Be sure that no one takes you captive
By deceptions of men
‘Cause you will find it to be tragic in the end.
– Jimmy Needham, “Tossed by the Wind”
The Saturday morning festivals no longer seem quite so innocent. Athletes who participate in the hourly, daily, and weekly requirements of sport are not just athletes. Though their activities are extensive and their numbers vast, the external excitement cannot fully cover the internal emptiness. The violence and extremism of youth sports culture is in many ways just a façade for the deeper internal forces at work within a student athlete. Each one is a part of something much bigger and much broader than just youth sports.
The unique culture of a Christian student athlete hides behind the veils of popular, sports, church, and sports ministry culture. These often serve to confuse the athlete, providing many different foundations and avenues through which they can receive fulfillment. Popular culture tells them that they can be fulfilled being open to the interpretations of others around them because every interpretation is equally true and valid. Television shows explain that morality is relative and that it is right for everyone to have their own moral code. “Be true to yourself,” the musicians sing, encouraging them to look inside themselves to find their truth. Every avenue of pop culture from television and music to billboards and commercials highlights that “you” are important. “You” are worth it. “You” deserve it. “You” owe it to yourself. Everything revolves around “you.”
Sitting in a hospital waiting room in Colorado, my father and I watched as a group of twenty or more met in prayer for an ailing grandmother. The family had clearly gathered many extended family members together to support one another through this time. They had brought their priest with them for added support and in the middle of the waiting room, he led them all in prayer. This group was unashamed of being mocked for their now public faith and the prayers I heard brought tears to my eyes. After they had finished, I watched the group for a while, curious about what type of people these were. There where adults and children and babies, a whole mass of ages. One child in particular stood out to me. She was probably around nine years old, one of the older children present. But what caught my attention was the t-shirt she was wearing. She wore a black shirt with five words on the front, “I am who I am.” On the back the shirt told readers to, “Deal with it.” The font and style of the shirt told me that this was not a spiritual statement but rather one of individualism. It declared to the world that this child was an individual and nobody could tell her what to do with her own life. She wore it proudly and even in the short time I watched, I could see that she meant what it said. The prayers and the t-shirt were juxtaposed together as an unholy pair. How could a family who prayed prayers like the ones I had just heard allow their daughter to wear such a t-shirt? Such individualism has no place in the Church, in spite of what some may argue. As fallen and depraved human beings, who we are is not who we should be. To revel in such a belief is to miss the essence of the gospel message and to build a foundation contrary to Jesus Christ.
Such beliefs are common in sport culture as well, seen all too often as professional athletes accomplish great feats and proclaim their superiority to their peers. The sports world pronounces holiness on those who can pull themselves up from nothing, crowning them the kings and queens of the sports kingdom. It is in this world where student athletes spend much of their time. Even for the Christians among them, Jesus often serves as little more than a lucky rabbit’s foot. Story upon story is told of football teams who say the Lord’s Prayer before games as part of their pre-game ritual. Perhaps this began as a spiritual exercise but more often than not, it is tradition, part of what the team does so that God will smile down on them and grant them victory. God’s role in sport is to make the team or the individual better, providing the gifts of strength, determination, courage, wisdom, perseverance, and victory.
Though sports can result in physical fitness, friendships, teamwork, and many other meaningful outcomes, there are as many negative effects as there are positive ones. Like popular culture, sports culture is not Christian. In spite of the many ways that evangelical Christianity has striven to connect the two, the core of sports culture is incompatible with the gospel. The gospel tells the world that there is nothing they can do to earn right standing with God but sports proclaims a way to success attainable by training, fitness, effort, and trickery. Rather than encouraging the Christian athlete to humbly serve, sports culture by nature promotes self-promotion, self-focus, and self-glorification as avenues necessary for the best of the best. Ideas like gamesmanship subtly twist the rules into something that works in favor of the team with the best acting skills.
Sports culture combined with pop culture serves to greatly confuse the student athlete but in postmodern culture, this is no problem. Different foundations can be built irrespective of contradictions between them. Many different perspectives can reside within one person because what really matters is the truth to that individual. It no longer matters what type of contradictions exist if the individual does not feel them to be truly contradictory. However, Jesus explained that someone’s foundation could only be in one thing in order to stand when the storms came. Only the person who heard Jesus’ words and put them into practice could be like the wise man who built his house on the rock.  Paul echoed this message when he told the Colossians to be vigilant about staying focused on the message of Christ. Participation in pop culture and sports culture will always lead to death unless the individual is serious about identifying aspects of the culture that teach a message contrary to the gospel.
