Chapter 7 – Barriers to Discipling Athletes

7: Barriers to Discipling Athletes

If Christianity is equivalent to discipleship and discipleship has three elements, the call of God, the truth of the gospel, and the reality of action, how can we help to produce student athletes who are truly disciples? Every sport ministry organization has their own method for disciple making, some more cohesive and effective than others. The ministry that seems to focus the most effort on this crucial endeavor is Athletes in Action. For AIA, one key component of the discipleship process is their summer camps. Though AIA staff do discipleship throughout the year with their students, summer camps provide a unique opportunity to accomplish some things that cannot be done during the school year a weekly format. Their camps give student athletes with a chance to get away from all the distractions, learn about how to compete Biblically, be torn down through extreme physical exertion, and then rebuild using the foundation learned in the first days of the camp.

At least two of AIA’s camps use this model. Both the Colorado Project and the Ultimate Training Camp (UTI) specifically follow this method. The Colorado Project, an eight-week camp fostering Christian community and extended discipleship, begins with essentially the UTI experience for the first week. The UTI begins with four days of teaching AIA’s five principles: Audience of One, Inside Game, Holy Sweat, Hurtin’ for Certain, and Victory beyond Competition. These five principles focus respectively on the following questions: “Who or what do I worship,” “What motivates me,” “How do I grow,” “How do I deal with pain” and “Does it matter how I live today.” After teaching these principles and teaching the college student athletes how to apply them, AIA ramps up the intensity. In the late afternoon of day four, the UTI transforms from being primarily classroom based into a military boot camp. What they call the “Special” runs until after midnight and then begins again at 5:30 a.m., going until noon on the fifth day. The purpose of the Special is to bring the athletes to the point of utter exhaustion so they will be faced with the reality of where their foundations really lie and have the opportunity to rehearse the application of the five AIA principles.

AIA’s camp method reveals an important fact about the discipleship process: in order to lay a new foundation, the old one must first be identified and stripped way. Foundations are critical for every person regardless of their spiritual condition or beliefs. A great deal of time has been spent in the previous chapters to reveal the present foundations of American culture, sports culture, the American church, and sport ministry because of their inexpressible importance. Student athletes’ lives hinge on the foundations built for and by them in their culture, not “American culture” but their own personal culture, the one formed by who they are and what they participate in. For most Christian athletes, the four different worlds described in the previous chapters, popular culture, sports culture, the Church, and sports ministry, are all parts of their own personal world to some degree. Because of this unique combination of cultures that collide in the life of a Christian student athlete, their discipleship process will encounter different barriers than their non-athletic classmates might. This is especially true with athletes who have spent huge portions of their lives being molded by sports culture. The author of Hebrews describes this process when he encourages:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The race of discipleship is one that requires the runner to rid himself of anything that would make running more difficult. Athletes identify with this concept but rarely have the same tenacity to rid themselves of the spiritual stones preventing Christ from abiding in their hearts as cornerstone as they do to rid themselves of a few extra pounds or a bad habit the prevents them from performing at their best physically. Many of these barriers will be difficult to unearth and will most definitely not go unchallenged. But as any athlete realizes, anything worth doing will be difficult. Simply because something is hard to uproot does not mean it should be avoided, forgotten, or ignored. Instead it is those things that must be addressed first so as to free the disciple to begin moving towards Christ in a way that reflects true discipleship. As Christian leaders of student athletes, this is of course the first priority and most important part of ministry.

What keeps Christian student athletes from being disciples who follow Christ with their whole heart? What barriers exist that prevent true discipleship? Although some of the barriers that will be presented in this chapter have been mentioned before, the following pages will connect all four cultures to the student athlete, identifying the specific areas where the discipleship is hindered or even rendered impossible. Though criticism of culture and the church is common in contemporary culture, it is not en vogue to criticize sport in general or sports ministry in particular. But some things simply cannot go on unchallenged in order to see how best to minister to student athletes and encourage them to live as true Christ-followers rather than nominal “Christians.”

Barriers to the Call

Why do student athletes so rarely exude the three traits of discipleship? As we have seen throughout the previous chapters, the world where an American student athlete lives is full of competing cultures, competing worldviews, competing truth, and competing foundations. Each student’s life is founded on a unique combination of popular, sport, church, and sports ministry culture. Breaking down each of these cultures, it becomes clear that there are many aspects of each that need to be identified as barriers to Christian discipleship. How can each be used to produce student athletes who love Jesus, pursue spiritual growth, and exhibit the three traits of discipleship?

As the first trait of discipleship, the call is essential to any first steps towards the type of discipleship commanded by Jesus. What keeps student athletes from hearing the call? Certainly aspects of each competing culture prevent this from happening, supplying different lies, assumptions, and beliefs that prevent the first step from ever occurring. The first barrier is that student athletes do not feel like they need Jesus. Their focus is inward, products of a generation that places a high value on individualism, which really means on the self. Both popular culture and sports culture point to the individual as the source of value. Popular culture persuades the listener that they are valuable because they are an original and there is goodness inside of them. The themes that flow through the examples used in the Music section often reflect this belief, emphasizing the importance of individuality and the necessity to be your own person, think your own thoughts, and find your own truth. Although not usually stated this way, one of the core beliefs behind these statements is that people are good deep down in their hearts. Digging deep enough, becoming in touch in your inner core, and living from that freeing inner reality will bring truth, hope, and happiness. Sports culture correlates with these ideas because sport centers on being better. Even in team sports, each athlete’s goal is personal improvement and as a result, this improves the team. Even Christians in sport believe that Christianity is ultimately about getting what you need or want, praying that their team will win or that they will play well.

As the descendants of the original American dreamers, student athletes simply believe that they can do everything on their own. Christians are often as guilty of this as anyone, professing belief in God and their need for Jesus with their mouth but failing to live a life the corroborates such a profession. Christian student athletes can play the game as well as anyone; not their actual sport but the game of striving to reach the top on their own merit. They attend every event, play for every team, put in the extra hours to “get in” with the coach, gossip about their teammates who are not doing as well, and send in their parents to fight the battles with coaches or administrators. Despite saying that God is the source, they push, pull, and grab to reach the top. All of this serves as a damper to hearing the voice of God because it creates a space inside the heart of a student athlete that, instead of being filled with Christ, is filled with “me.” Filled to the brim with striving and individualism, there is no space left empty for Christ to inhabit. As student athletes live their everyday life, they do not recognize that Jesus Christ is calling them to something more, to discipleship beyond mere assent to Christianity.

The second problem many student athletes encounter is a lack of time. This problem is incredibly prevalent across much of the younger generation. In the core group of four to six students involved in the FCA group introduced in Chapter 1, each student has an average of about four weekly activities they are involved in outside of school and their chosen sport. Besides being student athletes, they are involved in student government, have part time jobs, participate in youth groups, are volunteers with local organizations, play on multiple teams for their sport, and are part of other clubs within the school. Considering that school takes place every day and most sports have either a practice or competition every day during their respective seasons, there is little time left to “experience God.” Rainer and Rainer found that “nine out of ten Millennials believe it is their responsibility to make a difference in the world.”[1] The older Millennials they surveyed as well as the ones only a couple years behind them are very serious about making a difference in their school, their teams, and their families. They desire to do things that matter, but too often do not have a good grasp on how to do that. Christian student athletes do not realize that their foundation is derived from the things they are most invested in, which are always the things that they spend the most time doing. Failure to experience God and to hear His voice is failure to put first things first.

