Chapter 5 – The American Church & Sport

5: The American Church and Sport

For athletes and fans, sport provides an opportunity for the Church to act missionally, reaching out into culture in a way that connects with many people. Many contemporary evangelical Christians view sport as an amazing avenue to touch the millions of sports fans and athletes with the gospel. This acceptance and often embrace of sport in contemporary Christianity happens without a second thought. Though some Christians will complain about sport, arguing that football or hockey is too violent, MMA is too bloody, baseball is too corrupt, or other similar things, for the most part, sport has been embraced as a welcome part of Christianity. The twentieth century heralded the beginning of the sports ministry era, a realm of ministry dedicated to the athlete and the sports fan. This era saw the creation of sports ministries biggest players, Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action (AIA), along with the addition of church-sponsored sports programs in several denominations.   However, the Church has a long and storied history with sport, a history that most evangelicals do not realize exists but will shed much light on Christianity’s current love affair with sport. Rather than being universally accepted, the Church has struggled with the question of sport, changing positions as new eras brought new ideas, needs, and events. If the goal is to understand how to impact Christian student athletes in a way that is truly transformative, we must take a deeper look at the history behind the phenomenon of the “Christian athlete” in general.

After a bit of background, this chapter will take a deeper look at some of the largest sports ministries, asking the question: are we being successful in reaching sports culture for Jesus? As Householder emphasizes, we must make a distinction between individuals and sports culture as a whole.[1] But this means we cannot only look at individuals; we must look at both. As people desiring to impact student athletes, it is not enough to settle for the actions of a few individuals. We must look deeper into how sports ministries are affecting sports culture and the bulk of student athletes to determine their success. How are Christian athletes different as a result of participating in sports ministries? Does sports culture look different because there are so many sports ministries? If the end game is to help student athletes look more like Christ, how successful are we?

The Pre-Modern Church and Sport

Sports and Christianity clashed early on because of the immense popularity of sport in Roman during the first century. The gladiatorial games and chariot races garnered a massive following, one that many Christians were no doubt part of before coming to Christ. With the violence, secularism, and religious aspects of the Romans games, early Christians were placed into a quandary. The focus at this point does not seem to have been on the question of how Christians should interact missionally with popular society’s insatiable desire for sport as much as the question of how much Christian’s lives should be different as a result of their new life in Christ. As Hoffman explains:

Surely the Greek admiration for the uninhibited and unbridled assertion of self could not be embraced by early Christians who were in the process of learning how to adapt their lives to the severe teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet it seems clear that early Christians struggled in deciding how much of the old way of life should be left behind and how much could be continued without marring their Christian witness.[2]

It is easy to see how they could have been unsure about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable for a believer. In speaking to the Corinthians about the immorality found amongst their ranks, he teaches that “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.”[3] None of the writers of the New Testament mention anything specifically about attending or not attending the games, but Paul does use a number of sports metaphors and frequent sports terms in his letters. However, in spite of this lack of scriptural direction in this area, the early church fathers did not seem to be undecided about the issue.

In the apology, The Octavius, Roman lawyer Marcus Minucius Felix dialogues with his two friends, Octavius and Caecilius, about Christianity in contrast to the Roman religion. Though dating has shown to be difficult in this work, scholars estimate it was written between AD 160 and 250. Caecilius, a pagan, cannot understand why Christians will not attend the games, as is expected in Roman society. In presenting the Christian position, Octavius argues, “For in the chariot games who does not shudder at the madness of the people brawling among themselves? … In the scenic games also the madness is not less, but debauchery is more prolonged.”[4] He tells the pagan Caecilius that “Christians do not present themselves at public shows and processions because they know them, with the greatest certainty, to be no less impious than cruel.”[5] This dialogue is presented from the fact that Christians did not attend the games, rather than the question of whether or not they did. In presenting the Christian perspective, Octavius does not leave much room to doubt that Christians were taught not to attend such spectacles because of the madness, debauchery, and violence present.

