Can Christians embrace sports?

At the risk of sounding like a spoilsport on the biggest sports week of the year, I couldn’t help but notice a fascinating article at Christianity Today making the case that in sports, Christians have come to embrace a cultural activity that stands at odds to their faith.

Harsh as they are, it’s hard to argue with these words of indictment:

Variously described by those inside and outside as narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic, big-time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians for centuries have understood as the embodiment of the gospel. There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative—-with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination—-while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle.

As poor as the sports world may be at promoting behavior compatible with Christianity, the article’s author identifies an even more worrisome problem with sports culture. He’s concerned that our culture’s love of sports (and the problematic industry that comes with them) has introduced into the evangelical mindset a counterfeit gospel—one that values strength, victory, and skill over humility, service, and reflection. He calls it “Sportianity”:

Sportianity is Christian theology vetted and co-opted by the dictates of the sports industry. Not surprisingly, it cannot speak truth to power….

In spite of its theological conservatism, Sportianity advocates a quite worldly view of sports. The concrete trumps the symbolic; doing, achieving, and struggling are favored over mystery, joy, feeling, transport, and spiritual insight. When effort, sacrifice, and competitive success become the preferred ways to glorify God, joyous play—which might be what theologian Robert K. Johnston has called “a [preface] to further encounters with God”—can seem an unworthy offering.

In other words, although we might speak often of bringing our Christian values to the sports we play, it is the values of sports competition that have instead changed us… in ways that don’t necessarily fit with the values and priorities of the Bible. At the root of this problem is the unavoidable fact of competition that lies at the heart of most every sport we play. Read the full article for the complete argument, and see some discussion about it at Jesus Creed and in a recent Q&A post here at the blog.

As a Christian and a sports fan, it’s easy to react defensively to this sort of challenge. But anything we take as seriously as sports needs to be carefully and Biblically considered. The article doesn’t argue that we should abandon sports or competition, but that we think long and hard about why we celebrate sports and what values we embrace in doing so.

What’s your reaction? Does this critique of sports and sports culture resonate with you? Can sports be theologically salvaged?

14 Responses to “Can Christians embrace sports?”

  • Cyber Pope says:

    Great article. One thing I noticed, as I was flipping channels. Is that all the Christian Channels is just one sermon after another. Yes, there are a few good shows, like Travel the Road, but none that are just fun. When it comes to Christian entertainment, except for comedians, we are looking pretty sad. Just to have to post an article on to whether it is acceptable to be a Christian Sports Fan, illustrates the problem.
    Yes, Christians have serious stuff to deal with. We have to reach the lost. The problem is twofold though. One it means if as a Christian, I want some down time, my options is limited to the offerings of the world. Second it means that when we are reaching out to the lost it perpetuates the myth that Christians are boring and can’t have any fun.
    We need to have our own entertainment offerings as an alternative to the worlds. It will draw people to God. We also need to make sure we participate fully when the world does offer wholesome entertainment. Like sports, I could see tail gate parties as a great way to reach people for Christ. We need to go where the people are.

    • chad says:

      For me, I have embraced sports too strongly over my life. Most of the sports stars we see don’t exibit humility; its all about them usually. What are our children and grandchildren learning from this? And what about the commercials? Very difficult to “flick” away quickly enough. If you feel you must use the TV, there are many good videos to watch. Fireproof is one that comes to mind immediately. There are others as I feel quite sure you probably know.

  • Tony says:

    For proof that Christians can embrace sports, look at Kurt Warner and Tim Tebow. (Especially watch for Tebow during Super Bowl commercials this Sunday.)

  • Teek says:

    Sports are great, its a great way to stay fit and have fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. But i do agree with the critique of sports and sports culture. I used to enjoy watching sports when i was younger, but after all the player’s greed, violence, rudeness, prudeness, out of control ways, haughtiness, and stupidness, i stopped watching all sports.

    The professional job of sports, in today’s society, is not a great job to have. They are in the position of being a role model, yet the majority of them have given into temptations, lusts, violence, and all manner of other foolish vices, as they stand in the position of a role model. This in turn has caused many to sway from righteous teachings.