The final barrier to hearing Jesus’ call to discipleship is largely an educational mistake. From the modern church, student athletes have learned that Christianity is more about lifestyle than it is about life. Though many in the Millennial generation are identifying this as a reason to leave the Church, many more see it but do not realize the depth of the problem. The problem is not merely that the modern church is strict on the rules but that it is more focused on the rules rather than the relationships. This causes Christianity to be an incongruent element of a Millennials’ life because they are highly relational.[2] This is consistent with the Millennials’ increasing rejection of religion. Accordingly, many student athletes are not interested in religion because they see it as lists of rules, not as a relationship with Jesus Christ. As the emerging church has recognized, this idea is largely an error of the modern church rather than the truth about Christianity. Jesus lived His life in relationship with His Father and with the disciples. The gospels record that Jesus would often find a lonely place so that He could be alone with the Father.[3] Time spent with the Father was very important to Jesus and in spite of His fatigue from long days of ministry, He still got up when everyone else was still sleeping to meet with the Father. The scriptures paint a picture of a relational Jesus, not one who placed religiosity before relationships.

Upon His departure back to heaven, Jesus explained to His disciples that He was going away but that He would send the Holy Spirit to be with them, to help them, to comfort them, to speak truth to them, and to testify about Jesus to them.[4] He recognized that the disciples could not be disciples without the presence of God in their lives on a daily basis. In fact, He told them not to go anywhere until the Holy Spirit had come to them.[5] The Holy Spirit serves as the relational connection between God and humanity, testifying to Christ, regenerating the believer through their belief in Christ, and imparting God’s presence into the regenerated heart. Christianity without relationship with God through the Holy Spirit is not Christianity at all. Rather than being bound by the Law, Christians have received a new Spirit so that they can “understand the things freely given… by God.”[6] Relationship is a key element to biblical Christianity and without it, discipleship is impossible.

The loss of the relational element produces many problems for student athletes. Many sports ministries emphasize this loss in some ways by comparing the Christian walk to an athletic competition. Though there are aspects of Christianity that go well with this analogy, student athletes often approach their own discipleship process in a way that is too similar to their sport. Sports requires training, often paralleled with spiritual training, and with training, once an athlete completes their workout for the day, they are finished. Student athletes carry this mindset into their spiritual walk, seeing their spiritual duties as a checklist to complete rather than a relationship to cultivate. They train in the morning by reading their Bible or saying a quick prayer and then they move on to the next item on the list with their spiritual workout for the day complete. Sadly, this method of spiritual growth is not compatible with true discipleship that involves a walking, talking, minute-by-minute relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. By compartmentalizing Christianity into “spiritual training” done once or twice daily, the entire fabric of the Christian life is compromised.

This type of situation frequently leads to a Christian student athlete who is frustrated, wanting to know God but clueless about how to proceed. Time and time again students have approached me to ask how they can know God. They tell me that they want to be a Christian but they just do not know what to do. This is surprising because it seems whenever someone becomes a Christian, the first thing they are told to do is to read the Bible and pray. What Christians “do” is not a mystery but somehow these students, many of them coming from Christian homes, tell me that they still do not know what they need to do. Using a parallel to a best friend, I usually explain how the Christian life is intended to be relational, not legalistic. Because this generation is relational, this analogy is generally eye-opening for the student, something that they can readily grasp though it will take a lifetime to perfect. Best friends spend time together, do things together, and spend time talking and listening. All of these are principles student athletes can take into their relationship with Jesus Christ, realizing that Christianity is not encompassed by a person’s lifestyle. Of course it is possible to err on the side of too much relationship and discount the rest of discipleship; mistakes are made on both sides of the issue.

Once a student athlete recognizes the relational aspect of being a disciple of Christ, hearing God’s voice and experiencing Him becomes the next goal. Many students are confused as to what they should do. In many ways the modern church has abandoned the traditional ways people connect with God, preferring efficiency over relationship. The classical disciplines of prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, and confession, to name a few, have largely been abandoned as disciplines, used rarely and often to illicit a response from God rather than as a regular connection point. In modern efficiency, many churches have ceased to teach about this type of lifestyle, a point that the postmodern church has embraced and championed. The emerging church streams of thinking certainly elevate these disciplines as essential, reaching out to those who are desperately longing for relationship and connection in an age of efficiency and superficiality. This becomes muddled when it is cleverly mixed with Buddhist or occult practices, a common theme amongst some emergent writers. It is important to use the scriptures as the primary text for these disciplines, but simply because some have gone too far does not mean that return to a relational focus that utilizes the classical disciplines to connect with God is faulty. American Christians of all walks of life need this, not to mention student athletes who are struggling to grasp the reality of their compartmentalized faith.