Later, in 397 or 398, St. Augustine broached the subject of the games in a different way. In his Confessions, Augustine tells the story of one of his students whose friends took him to see a gladiatorial show against his will. Though he closed his eyes, he eventually opened them and was immediately drawn into the “cruel and deadly show” and became part of the crowd. He was no longer the same man who had walked into the Amphitheatre, his foolishness had cost him dearly.[6] This student, like so many other Christians in Rome, struggled with the allure to the bloody competitions. Though Augustine opposes this type of activity for a Christian, not everyone agreed with his position on the games. Other Christians in the Roman Empire felt that the games promoted a healthy spirit of competition, bravery, and helped to foster positive traits in the competitors.

In spite of the juxtaposition between the bloody games and non-violent Christianity, the fourth century saw an interesting movement between the two entities that supported those who viewed the games as a positive activity. As Christianity became legal through Constantine in 313 and then became the state religion though Theodosius in 380, many aspects of Christianity took a different turn. Many activities, like chariot races, took on a Christian flavor, with Christian symbolism woven into the races in place of paganism. After some time, the chariot races were solidly connected to Christian symbolism since their spectators had no experience with the paganism of their forefathers. Though the races were markedly “Christian,” the actual events that transpired at the races were no different than they were when they were markedly “pagan.” No changes took place in the amount of violence, debauchery, drunkenness, or mania opposed by the early church.[7] The question must be asked if making the chariot races “Christian” through symbolism actually made them Christian or if this simply caused confusion.

The chariot races were only the beginning of christened athletic competitions within Christian society that may or may not have reflected Christ. The Middle Ages saw the development and rise of jousting tournaments, an activity condemned by church leadership. Popes and bishops denounced these activities primarily because of two factors. First, the tournaments were created to display the strength and ability of knights, an attitude that flew in the face of the Christian position of humility. The shows of strength, boldness, tenacity, and pride were repeatedly connected with the sinful pride that Christians were bidden to reject as new creations. Second, many knights were killed or badly injured in the jousting tournaments, a fact that church leadership pointed to as being contrary to the Christian ethic of honoring the body and not causing injury to another. Jousting, though not intended to result in the death of one of the contenders, was very dangerous. As McClellend explains, “To be killed in a joust was not common, but it was not unexpected either.”[8] The Church repeatedly banned the tournaments, but the constant repetition testifies that the bans had little effect. Eventually Pope John XXII rescinded the bans in 1316 for the following four reasons:

(1) The tournaments had become one of the most effective means of elevating popular sentiment for the crusades; (2) collections taken at the tournaments were important sources of income for local churches; (3) by excommunicating knights who defied the papal ban, the church had diminished the pool of knights who were spiritually qualified to participate in the crusades; and (4) other knights were refusing to join the crusade unless they could first practice their fighting skills by participating in the tournaments.[9]

Notice there are two reoccurring themes in the four factors influencing the papal acceptance of the tournaments: money and support for the crusades. These factors beg the question about the extent to which monetary concerns should determine the Church’s response to cultural issues like this one. Should financial gain lead to acceptance of anti-, or at the very least, questionably-Christian activities? Surely this should not be the case but the emphasis on the financial factor throughout the Church’s history does show that this often occurs. As to the second reoccurring theme, this work does not purport to address such issues in Church history like the crusades but the thought must be mentioned that it seems the Church in this instance decided to support their actions by questionable means. If the reason the Church decides to accept something culturally can be directly tied to trying to obtain a particular response from the population, perhaps additional consideration should be given to whether the ends justify the means.

Though contemporary sports are rarely as bloody as the gladiatorial contests, chariot races, or knightly tournaments of old, the allure to competition, to the blood, sweat, and tears left behind in the wake of competition, and to the victory found in contention, is still a very powerful draw. As Christianized society became more civil, spectators increasingly became more drawn to the contest than they were to the death, blood, and gore the so characterized games in the past. In the fourteenth century, jousting became more safe as innovative ways to project the jouster came into popularity.[10] Fans slowly came to expect that attending a competition did not inherently meant they would be subjected to watching the death of the competitor. As the knightly tournaments waned in popularity, other sports like running, swimming, wrestling, or ball sports increasingly gained popularity. As sport became less about death and reflections of war, the Church’s interaction with sport began to focus more on the attitudes behind sport than the physical actions of murder and maiming so common in sport until this point.

