If confession is good for the soul, then writing this post should be like spring cleaning for my heart. Hi, my name’s David and I have a football problem.
I’m a loyal, 3rd-Generation Miami Dolphin fan (don’t laugh… “it’s root-root-root for the home team. If they don’t win, it’s a shame”). I’ve rooted for them since I was little and Dan “The Man” Marino was lighting up the record books. I rooted for them when they went 1-16, with their only win coming off a last-second field goal against a struggling Baltimore Ravens. I rooted for them when they finally made the playoffs this year. J-E-T-S and P-A-T-S are four-letter words in my house. My passion is indeed adamant. In addition, I also got into fantasy football the last few years. Our seminary has a small league and I’ve been managing it the last two seasons. To do both these things involves a lot of time and a lot of commitment. I do both with a lot of passion and excitement, the same amount that I’m sure many of you have when it comes to football.
This begs the question though…. Can football be a religion? Can it be an idol? Why doesn’t GOD get as much passion and attention as football does with the average Christian NFL enthusiast?
Let’s put it this way. If football is a religion, it’s got a LOT of committed disciples. According to the Nevada Gaming Commission, 41% of all sports bets in 2011 were spent on Football, a total amount of $1.34 Billion. That’s Billion… with a B. Needless to say, a lot of folks will be watching the Super Bowl around the world this weekend. According to Sports Illustrated, the price Fox will charge for a 30-second commercial during this weekend’s big game is between $5 Million and $5.5 Million. It would seem that the Worldwide Church of Pigskin has many devout and active members.
In light of this growing “body” of football believers, what do we do with respect to the real Church, a Christian family whom (at least in America) is declining? In 2013, the Huffington Post wrote that between 4,000-7,000 churches in America close their doors every year. No one’s paying $5.5 Million for a 30-second spot on the Sunday morning announcement screen. It begs one to ponder whether or not the rise of the one “church” has something to do with the decline of the other.
Idols take many forms. God has indeed given us the gift of football, but it (like anything else) has a great temptation to take the place of Him or His worship. As a pastor, I’ve seen members come into an Ash Wednesday Service late because of a playoff game. I’ve seen members leave when the sermon goes a little long. (Our service ends around 11:30, and kickoff in the Midwest, of course, is at noon). I’ve seen church business meetings intentionally scheduled on Pro Bowl weekend, so as to not interfere with the actual January afternoon playoff schedule. But hey, I’m pointing the finger at myself too. Most of my beloved Dolphins’ games were noon kickoffs this season and I can’t help but wonder if that secretly motivated me to inch out the door of the church just a little bit faster. This is something that ALL Christian football fans struggle with, especially given that most football happens early Sunday afternoon, directly piggy-backing off our Sunday morning worship schedules.
To that end, there are 4 important factors here that we must keep in mind, so as not to let “The Football gods” become our new deity of choice:
- Repent. We often sing of casting down our idols… but if the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, then, as wonderful as football is, let’s call it what it IS… an IDOL. Now that we’ve admittedly got an idolatry issue on our hands, let’s repent. I’ll be the first to start.
“Lord, I regret that my passion and devotion to the Miami Dolphins (or you enter your own team here) is often with more zeal, energy, and consumption of my time than my relationship with AND/OR my worship and service of You. The entertainment itself has exceeded the Source of it, and for that I repent. Give me the passion and thrill of a Hail Mary playoff touchdown every time my thoughts turn to You…. and turn my thoughts to You infinitely more often than to a brown leather ball. Amen.
- Put More Eggs in the RIGHT Basket. I’m not saying to burn your subscription to NFL Sunday Ticket or Red Zone. I’m not saying to cut football out of your life completely. But I AM saying that you’re loyalties should not be evenly split. If football gets X hours of your attention and God/Scripture/Prayer/Worship gets Y, all I’m saying is that the formula MUST be Y > X. So let’s take steps to ensure that’s the case:
Step 1: Add up all the hours you spend watching football. You may need a calculator because 3-hour + football games are on Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. Step 2: Take that total sum and pull out your calendar. Pencil in more committed hours of prayer, worship, and service on your calendar than that sum of football hours. The more hours the better. Step 3: Add up all the time you spend reading football articles or draft reports, watching SportsCenter or other such football media programs in-between games, or fine-tuning that all important Fantasy team of yours. Step 4: Take THAT sum and pencil into your calendar a greater amount of scripture reading, sermon listening, commentary reading, etc. Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4, using the same amount of hourly devotion to God, even during the offseason. (Your plan may not look exactly like this, but you get my point.) Time with/for God > time with football.
- Recharge your zeal. It isn’t just a matter of the amount of time we spend with God over football. But the quality of that time, in relationship to the quality of football time. This is we’re I feel the most guilt. As a DolFan, my emotions run the entire gamut, especially in the 4th I feel joy, sadness, anger, longing, pain, optimism, and a deep connection to my team… all of which turn my heart into thunderous drum corp. Again, this is NOT a bad thing. God created us to be emotional beings and gave us an emotional Model (e.g. John 11:35). I’m only contending that we should be asking God to give us the SAME amount of emotional zeal as the football does.
Similarly, we will experience the gamut of all those previously stated emotions. The joy of fellowship, the sadness for the state of this world, the anger over our sinful habits, the longing for Christ triumphant return (Rom. 8:22), the pain for the hurting saint and the lost sinner, optimism in light of God’s sovereignty, and a deep intimate connection with the Savior. If we feel any of these emotions lack in our relationship with God, then we can ask Him to help us feel them more. “Restore unto me the JOY of Your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). I can guarantee, from God’s word, that He WILL grant that request. He wants us to desire Him above all others, so of course He’ll help us do that, even more so than we do for football.
- Invoke the Doctrine of Common Grace. My subscription to reformed theology demands that I subscribe to the doctrine of Common Grace, which says in short that there are some benefits of God which apply to the non-believer as well as the believer (e.g. Matt. 5:45). This leads us to understand that seemingly secular things in God’s creation can be redeemed for the gospel purposes. Football is no exception. In my years of ministry, my youth students or congregation members looked forward to our annual Super Bowl party. The non-churchy atmosphere of our home, coupled with the copious buffet of irresistibly delectable snacks, made this the perfect, non-threatening opportunity to invite unsaved friends to a “church” event.
So use football, Super Bowl weekend or otherwise, for gospel and fellowship purposes. Realize that our God IS “the Football god” and creatively use His wonderful gift of the gridiron to shine gospel light.
Finally, let me add that I think part of the reason why the temptation of football is so great is because this game is particularly similar to life. Personally, I’m just starting the 2nd quarter of my life. The 1st quarter was just feeling out the field, and the strong opponent (namely the “lion seeking whom he may devour”). Now, I’m becoming more comfortable, learning which plays work and which defensive traps to avoid. I learn when to punt the ball and when to go for it. The 3rd quarter of middle age is where you carry the momentum of the first half of life to really run up the score and wear the other team down. The 4th quarter is simply giving everything you’ve got left, leaving it all out on the field of life when that final horn sounds. In every quarter, you’ve got to listen carefully to the Coach. You’ve got to run HIS plays, because He sees the entire field. He knows the entire opponent. He ensures the victory.
For many red-blooded American Christians, the battle for competing attentions between faith and football will be an on-going struggle, and that’s good. But the solution to this struggle is the same solution that Vince Lombardi offered. He once asked his players in the locker room this question: “There are two dogs in a fight. Which one wins?” “The one that’s bigger and stronger”, the players answered. “No.”, Lombardi replied, “It’s the one you FEED”.
Feature Photo Attribution; Source; CC 2.0