Barriers to the Truth

Just as there are obstacles to experiencing God and hearing the call to discipleship, the four cultures of a student athlete contain messages that confuse the message of the gospel, the element of truth in discipleship. Many of these messages create barriers that need to be identified in order to foster the creation of a new foundation built on Christ rather than culture. As with so many things, many of these barriers go undetected, ideas that are spoken for so long without being challenged that people forget there was ever an objection to the idea. The first idea seen in popular culture will prove to be a formidable challenge to encountering the truth: the belief that it does not matter so much what someone believes as long as they believe sincerely.

This belief was exhibited in almost every television show listed in Chapter 1. 24 and Dexter encourage this idea through the morally complex situations the shows’ heroes find themselves in. Modern Family, 30 Rock, and Glee further this by placing their characters in more humorous situations where questions about family, divorce, alcohol and drug use, and sexuality are answered by exclaiming that there is “no wrong way” to do it as long as personal moral standards are abided by. Though these and hundreds of other popular television shows all take a different approach, the message is often the same. Sincere belief has replaced external moral and spiritual standards in all areas of life. In fact, this thought is so pervasive that it cannot truly be separated from the second idea purveyed by popular culture: the belief that within each individual is beauty, truth, and life that only need be tapped into.

The two beliefs of popular culture feed into each other because an emphasis on individuality and the ultimate goodness of the human soul encourages the assurance that anyone can believe whatever they would like to as long as they are embracing their true self in the process. These precepts form the basis for a plethora of other ideas that create barriers to Christian discipleship because their acceptance implies that any collection of beliefs can be held without conflict. A Christian student athlete can hold multiple foundational ideas without conflict, an idea that Jesus explicitly rejects when He declares that “no one can serve two masters.”[7] He is speaking specifically about God and material possessions but such a statement told His hearers that God will not share His place with any other thing. A Christian cannot create a melting pot of ideas and expect that Jesus will turn a blind eye, encouraging their “individualism.” Though God does care about each person as an individual, there is no scriptural precedent for individualism in moral and spiritual beliefs. In Israel in the days of the judges, the historian records that everyone did “what was right in his own eyes.”[8] In the four chapters between the first and second times this phrase is used, all manner of atrocity takes place in the land of Israel. Every terrible action is followed by an equally horrific one with no redeeming moments. Nothing that takes place during those chapters is pleasing to God or morally upright, a statement about the condition of the hearts of people who decide to “do right” in their own eyes. Similarly, as long as Christian student athletes believe they are free to do what is right in their own eyes without learning the truth component of discipleship, they will be unable to follow Christ.

Another barrier to the truth is the view that sports ministries often take when relating sports culture to Christianity. Simply stated, the goal of most sports ministries is to reach athletes, coaches, and their families with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their method for reaching these sports-minded individuals is through sports, a seemingly logical connection. However, in preaching the gospel, discipling, and serving in this way, sports ministries make it more difficult for student athletes to be face-to-face with Jesus Christ. When Jesus preached and spoke with the people during His time on earth, He taught often about removing anything that would come between the person and Himself. He told the rich young man to give away his money.[9] He offended the people who wanted food more than they wanted teaching.[10] He rebuked the teachers of the Law, telling them that their legalism kept them from seeing who He was.[11] Jesus constantly identified peoples’ idols and taught them to leave them behind in order to seek the one, true God. If Jesus were living in 2011 and teaching sports-minded people, would He allow them to continue holding sports as their idol or would He call them to something greater?