The Modern Church and Sport

As western civilization pressed on towards civility, sport moved on in a similar fashion. Death from sports was no longer expected in the nineteenth century and instead, the American population increasingly looked for activities to participate in after they finished their twelve-hour shift in the factory. As industrialization boomed, citizens’ free time expanded and they demanded a rise in recreation. As churches recognized this coming shift, a new movement known as “muscular Christianity” began to gain momentum. Muscular Christianity resulted in an enormous pendulum swing from the prevailing thought by the Christians who were so pivotal to the colonization of America, the Puritans.

Within the Puritan mindset, time-wasting was antithetical to Christian morality and character. Anything that was not a productive activity was therefore frown upon and thought to be “not merely a character defect; it was evidence of a soul outside of the elect and thus doomed to perdition.”[11] Other aspects of recreation, sports in particular, also troubled the Puritan mind, issues like “how participants could keep the illusionary world of sports from shaping ethical perspective, [and] how players could resist the urge to blow the game out of proportion.”[12] The Puritans never appeared to come to a resolution on these issues, except for creating a laundry list of rules to guide sport participation for the Christian. However hard-nosed the Puritan though on issues such as sport, the Puritan thinker genuinely desired to be theologically consistent. It is easy to condemn their apparent legalism about any activity whose purpose revolved around having fun but at the heart of it all was a deep desire to honor God and live according to a godly standard. Though they did not reach a satisfactory resolution on issues of sport and recreation, their efforts are nonetheless worthy of admiration.

As America expanded and became decidedly less Puritan, it became more and more difficult to constrain the population. By the nineteenth century, the Christian landscape included a plethora of denominations that provided a vast sea of viewpoints on all things Christian. In spite of this, most of these denominations condemned sports until the end of the century. By that time, things were changing on many fronts including the general moral philosophies of Christian thinkers.  Rather than believing that virtue proceeded directly through redemption in Jesus Christ, many denominations began to accept the new moral philosophy of the day that “emphasized human capacity in ethical and moral living.”[13] This led directly to the idea that morals could be formed outside the direct agency of God and placed a greater responsibility on human beings to effect their own character development. As the need for moral training became more necessary, avenues where one could achieve such training became much more popular. Sports were the obvious choice for such moral training as they have often been thought to encourage character development.

Church leaders like Washington Gladden, a key figure in the social gospel movement, who called for Christians to engage and transform sport.[14] But even as sport gained acceptance in the late 1800s, men like Gladden did not offer all sports carte blanche in terms of accepting every sport as an activity that glorified God. He argued that too often Christians had condemned sport as bad when it was the abuses of sport that should have received the condemnation instead. He did add that sports involving torture of animals or humans or sports that could lead to a player’s death could not be accepted as morally acceptable.[15] The Church could not accept these types of sports but the vast majority of them needed to be pervaded by Christians who could rid them of the evils of drunkenness, gambling, excess, and the like. Liberal leaders like Gladden, a Congregationalist, thought to be the Christian’s job to use sports to gain physical training, character development, and values and to influence the sport to cleanse it of the evil aspects.

Other denominations like the Baptists and Methodists, though not ascribing to a purely Puritan viewpoint, concurred with the general prohibition on recreation until, in a markedly similar fashion to sport in the Middle Ages, they began an about-face with their relationship with sports. The beginning of the twentieth century found a United States beginning to welcome muscular Christianity, a movement that focused on drawing men to church and increasing health among Christians. The movement against the feminization of American males was not restricted to churches only but rather reflected a general feeling in society in the early twentieth century.[16] As individuals living in a country built on independence and masculinity, Americans in particular revolted against men who held office jobs, attended feminine churches, and generally did not exude masculinity. The Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910 as an organization joining in the fight against feminization of American males. Since 1911 the organization has held the following Scout Oath and Scout Law as foundational to their purpose: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight,” and “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”[17] Organizations were springing up everywhere to fight the good fight against American men turning into women.

Over fifty years before this, the Young Men’s Christian Association [YMCA] began as a place for young men to learn and grow. Though the YMCA started as a place centered on Bible study and prayer, by 1869 the first YMCA buildings with gymnasiums were opened, reflecting a movement towards the athletic development of young men in addition to spiritual training.[18] As the YMCA expanded into the realm of athletics, one student made a significant impact on the future of American sports. In 1890, the YMCA Training School, now Springfield College, gained James Naismith, a theology degree recipient who believed he “had been called not only to train young men in athletics, but to build men of strong value and character.”[19] Naismith, a product of muscular Christianity along with others like Amos Alonzo Stagg, entered Springfield with a desire to learn how to train young men in athletics and in spirituality. Most know him as the inventor of basketball, the most popular indoor game in the world. With that type of credential, he will no doubt be remembered primarily for this invention more so than for his development of young men during this era.

The muscular Christianity movement continued to gain steam as athletes like C. T. Studd, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Billy Sunday, Gil Dodds, and Bob Finley became preachers and evangelists like D.L. Moody and Billy Graham used sport as a method of connecting with people. Youth for Christ played a significant part in this process of connecting Christianity and sport on an institutional level by employing Dodds, though Ladd and Mathisen point out that “neither the organization nor Dodds appears to have been aware of that.”[20] As the Youth for Christ rallies brought in thousands of conversions, the idea of athletes who preached Christ became more intriguing to revivalists and missionaries alike. The rallies had a distinctively modern flare, as Billy Graham admitted, “We used every modern means to catch the attention of the unconverted – then we punched them right between the eyes with the gospel.”[21] In 1952, Youth for Christ leader Dick Hillis realized what success they might be able to have if he used a basketball team as an entrance into Taiwan. Hillis and friend Bud Schaeffer took the first Venture for Victory team to Taiwan and found this new missionary method to be more successful than anyone had imagined possible.[22] With this, a new realm of possibility opened for connecting Christianity and sports both in the United States and overseas. The revivalists of the day were looking for anything that would work to revive American Christianity and draw people to fundamentalist Christianity. As mentioned in Chapter 5, one branch of fundamentalist Christians in the 1940s was striving to save the church from liberalism by any means necessary within moral bounds. As Ladd and Mathisen highlight, sports worked. Sports served as a draw for the crowds and also as a “cultural legitimizer” for this branch of fundamentalists who were willing to accommodate culture.[23]

American Sports Ministry

As accommodating fundamentalists quickly learned, sport was useful as a missions tool, as a cultural draw, and as a platform to reach people who may otherwise be opposed to listening to the gospel message. The 1950s and 1960s served as the birthing decades for the “Big Three” original sports ministries: Sports Ambassadors, FCA, and AIA.[24] Though the following fifty years produced many more ministries, these three were the modern church’s first foray into sport-specific ministries. These three also provide the basic patterns that most other sports ministries use as their model. All three of these ministries still operate in much the same way in 2011 as they did at their inception, though they have invariably grown and expanded in the last fifty years.

The Big Three

Sports Ambassadors was likely the first institutionalized sports evangelism ministry that began in the United States. With the early success of the Venture for Victory basketball team in Taiwan, Hillis installed Schaeffer as the head of Sports Ambassadors. Soon the teams moved into other Asian cities like Okinawa, Hong Kong, and the Philippines and then into Latin America in 1956. With the extension outside of Asia, the parent organization for Sports Ambassadors, Orient Crusades, changed its name to Overseas Crusades (OC). Sports Ambassadors took the flavor of Youth for Christ and extended it to athletics, using athletes as halftime or post game speakers who would share their testimonies and the gospel message to hundreds or thousands of listeners, a model still used today. Perhaps the least well known of the three, Sports Ambassadors still exists today as part of OC, a ministry based out of Colorado Springs, Colorado that sends out long term and short term missionaries. Sports Ambassadors currently supports and partners with men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball teams who go overseas, conduct clinics, play games, and share their testimonies at halftime of their games.[25]