    Sports can be theologically salvaged, but the world, our society, those who uphod it – our governments need to change. Governments need to embrace and accept and invite the lord into their governing ways, and our government officials ought to be God fearing people. When these types of people are running our society, thatnwill help shape better role models in sports. Aside from that, we would need the Lord to return to salvage sports in that manner.

    But for a time at least, the foolish will go on…

  • Funny that a conversation about sports and Jesus revolves around the negative side of sports and how bad it is to our world and our faith.God provides outlets for the telling of the truth (Christs resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit) to sinners both knowing and unkowning to all Christians. How we use these outlets says more about us than about sports. Sin is always within us, all of us,forever. How we use the outlet of sports to train and remind our friends, family and ourselves will help to define and strenghen our faith and family. Sports ic not good or bad. How we use it can be. So choose to use it as the outlet for salvation not an excuse for excess and sports can be fun.

  • Jon Kuppinger says:

    Of course sports are OK. Anything and everything can and is corrupted by the world. So like in all matters of life, christians need to live their lives before the face of God, doing all to the glory of God and in the process enjoy His presence.

    There is so much the can (positively) be modeled in sports that to blanket dismiss them as unchristianlike is absurd.

    Honor the Lord in all things, do not be conformed to this world, glorify the Lord, enjoy Him and have some fun while you are at it…

  • Deanna says:

    I agree with Fred that sport in and of itself is neither good nor bad. I believe that sport (notice I said “sport” and not “sports”) can be a marvelous tool for reaching people. If your focus is on “going out” and being Christ in the community, it won’t take you long to realize that there are many vast communities (or common-interest gatherings) of people in every city. God has planted me within the running community … on our twice-weekly runs I converse with a huge variety of people that I would otherwise never have met – lawyers, single moms, students, computer folk … and every one of them is desparate for some sort of real connection with others. When out on the roads for mile after mile, people are more apt to share deeply of themselves and some real deep relationships can be formed. In today’s society, so many people will never darken the doors of a church. I believe we need to stop trying to figure out ways to get them to come through our church’s doors and instead figure out ways that we can go out and meet them where they are. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Sport can, and is, a great way to be salt and light in a community.

  • Greg Whitsett says:

    My way of determining the value of sports in my life as a christian is three fold. First, I had to ask what is it’s origin? There are only two forces of creation in all existence, God and Man. All sports have the same basic goal, and that goal reveals its true origin. That goal is the self glorification of man. I, as a christian am not drawn closer to God by prideful self glorification, but by humility. Second, What is required to sustain the sports world? Billions of dollars, a very large percentage of our waking hours, and a large amount of our emotional affection. These three things are absolutely crucial to truly loving God and His greatest creation, mankind. Here, I must draw a line in the sand and take a stand. My resources, time, and affections, can’t be offered to the god of sports, at the expense of the true God of the universe. Third, What is the bottom line. What have I received in return for my devotion and love for sports? Has it helped to transform me into the image of Christ? Has it helped me to show the love of God to a love starved world? Has my love affair with sports caused God and myself to be drawn closer together? The true answer to all these questions is NO ! If the trillions of dollars spent on sports had been used to further the true message of Christs love, and the trillions of hours spent watching sports had been invested in Gods work or in heart felt prayer, we would be living in a very different world today, than the one we know. Yes, Christians can embrace sports. But not without releasing our embrace with our God.

  • Corey says:

    This raises a question i have had for a few years now. I am a big follower of MMA and The UFC. I even work out and train with a friend who is preparing for his 1st amateur match. I love it. it has provided a platform to speak with him about sin and salvation, and now he has accepted Jesus as his Lord and savior!!! His salvation happened at the end of one of our workouts.