Many in the Christian sports community would argue that Jesus spoke to people with stories they would relate to. Since He was in an agrarian society, He often used parables involving the land, farms, or animals. He called Peter by telling him he would henceforth be a fisher of men, giving Peter a way to connect his new mission with his life’s context. Christian sports people contend that in doing sports ministry using sports contexts, they are merely reaching contemporary culture by doing what Jesus did. Clearly Jesus reached out to people where they were, using their own culture to speak to them. However, though Jesus called Peter using a fisherman’s analogy, He did not continue to teach him in a similar way. Once Peter began following Jesus, He spoke in terms of the kingdom of heaven, not in terms of fishermen. At some point in Peter’s walk, he ceased to be defined as a fisherman and began to be defined as a follower of Jesus Christ. He no longer needed an analogy suitable for fishermen for every spiritual situation.

Though Paul uses the language of sport often in his letters, considering the breadth of his writing he uses sports imagery relatively infrequently. He uses sport when it is applicable but he does not base his teaching around sport. Before his conversion, as a religious Jew Paul likely did not participate in sports, but he still used such imagery to relate to the Greeks. Paul admits to the Corinthians that he has become “all things to all men” in order that he could reach people on their level, a statement he follows with imagery of a runner.[12] This indicates that Paul was unafraid to use cultural ideas to reach people, but he did not make such things the focus of his message. Additionally, the author of Hebrews, speaking to a Jewish audience, also used athletic imagery despite the fact that Greek athletics would have “smacked of Hellenistic paganism” to the Jew.[13] Perhaps athletic imagery had become so commonplace in this time that it no longer referred explicitly to the athletic contests themselves, much like sports terminology is used in contemporary phrases without truly referencing sports. When someone tells a friend to “step up to the plate” or that their presentation was a “slam dunk,” they are probably not speaking about baseball or basketball. Using the phrase “slam dunk” in contemporary culture would not require that person to be speaking positively or negatively about basketball; it’s a common phrase used for many situations that have nothing to do with basketball. It is important to remember that Paul’s use of athletic imagery does not imply that he believed everything spiritual should be presented through the lens of sports.

Sports ministry cannot focus on understanding Christianity through the lens of sport. Though it seems biblically appropriate to initially reach sports-minded people with sports-heavy metaphors and ideas, Christian discipleship of student athletes must move far beyond this method. Becoming part of the body of Christ means, on a certain level, leaving behind unique and individual traits and melding into the multitudes of people who have called on the Lord Jesus Christ throughout the last two thousand years. This does not mean all individuality is lost but that a greater purpose is found. Individuality means that each person sees the world through their own lens, their own filter that has been created through the life they have lived, situations encountered, and lessons learned. These filters are created through the cultures that create each person’s world. Becoming a disciple of Christ means exchanging an individual filter for the one that Christ gives, the new heart, the new mind, the new desires. This is what is meant when Jesus teaches Nicodemus that he must be “born again.” As the disciple of Christ hears the call, experiencing God in a new way, they must believe the truth of the gospel, the good news that they can be remade to the glory of God, purchased by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.

Certainly Christians still have their individuality with their own unique personalities and preferences, but as they draw closer and closer to the truth of the gospel, being transformed by the presence of the Holy Spirit in their life, they will have a new filter. The gospel must be the filter, the lens, of a Christian student athlete, not sports. This does not mean that sports and sports analogies have no place in Christian thought, but rather that the basis for them must be the gospel first, sports second. It is foolish to teach all things spiritual through sport because sport culture has an entirely different foundation than the gospel. This conflict cannot be solved by teaching spiritual concepts only in sports terms because the student athlete will continue to have their spiritual life founded in sports. A separation is needed to free the sports-minded to be the Christ-minded first.

Barriers to the Outworking

Of the three aspects of discipleship, the outworking of the Christian faith is intuitively the most reliant on the other two aspects. A student athlete who has not had the gospel become rooted in their heart and has not experienced God cannot “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”[14] In some ways it is difficult to speak of the barriers particular to the action aspect of discipleship because it is genuinely an outworking of inward repentance. Once the first two have happened, the third will take place naturally, just as a child naturally grows into adulthood. To separate the fruit of discipleship from the gospel and the call to discipleship will produce a disjointed, works-based salvation. Accordingly, one of the biggest barriers is in fact this separation.