The second ministry to begin and the first to be focused specifically on athletes within the United States, FCA was birthed out of a dream by Don McClanen. His dreams began by asking how Christ and the athlete world relate to each other, a question that led him towards a ministry of athletes and coaches intent on using sports idols to lead their followers to Christ.[26] Growing through rallies, high school assemblies, and a summer camp between 1955 and 1956, FCA quickly garnered support at the highest levels, with President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles both sending telegrams of encouragement during this time. In the next few years FCA developed the concept of the “huddle,” a group of athletes and coaches that meets on a high school or college campus. In 1966, the first huddle was established and in three short years, the number of huddles nationwide exceeded 1,000. In 1967, they held eight national camps with over 4,000 participants and by 1969, sixteen camps took place with over 7,000 participants. By 1993, camp attendance had increased past 10,000 and more than 5,000 huddles were meeting.[27] As of 2009, FCA was the largest sports ministry organization in the world, reaching 340,050 students on high school and college campuses, seeing 46,944 attendees at camps, holding 33,460 events, and attracting a total of 1,447,881 people to those events.[28]

Like Sports Ambassadors, FCA desires to reach athletes with athletes but unlike Sports Ambassadors, FCA focuses on high school and college athletes in particular. Additionally, as a fellowship, FCA has characteristically been more accepting of different theological beliefs within the organization. In fact, in 1955 the organization faced questions about changing their name from “Christian” to “Religious.” Dr. Louis Evans, an original charter member refused to submit to the name change, but the question has cropped up more than once through the years.[29] In 2011, FCA’s mission and vision are unambiguous about portraying decidedly Christian beliefs. As quoted in the introduction, their vision is “to see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of athletes and coaches” and their 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.”[30] It would be very difficult to say that FCA does not focus on portraying a Christian message to the athletes, coaches, and fans who are served by the ministry.

The third of the big three was birthed out of Campus Crusade, a ministry specifically created for college students. Beginning similarly to Sports Ambassadors, AIA began in 1966 as a basketball team playing against American teams that shared Christ at halftime.[31] As they expanded, they used college basketball, wrestling, weightlifting, and track and field athletes to form travelling teams, competing against college teams across the country. In 2010, AIA reported that 312 million people had the opportunity to hear the gospel and accept Christ, 2,785 people confirmed making a first-time decision for Jesus, 2,040 athletes were involved in some capacity with local AIA ministry, and 4,265 were challenged to join AIA as staff.[32] These statistics reflect AIA’s four key measurements: evangelism, decisions, disciples, and staff recruiting. By highlighting these four areas, AIA shows what is most important to them as a ministry.

In many ways, AIA connected the strategies of Sports Ambassadors and FCA into one mission directed specifically to college and professional players. Like Sports Ambassadors, AIA used teams to convey their message both at home and abroad. Like FCA, AIA created groups on college campuses in an effort to strengthen Christian athletes. In reality, AIA build more on the structure of Campus Crusade than FCA, but there were many similarities from a practical standpoint. AIA theologically probably matched more closely with Sports Ambassadors, seen as being less inclusive and more to the “right” of FCA.[33] Though these ministries have seen each other as competition through the years, all three ministries have different priorities and a different focus. Sports Ambassadors makes missions a priority, with that as their primary focus. FCA highlights fellowship as a chief aim and strives to influence people through sports. AIA promotes two major goals: to evangelize and to disciple. Though all three of these groups have the same audience and do overlap in the services they offer, they all serve different purposes within sports ministry.

