Playing (and Not Playing) Sports to the Glory of God

ballNorman Dale: You know, most people would kill to be treated like a god, just for a few moments.
Barbara Fleener: Gods come pretty cheap nowadays, don’t they? You become one by putting a leather ball in an iron hoop. I hate to tell you this, but it’s only a game.

Growing up, Hoosiers was one of, if not my absolute, favorite movie. Its story about the improbably state championship of a small town basketball team  fueled countless hours of basketball drills and hardwood dreams. It also fed my idolatry with basketball, that persisted until the Lord saved me from my sins and my selfish dreams.

In reflecting on sports, I wouldn’t say everyone who dreams of playing college (or professional) sports is sinning. I wouldn’t paint others with the same idolatry I had, but I would say that as my children are just now beginning to come to an age where sports is an option, I’m thinking about sports entirely differently than I did when I was 12 years old. As much as I would enjoy watching my children succeed in sports, I am much more concerned with savoring Christ and serving him as Lord.

I doubt I’m alone. I know many who love Jesus and sports. Indeed, I believe Paul himself had a positive view of athletics. But what Paul says about sports in 1 Timothy 4:7–8 bears repeating today: disciplining ones body for sports was and is secondary to cultivating godliness. Christians who play sports should think and play and participate differently. But how?

If you are wrestling with the role sports should play in your children’s lives, here are some helpful resources. Be prepared, like your ball coach’s end-of-practice wind sprints, they are sure to produce some discomfort. But, as they say, “No Pain, No Gain.”

Don’t Play Travel Ball: Stay in the Rec League

Jim Hamilton, professor of biblical theology at Southern Seminary, and a former college baseball player gives 10 reasons for avoiding travel leagues. His main point stresses the value of the local church and the way travel ball threatens a child’s ability to commit to church.

Don’t get me wrong: I love competition. I love excellence. And I want to provide the best competitive opportunities I can for my own kids.

I played two years of major college baseball at the University of Arkansas, and I’ve been coaching my sons in baseball and basketball for the last 7 years or so. These reflections grow out of my own experience playing and coaching and watching other families. My thoughts will be mainly applied to baseball, but I think they are valid for basketball, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, swimming, and whatever else.

Here are 10 reasons I think you should keep your kid in the rec league rather than quitting it for travel ball.

Discipleship Through Sports

In the vimeo clip above Randy Stinson and David Prince sit down to discuss how sports can be channeled to disciple young men. Randy and David are friends whose love for sports is subservient to their love for Jesus. Randy modeled that a few years ago when he took all of his teenage children out of sports for a year in order to do short term missions with them. David himself is working on a book on the subject and has written numerous articles (a few listed below) which help us think about the intersection of faith and sports.

Do Christian Parents Flirt with the Idol of Sports?

Todd Hill, youth director at New Life Presbyterian Church in Dresher, Pennsylvania, writes about the way chasing sports can suck the life out of Christians. He lists six principles for participating in sports and concluded with this wise counsel.

If our schedule is so regularly insane that we can’t rest, then perhaps our heart has subtly shifted. We always have time for what is most important to us. If our calendars leave room for nothing but the kids’ activities, then maybe those activities have become what we value most. Family devotional times are challenging in the best of times, but during soccer season they often disappear.

What are we communicating to our children about priorities when we have time for all of their sports but never to read God’s Word together?

Jesus rested and escaped his hectic ministry to pray (Luke 5:16). God established a sabbath principle for our protection and joy. He summons us to be still (Ps. 46:10). And in those quiet moments our family learns what is most important: the need to inhale the life-giving truth and love of Jesus our King.

Child-Centered Homes

Finally, America’s obsession with kids and sports is fueled by the way Americans worship their children. Joe Flatt, a pastor for 40 years in the high-achieving and hyper-competitive city of Carmel, Indiana, writes about this in a short article called “Child-Centered Homes.” Though his aim is more broad (not to mention intentionally thought-provoking), he reminds us when young athletes dictate the schedules and priorities of the whole family, the home is no longer resting on the priorities and pursuits of Jesus.

His article lists 26 possible symptoms of unhealthy “child-centeredness.” Here are three that pertain to sports.

7. Allowing the child’s schedule to determine the whole family’s schedule. One child’s commitments should not always have priority over those of other family members. Among other things, this may mean cutting back on Sunday commitments that take the family away from worship.

15. Providing the best money can buy for the child, even if it means a drastic change in your lifestyle. After all, the kid is worth it.

21. Allowing children to dictate family decisions, rather than simply having a voice.

A Call for Wisdom

In the end every family is going to put these principles into practice differently. The goal of this post is not to set any list of rules. Rather, it is a call for wisdom and the need for honest conversation. We live in a culture which worships athletes as gods. And as parents who fear the Lord, we have a responsibility to help our children weigh opportunities and dangers of sports.

For our family, we are just at the beginning of this phase of life. Therefore, I lean on the wisdom of older men who are using sports as a servant, not serving them as a master. May we who love sports learn how to play them (and not play them) to the glory of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds