Finding Virtue in Sports for the Sake of Missions

Finding Virtue in Sports for the Sake of Missions January 3, 2013

Why do we like sports and why does it matter for missions?

This is a more sensitive topic that some might think. After all, watching an athletic championship game with others could be compared to a worship experience. Vast amount of discussion, money, and time are spent in gathering millions to join in common celebration. Sports fanatics memorize statistics better than many Christians memorize Scripture. Fans seek “union” with the their champion, such that when they win, “we win.” When they lose, we also “lose” with them. Stated negatively, sports is a consistent competitor with the church. Practice and games replace participation in Bible studies, mission trips, and the like. Even when people attend a Sunday morning service, they are looking at their watches.

Johnny Manzial

Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to  ask whether can we find any virtue in sports?

As I type this, people are talking about the Heisman trophy winner and college bowl games. Here are some of the phrases I’ve heard over the years spoken in the context of sports: athletes are said to exemplify virtues like “loyalty,” “perseverance,” “determination, “courageous,” “love for his team,” “patience,” “unselfish.” Also, one hears “He is willing to sacrifice himself.” “They’ve showed great character this year.” “He will never be forgotten.” “This was a heroic performance.” “History was made today.” In the recent heisman trophy ceremony, it was said “Football gives me a chance to be an example, . . . to reach out to people,” “I learned a lot about his heart.” and “This is where your faith in tested.”

We make much of sport because we want to be a part of something that is bigger than us, even bigger than life. We long to see real virtue. Sports is a benign medium in which to peak into glory. It’s safe because we know it will end at the final buzzer. We admire those who give their whole life to one cause. We would love to be like them. But we settle for sports.

Keri strug

To be sure, there is much to be gained in athletic competition. Our trivial play trains us. We learn to work hard, think strategically, focus with singular vision, and cooperate with others. Sports teaches us to “suck it up” when things get tough. One must learn to be flexible and adapt to circumstances.

The problem is not necessarily in sports itself. Rather, it is when we confuse victory with virtue. We must not allow ourselves merely to be entertained by what should act as preparation for missions. Idols are good things turned into “best” things. It is not surprising that we would treat sports the same way. Fun is best had when kept in relative perspective. Faith means keeping things in right perspective.

1 Cor 9:25, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Heb 12:11, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

2 Tim 2:5, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”

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  • LEB

    While I totally agree with your thought — “To be sure, there is much to be gained in athletic competition. Our trivial play trains us. We learn to work hard, think strategically, focus with singular vision, and cooperate with others. Sports teaches us to “suck it up” when things get tough. One must learn to be flexible and adapt to circumstance” — it focuses on sports participants rather than the vast audience of PASSIVE Christian observers/spectators/couch potatoes that vicariously live through the successes and defeats of their teams and players. The verses listed speak of the athlete competing in the heat of the battle and thereby learning self control and discipline. I agree that the participants can learn valuable virtues that can translate into kingdom work. The other side of the coin, however, is that big time sports (and entertainment in general) requires large numbers of spectators to watch the “professionals” or talented athletes perform. People want the emotional payoff through watching sports without the physical discipline and commitment needed to be actual participants.

    So, besides the very real idolatry problem you mentioned, sports (and entertaiment in general) can also foster, in many, a spectator oriented, passive mindset that is too often carried into our church settings. Many would prefer to let the “paid professionals” perform the worship songs, teach their children, visit the sick, or — go to the Mission field. How to get Christians out of the stands and into the field of play is a significant challenge that I see church leadership struggle with all the time. The mindset of spectatorship seriously undermines kingdom service.

    As you mentioned, it is not necessarily “sports” (or fill in the blank) that is the problem but rather attitudes and perspectives that are developed in connection to sports. May the Holy Spirit help each of us to treasure Christ more than our favorite team or sports personality, have Super Bowl excitement along with the angels of heaven when a sinner repents, and be actively engaged on the spiritual battle field, with sweat and tears, in the service of our King who has secured the ultimate victory.

    • LEB, good point about the passivity that sports breeds. Certainly, there is a sense in which hearing about ministry/missions can function similarly, so that we actually think we are doing ministry. We have seen the dynamic where people come overseas for a week or two, basically just tour around, and then call it a mission trip in the States. My prayer is that churches would be intentional in their short term mission initiatives.