FCA and AIA in particular are often seen as ministries in competition against each other, due to them both serving student athletes. The key measurements recorded in AIA’s annual report contrast with the information provided by FCA in their annual reports. One major difference between AIA and FCA’s focus for ministry within the United States is that AIA focuses on discipleship is a key factor in their success while FCA, while mentioning discipleship in their objectives, does not seem to hold this as a primary ministry goal. Another contrast between the two is that FCA serves student athletes from middle school through college but AIA serves student athletes only in college. AIA also extends its ministry to the professional ranks, joining other sports ministries like Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO), Baseball Chapel, and Unlimited Potential Inc. (UPI).

Church Sport Ministries

Since the formation of the Big Three, hundreds of other sports ministries of various shapes, sizes, missions, and visions have been birthed. The bulk of sports ministries serve amateur sports populations, especially children. Upward Sports is the largest of these ministries serving young athletes with about a million people participating by playing, coaching, refereeing, or volunteering in one of Upward’s Sports Leagues or Camps that take place in 2,400 churches around the world.[34] Upwards’ goal is to “bring out ‘the winner’ in every child” by focusing more on values like teamwork and sportsmanship rather than winning or losing.[35] They offer leagues and camps in basketball, soccer, and cheerleading and leagues only in flag football.

Many churches partner with organizations like Upward as part of their community outreach strategy. Still other churches or entire denominations have their own self-run sports ministries. These ministries can be as small as one softball team or as large as an entire sports ministry program that encompasses children and adults in multiple sports and avenues. Examples of these include: Colonial’s Sports Ministry at Colonial Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina, a ministry that offers Upward Basketball along with archery, flag football, martial arts, soccer, softball, tee ball, volleyball, outdoor activities for hunters, and aerobics and strength training for women; Lake Pointe Sports Ministry at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas, a ministry that offers “a non-competitive, non-threatening environment in which to learn the basic skills of sports” like basketball, soccer, flag football, and softball; First Friends Sports at First Friends Church in Canton, Ohio, a ministry that does not play on Sundays, supports family time by limiting participation to one to two days per week, promotes “strong sports ethics, and assure[s] every participant quality playing time” in the sports of basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, dance, golf, and fitness.[36]

Another type of church sports ministry is seen in the example of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Briarwood Soccer Club (BSC) exists as part of their overarching sports ministry, Quest Recreation Outreach. BSC is a different model because in addition to an internal league for children under ten, the club offers a competitive environment for older players like a secular soccer club. BSC is arguably the most competitive Christian soccer club in the nation, competing within Alabama Youth Soccer at all three levels of competition, Division I, II, and III. Formed by a group of parents in 1981, BSC has grown throughout the years from a group of young recreational soccer players into a competitive soccer club recognized within the Alabama Youth Soccer Association. The Club has seen many changes throughout the years, but its most critical Christian mission has stayed the same: Be ambassadors of Jesus Christ through the sport of soccer to Birmingham and to the world.

At its inception, BSC was created through Briarwood Presbyterian Church by church member parents. They began with a collection of young children and a group of parents willing to act as administrators and coaches. Things began to change for the club in 1996 when Briarwood Church acquired land for soccer fields, formed Family Recreation Ministry, and brought BSC under their leadership. Under the leadership of the recreation ministry and a volunteer named Neil Clement, the club began to grow in its vision. During Clement’s time at the helm, participation grew to around 850 participants per year, and a teaching philosophy was created. Then in 2002, BSC took a major step in hiring a full-time director of coaching, Ryan Leib. A former professional player for the Charlotte Eagles and the Atlanta Silverbacks, Leib brought a new dimension to the now 20 year old club. During his time with the club, it has grown in competition and in numbers. Family Recreation Ministry became Quest Recreation Ministry in 2001, continuing to keep BSC as part of their programs. BSC now has approximately 1100 participants per year, and in the spring of 2008 it received the title of third largest club in Birmingham by having the third-most teams participate in the State Cup tournament. At this time the club had 15 teams competing competitively through the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA), in conjunction with Alabama State Youth Soccer, as well as 16 teams competing recreationally against other teams within the Club for a total of approximately 600 players during the spring season.

