism over discipleship will always be made: if there is nobody to disciple, what good is discipleship? Unfortunately in America today, the small numbers of youth who still consider themselves Christians are quickly disappearing because their faith has not been strengthened by discipleship. They are so spiritually weak and lacking in godly knowledge and wisdom that they are unable to stand against the philosophies of American culture. They do not understand why relative truth is incompatible with the Christian faith nor why there must be a true meta-narrative, the one found in the Bible. As a result, they slide into American culture and either add to their faith or abandon their faith completely for another equally acceptable religion. Christian athletes are no different, despite the vast numbers of sports ministries. For them, the lie is often even more subtle and devious than just American culture. Sports culture is its own sub-culture, with its own set of specific beliefs and values. For the Christian athlete, these beliefs and values must be attacked head on and destroyed, building a foundation on Christ alone. Many of these Christian youth athletes do not see American sports culture bringing them slowly into deception because like their non-athletic counterparts, they have not been given a foundation through discipleship. As American culture becomes increasingly relativistic, American sports culture in particular has become an atmosphere where to be Christian and be unchanged is an acceptable dualism. In order for American youth athletes to become and remain biblical Christians, sports ministries must begin reproducing disciples of Christ within the athletic community by providing: a foundation of love and trust, quality time, and godly instruction.

The first thing necessary to understand the type of discipleship needed for the American youth athlete is insight into American culture as a whole. No youth athlete operates in a vacuum, so to discern what is taking place, we must take a much broader look at the world surrounding them. From here we investigate the Church to find out what is happening within the body of Christ and examine if the Church is meeting the needs of these athletes. As we look in Chapter 3 at sports culture, the picture of what Christian youth athletes face becomes unmistakably clear. Sports ministry developed to address these issues specifically so Chapter 4 considers how sports ministries have influenced the sports world and to what degree they have been effective. Once we have a full view of the issues, needs, and struggles of a youth athlete, we explore discipleship in general from a biblical perspective and then its relevance specifically to American youth athletes in 2011. The final section of this work is the application of biblical discipleship in a real world setting. It includes a sample curriculum and an example of a youth athlete discipleship program. It is my hope that through this work Jesus Christ will be glorified through a greater knowledge by His people of the enemy’s schemes in American culture and a greater understanding of the weapons He has given to believers to fight and win the battle for the minds and souls of youth athletes.


[1] Gary L. Stein and Thomas D. Raedeke, “Children’s Perceptions of Parent Sport Involvement: It’s Not How Much, But to What Degree That’s Important,” Journal of Sports Behavior 22 (Dec 1999): 594 (591-602), in Academic Search Premier, http://teach.belmont.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=2574609&site=ehost-live (accessed November 27, 2010).

[2] Gregg S. Heinzmann, Parental Violence in Youth Sports: Facts, Myths, and Videotape, (New Brunswick, NJ: Youth Sports Research Council, Rutgers University), under “Resources,” http://youthsports.rutgers.edu/resources/general-interest/parental-violence-in-youth-sports-facts-myths-and-videotape (accessed November 27, 2010).

[3] Kenneth Godwin, Carrie Ausbrooks, and Valerie Martinez, “Teaching Tolerance in Public and Private Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan 82 (Mar 2001): 543 (542-546), in Academic Search Premier, http://teach.belmont.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=4190367&site=ehost-live (accessed December 3, 2010).

[4] See John 14:6

[5] David Bauder, “Super Bowl 2010 Ratings: 106 Million Watch, Top-Rated Telecast Ever,” The Huffington Post, February 8, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/08/super-bowl-2010-ratings-m_n_453503.html (accessed January 31, 2011).

[6] Jack Plunkett. “Sports Industry Overview,” Sports Industry, http://www.plunkettresearchonline.com (accessed January 30, 2011).

[7] Fellowship of Christian Athletes, “About FCA,” http://www.fca.org/AboutFCA/ (accessed January 30, 2011).

[8] Steve Hubbard, Faith in Sports: Athletes and their religion on and off the field (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 5.

[9] Matt. 6:9-10

[10] See Matthew 26:39

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