For the American Christian student athlete, the third culture that creates their world is that of the American Church. This specifically means the church organizations in the United States, not the entire body of Christ. Within the American Church, there has been much confusion and debate in recent years. The coming of postmodernism has created an upsurge in Christians who want to relate to the Millennials, the generation born between 1980 and 2000. An effort move away from modernism and connect to this generation in a postmodern way has created both positives and negatives. It is difficult to describe exactly how a student athlete experiences the American Church because it is in such a state of flux. Some churches are still decidedly modern, carrying with them the errors found in Jesus’ words to the church in Ephesus about abandoning their first love. Other churches are in the camp of the postmodern who often need Jesus’ correction to the churches in Thyatira and Pergamum to put away sin and cling to the doctrine of the cross. Both types of church experiences can lead to foundational errors in the life of a student athlete, especially because they often do not sit under enough teaching to be able to sift through the errors.
Christians who attend church regularly have more opportunity to hear the truth and the errors presented by their individual church. Because God desires to teach His Church the truth, more Bible will lead to more truth. Student athletes who rarely attend church because of their busy schedules receive only a surface understanding and it is on the surface that these types of errors are readily seen. Given the time constraints of a student athlete and their frequent inability to identify what activities matter and what activities do not, the small amount of church teaching they receive could easily constitute a significant portion of the spiritual understanding they obtain.
The other avenue from which student athletes obtain biblical truth is through sports ministries. Though many of these ministries have produced fruit through the proclamation of the gospel to people who otherwise would not have been listening, the focus of the ministry too often revolves around sport instead of God. Rather than focusing on understanding sport through Jesus, sports ministries view Jesus through sport. Instead of encouraging the sports-minded to become God-minded, they provide discipleship manuals that utilize only sports analogies. They produce hundreds of books that tell the stories of successful sports figures who are Christians. Everything a sports ministry does has sports as its framework. Tozer describes this problem when speaking about the “new cross” that has become popular in evangelical circles:
It is like the old cross, but different: the likenesses are superficial; the differences are fundamental… The cross in this new evangelism does not slay the sinner; it redirects him… To the self-assertive it says, ‘Come and assert yourself for Christ.’ To the egotist it says, ‘Come and do your boasting in the Lord.’ To the thrill-seeker it says, ‘Come and enjoy the thrill of the abundant Christian life.’ The idea behind this may be sincere, but its sincerity does not save it from being false. It misses completely the whole meaning of the cross. The cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a person. God salvages the individual by liquidating him and then raising him to newness of life.
If this were written to include those who love sports, the quote it might read, “Come and indulge in sports for Jesus.” Christianity revolves around the cross, not just around a wooden cross but around the whole essence of the cross. It revolves around the fact that God, in His mercy towards humanity and wrath against sin, sent his Son, the only way of bringing reconciliation between depraved people and a holy God. It does not revolve around sports.
The confusion created by the four cultures and the Christian student athlete’s participation in them leads to the need for an understanding of what a biblical foundation for Christianity looks like. Through Jesus’ statements about salvation and the nature of discipleship, we understand discipleship to be indistinguishable from being a Christian. All Christians must be disciples of Jesus Christ and all disciples must be Christians. To apply the term “Christian” and mean something other than discipleship with Jesus is to apply the term wrongly. Though Christianity has ballooned into meaning thousands of things over the last 2,000 years, discipleship can still be distilled down into three distinct traits: the call, the truth, and the action. Experiencing God, hearing the truth of the gospel, and acting in ways that show the newness of life produced by salvation is the whole of discipleship. These three traits are essential for a Christian.
For the Christian student athlete, there are unique barriers to this type of discipleship created by the confusion of the four cultures. Though these barriers make it difficult for the athlete of experience the three traits, it is by no means impossible. These barriers simply need to be understood and accounted for in order to encourage discipleship. Ministries like Overtime Squads can be helpful, though there are thousands of different ways that student athletes can be lead away from superficial Christianity and towards biblical discipleship. It does not matter what method is used as long as all three traits of discipleship are encouraged.
Above all things, the goal of discipleship is the glory of God. Christians are saved by God to God and for God. Though there are many systems in the world that distract the Christian from this, God’s desire for humanity is to bring them into this understanding. Even churches and ministries can provide distraction from this purpose because as human beings, everything we touch has the capability to be used for evil rather than for good. But thankfully, God’s message to humanity is one of redemption. If the gospel could be expressed in one word it would be redemption. God can and does use every tainted system of humanity for His glory and in spite of the confusion it creates, all is not lost. Simply the fact that pop and sports cultures create alternative foundations in the life of a believer does not mean that Christians cannot participate in them. Instead, God uses the Christian in these cultures as an agent of His redemptive purposes. Simply the fact that the American Church and sports ministry cultures sometimes provide conflicting messages and detriments to biblical discipleship does not mean they should be abandoned. God loves the Church, God will always love the Church, and the Church is God’s chosen mechanism for speaking to the world. Though people may have made mistakes and erred in a variety of ways throughout the years, the Church will never fail and neither will those whose faith is in Jesus Christ. May we ever be focused on engaging with God as the body of Christ and impacting culture in all its many facets in the power of the Holy Spirit as disciples of Jesus Christ.
 Matt. 7:24-27.
 Col. 2:8.
 A.W. Tozer, Man: The Dwelling Place of God, Kindle edition, Chapter 10.