The philosophy of BSC is simple but difficult to achieve. Club staff and players strive to be ambassadors for Jesus Christ while providing excellent training in soccer. The club is unique because it is the only soccer club in the country that is both competitive and decidedly Christian. Many churches have recreational teams, primarily for children under twelve years old, but these teams do not compete on the state or national level against other competitive clubs. There are several other soccer ministries throughout the United States like Sports Quest in Cypress, Texas and Brilla Soccer Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi that conduct camps or train coaches. However, no other soccer club is a part of USYSA, competing along with other traditional soccer clubs, and also has a Christian-based philosophy. Clearly stated, BSC’s philosophy is to train soccer players to play to the best of their ability and at the highest levels of training, while cultivating character, integrity, passion, and truth in each life participating in the club.

Sports Ministry’s Impact

Clearly sports ministries across the United States and in fact across the whole world have met with a great amount of success. Millions of people over the last five decades have encountered Christ through sports teams who took Christ with them as they competed around the world. Thousands of people have made decisions for Christ after hearing the gospel message presented by these missionary athletes or by stateside staff at campus groups and huddles on high school and college campuses. Nobody can argue that God has not used sports ministries as an avenue to introduce people to Jesus Christ. Although no organization has the corner on perfection, far too many people have encountered God through these ministries to say that God was not a part of them.

But with the wealth of large and successful sports programs available to American Christians, sport culture should look different in 2011 than it did in 1940. If success means that people are learning about Christ, becoming Christians, and growing in their faith, it would seem obvious that tangible changes would be seen across the sports world so intertwined with evangelical Christianity. Many in sports ministry seem to be afraid to ask this difficult question. Too many people do not ask how sport culture and student athletes are different as a result of these numerous mega-ministries responsible for impacting millions of athletes fans and coaches. What is the difference? If Christ is in sports ministry, millions are impacted, and thousands are making commitments for Christ, why does American sports culture look so little like God’s culture?

It is easy to be drawn in by the slick websites and plethora of information available through these ministries. However, the question must still be asked in spite of all the numbers, time-honored methods, and published success: Do we see visible evidence of athletes and sport in general moving closer to looking like Christ? I would argue that in spite of the numeric success of these ministries, we do not. Americans are accustomed to the idea of the “program.” There are programs for children, teenagers, students, athletes, married couples, singles, the retired community, artists, musicians, and every other group of people imaginable. In spite of all the apparent success, American sports ministries like the modern American church seem to have missed the definition of true success, lives that look more like Christ.

Of course I cannot argue that no sports ministry program has never been successful in this way or that all church programs are worthless. To argue for such would be terribly foolish in light of the many people who have truly encountered Christ and gone on to live transformed lives as a result. It is important to remember that God does operate within a certain method, especially not one that modern culture has created. Just as sports culture, modern culture, and postmodern culture are not inherently friends of Christianity, is it possible modern sports ministry methods are equally opposed to Christ by nature as well? Have modern Christians embraced sport in its entirety without considering the spiritual implication to doing so? Have modern sports ministries taken the step back to look at the foundations of sport in relations to the foundations found in Christ? It seems that sports ministries have spent little thought on the nature of sports and its incompatibility with Jesus Christ. This not to say that sports and Christianity are completely incompatible but to emphasize that an athlete engaged and entrenched in sport will naturally fight against the core of Christian beliefs. Sport ministries have encouraged this duplicity by providing every manner of sport discipleship material. Every manual, handbook, Bible, or discipleship program is centered on the idea of sport, relating every theological idea to an athletic concept. Rather than separating an athlete from their natural fleshly connection to the foundations of sport culture, many sports ministries encourage this by adding Christ to their sports foundation. The question remains: Does an athlete want to compete in sport with a bit of Christ or do they want Christ with a bit of sport?