When Jesus rebuked the church in Ephesus for losing their first love, He was essentially rebuking the lack of fruit in their church exhibited from their disconnection from Him. Jesus must be the Christian’s first love, not the hatred of evil or sin. Focusing on works produces Christians who care more about the rules than the people, more about what they are doing than on the fact that everything has already been done for them. Paul condemns works based salvation repeatedly throughout his letters to the churches, explaining to the Roman church that Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised.[15] He identifies that if the situation were reversed, faith would in fact be worthless. If works were sufficient for salvation, there would be no need for faith and Christ’s sacrifice would have been wholly unnecessary. While this seems obvious, the modern move toward lifestyle over life has increased the desire to simply do the right things. This idea is everywhere in culture, revealing itself in many ways, including in the movement of Christians who declare with their actions if not with their words, that homosexuals are the worst of sinners. Rather than preaching the gospel message of Jesus Christ, many focus on correcting the sin. This is a grave error because a country full of moral people will not necessarily produce a nation of Christ-following people. The modern church decries the loss of morality but too frequently does not preach the gospel. Christian student athletes have learned from this approach, living moral lives with no deep connection to God or knowledge of the truth. The best way to create morality is to introduce student athletes to the biblical gospel and give them the opportunity to experience God, not to teach them why they should not have sex before marriage.

For some students, the problem is not that they exhibit dead works but that they do not exhibit any works at all. The barrier of a lack of time that is so problematic in student athletes having the opportunity to experience the call of God is also a problem when it comes to the outworking of faith. Students are busy. They do not believe they have time to serve the church or the needy. With a thousand activities open to them, it is difficult for them to decide which will have eternal value and which ones will not. A huge part of this problem is that so many Christian student athletes have no examples, no role models, no one showing them what matters and what does not matter. Many of them believe that school must be first priority, sports second, and family third, with God fitting in somewhere in between. Although they recognize that God must be first priority, they have no concept of what that looks like and few examples to look at to see how that would look in contemporary culture. What does it mean to have Christ first when parents so frequently seem to care much more about grades or whether or not their child has a starting role on their team? Many student athletes received mixed messages, hearing that their faith must be first priority but seeing so many other things holding that position. It is unsurprising that they do not serve the church or the needy like the scriptures teach. No one has taught them how to put Christ first in the radical way proclaimed by the gospel.

The lack of modeling for Christian student athletes is a primary concern in the effort to produce effective disciples of Jesus Christ. Without examples, how will any student know what is biblical and what is not? This is one area where sports ministry historically has had great success: creating sports-minded Christian role models for the younger generation. But is it enough to just provide role models? Are examples sufficient for encouraging the three aspects of discipleship needed to produce a true Christian? Though examples are important, there seems to be other needs as well. In order to break down the culture barriers and effect true change in the life of Christian student athletes, those desiring to reach them are going to have to do more than just provide an example. Paul served as an example for many in the faith including Timothy, Titus, and the churches he fathered. But in serving as an example, Paul did not expect those watching to imitate him without being taught. Paul was constantly teaching, preaching the gospel and exhorting his followers in the ways of Christ. Examples are necessary but are not sufficient on their own to encourage growth. Christian student athletes need mentors, people who live Christ, teach Christ, and exude Christ. It is these people who will create the environment where discipleship can happen and where growth will take place.

[1] Rainer and Rainer, The Millennials, 36.

[2] Ibid., 18-19.

[3] See Luke 5:16 and Mark 1:35.

[4] John 14:16-21.

[5] Acts 1:4.

[6] 1 Cor. 2:12.

[7] Matt. 6:24.

[8] Judg. 17:6, 21:25.

[9] Matt. 19:17-26.

[10] John 6.

[11] Matt. 23:1-36.

[12] 1 Cor. 9:22.

[13] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), PC Study Bible formatted Electronic Database (2006), Heb. 12:1-13.

[14] Matt. 3:8.

[15] Rom. 4.


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