    The question is does my participation and support of MMA conflict with God’s message in the Bible? I don’t think it is a problem, but it is easy to see some conflicts. Watching the events on TV there is plenty of offensive content that has to be dealt with. -corey

  • Barry says:

    Seems to me that the christian walk is a constant of competition and battle. We are to fight against the devil, to wage war against evil and to fight the good fight of faith. Injecting christian values into something that evil is trying to use to draw people away from God is our duty. We are to be servants of Christ and go into the battle and take what satan has ment for evil and do what God may lead us to to have it turned for good. Satan would like for us to set back and say I can’t be involved in sports because I’m a christian. That way he can point at us and say, they think they are to good to fellowship with you, they think they are better than you. We are not any better than the individual involved in the deepest of sin. The only difference in them and us is salvation through Jesus Christ. Because if it wasn’t for salvation that would be us.

    God help us to never think we are better than anyone. Jesus did not reach out to the leper because he thought he was better than him. He reached out because He had compassion on him and would that he would be healed. If we are to be above why did Jesus set to supper with the sinner. Why did he allow a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair then turn around and annoint him with precious oil.
    God help us and our judgemental attitude. We need to read, study and live John 3:17 “For God sent not His Son into the world to condim the world but that the world through Him might be saved.”
    Not even Jesus, the only one who is truly qualified to condim did so. As He told the woman brought before Him, caught in the sin of adultry. “neither do I condim the, go and sin no more”
    We have to quit majoring on the minors.

  • David says:

    I think competition is okay as long as it dosn’t lead to taking our eyes off God. I also think that sport competition, buisness competition and other types of competition were put here by God so that we could defend christianity and other things that we want to compete against.

  • Michael says:

    I’m just amazed at the slight unscriptural basis for this argument. Didn’t Paul himself liken Christianity to a race? Isn’t a race by definition a competitive sport in which one tries to beat out all hindrances an obstacles through any means necessary in order to be the first one across the finish line? “narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic” could all be used to describe actions of the church itself! What you are observing is not a flaw in sports but the ultimate flaw of our sinful nature. We have corrupted something(in this case physical competition) into something wrong just as we have corrupted everything else in this world. In and of itself Physical Competition is not only NOT wrong but should be encouraged and embraced. It only becomes wrong when we introduce our sinfulness into it just as we have in every other facet of our existence.

  • Greg says:

    I’ve noticed many of the anti-sports comments are focusing on the attitudes of the players which I agree are a negative aspect of sports…But is it possible that competitive nature of sports in and of itself naturally fosters these attitudes?

    Do sports promote the works of the flesh??

    “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21

    or the fruit of the spirit??

    “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law…” Galatians 5:22,23

    Watch a football game while keeping these scriptures clearly in your mind…Is there kindness or gentleness with each brutal tackle? Or do you see a spirit of anger and dissension?

    Is there patience and peace during the final furious moments of a close, fast, hard hitting hockey game? Or will you more likely see enmity and strife?

    “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others as greater than yourself.”

    When competing for a trophy or there rivalry or humility? Are you seeking to esteem others as great or exalt yourself?

    As for Paul’s reference to “the prize” in 1 Corinthians 9:24 it is not an endorsement of competition. He’s pointing out the sacrifice that the athletes make (9:25,26) to obtain a wreath (the prize) that will wither and die. So he points out that Christians, striving for an incorruptible prize (salvation and eternal life), ought to be just as diligent (or even more so) than these athletes in keeping their bodies under control.

    The difference between the Christian race and the race that Paul uses as an example is that in the Christian race all can win the prize and we are to help each other obtain it. Read the entire context of 1 Cor. chapter 9 and this meaning is clear. Become all things to all people (9:22) in order to help win them to Christ. Cooperation not competition will to help others find Jesus…

    God bless you all and may the Holy Spirit give us right understanding on these often contentious and difficult issues…

  • L.D. says:

    Sports may be the topic that defines true CHRISTIANS from nominal CHRISTIANS. If we truely live lives separated from the world and walk IN THE SPIRIT we will walk completely free from sports. Sports glorify the flesh and self glorification. Try this example . IF JESUS CHRIST was in your game………. HE would hand the ball to the opposing team out of love for them……….. I guess sports and true christianity dont mix then do they……………..