Perhaps it is necessary to get back to the basics about what Christians do and how Christians do it. As some missional churches are discovering, maybe the answer is less programs, less slick websites, less multi-media efforts, and less formulas for how ministry is done in the United States. Maybe what student athletes really need is more people willing to invest in other people rather than programs that have only numerical rather than tangible success. Maybe what Americans need is for the Church to be the Church by reaching out and discipling other members of the body. Maybe the programs will never work in the end the way that going in and doing the dirty work will. Is it possible that we who are striving to reach student athletes are being less efficient by trying to be more efficient? What does it mean to be missional in the sports world? Does it line up with sports culture or with God’s culture? What is God’s culture anyway? Before any other question is asked or any other solution put forth, this last question must be answered. Before we can understand how to best impact student athletes for Christ in a way that will transform the sports world, we must understand what God’s culture is and how Jesus chose to portray it to the world when He was on earth as God’s representative.


[1] Householder, “Amen, and a Foul.”

[2] Hoffman, Good Game, 34.

[3] 1 Cor. 6:12a.

[4] Marcus Minucius Felix, The Octavius (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing), 41.

[5] Ibid. 40.

[6] Saint Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, 10th ed. (Oxford, MS: Project Gutenberg, 2002), Project Gutenberg Etext, under Book VI.

[7] Hoffman, Good Game, 49.

[8] John McClellend, Body and Mind: Sport in Europe from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, (London, Routledge, 2007), 85.

[9] Hoffman, Good Game, 53.

[10] McClellend, Body and Mind, 85.

[11] Hoffman, Good Game, 77.

[12] Ibid., 81.

[13] Ibid., 103.

[14]For additional information about the sports discussion of this time, see Washington Gladden’s sermon preached to the First Congregational Church in North Adams, MA on November 26, 1866 entitled “Amusements: Their Uses and Their Abuses.”

[15] Hoffman, Good Game, 109.

[16] Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.

[17] Boy Scouts of America, “Overview of Boy Scouts of America, http://www.scouting.org/About/FactSheets/OverviewofBSA.aspx (accessed March 22, 2011), under “About the BSA.”

[18] YMCA, “1800 – 1860s,” http://www.ymca.net/history/1800-1860s.html (accessed March 22, 2011), under “About Us.”

[19] Rob Rains with Hellen Carpenter, James Naismith: The Man Who Invented Basketball, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 29.

[20] Tony Ladd and James A. Mathisen, Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 113.

[21] Marshall Frady, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), 160.

[22] Ladd and Mathisen, Muscular Christianity, 116.

[23] Ibid., 118.

[24] Ibid., 127.

[25] More information about Sports Ambassadors and Overseas Crusade can be found at http://www.onechallenge.org/ (accessed March 25, 2011).

[26] Ladd and Mathisen, Muscular Christianity, 129.

[27] Fellowship of Christian Athletes, “FCA’s Heritage,” http://www.fca.org/AboutFCA/FCAsHeritage.lsp (accessed March 26, 2011).

[28] Fellowship of Christian Athletes, “Annual Impact Report: January 1, 2009 – December 31, 2009,” http://www.fca.org/AboutFCA/AnnualImpactReport.lsp (accessed March 29, 2011).

[29] Ladd and Mathisen, Muscular Christianity, 130.

[30] Fellowship of Christian Athletes, “About FCA,” http://www.fca.org/AboutFCA/ (accessed March 29, 2011).

[31] Joe Smalley, More than a Game (San Bernadino, CA: Here’s Life Publishers, 1981). PAGE NUMBER?

[32] Athletes in Action, “2010 Annual Report,” http://www.athletesinaction.org/about/annualreport/Annual-Report-2010.pdf (accessed March 29, 2011), 5.

[33] Ladd and Mathisen, Muscular Christianity, 134.

[34] Upward Sports, “About Upward Sports,” http://www.upward.org/aboutUpward (accessed March 29, 2011).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Colonial Sports, “Main Menu,” http://sports.colonial.org (accessed March 29, 2011); Lake Pointe Sports Ministry, “About,” http://lpsports.lakepointe.org/about.aspx (accessed March 29, 2011); First Friends Church, “Sports,” http://www.firstfriends.org/ministries/sports (accessed March 29, 2011).

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