Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Coaches vs. Pastors: Sunday is Game Day

It is no surprise to say that our culture is sports-obssessed. It is not a new trend; "national pastimes" have referred to athletic endeavors for years and years. Athletes have always been heroes, not just in America, but in all human cultures, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome and even likely before that. I do think, however, that the amount of money and attention paid to athletics and sports have reached a new level, even in the past few decades. I can't document it, but I am certain that there are more sports groups who do their stuff on Sundays than even when I was a kid.

I notice this most often in my ministry as a parish pastor. I have discovered that the single largest competitor (to borrow a sports metaphor) to church activities, especially worship, is sports. This is true whether the sports activities are drawing people as participants or as spectators. I would venture to say that athletic activity draws people away from church participation even more than Sunday work schedules, which are also increasingly common. Youth, of course, have always had to choose from time to time between youth group involvement and participation on a sports team. Now, however, I find that it is getting more common to find that even the most faithful and committed church members will think nothing of sacrificing valuable church time--week after week after week--to be involved on a team or do something else sports-related. Adults, too, get so involved in their child's sports activities or in their own favorite team's season that they think nothing of foregoing church worship. And it is also true: no college to my knowledge is offering any scholarships for faith acumen. Sports hold sway in this day and age of conspicuous consumption in a way they never have before, in my estimation.

I would be a liar if I said this didn't trouble me. Don't get me wrong; I understand the value of sports and know that participation in them can teach important things such as teamwork, a sense of community, self-confidence, and stewardship of the body. I consider athletic activity--the recreation of physical exertion--to be, like many things, a gift from God. It is good to enjoy sports.

However, I do worry about the character formation that our youth (and adults) receive through sports. In short, what is the end (telos) of sports? If we're spending more of our time submitting to the guidance and authority of coaches and teammates than we do our sisters and brothers in Christ, our pastors, and in service to others, what kind of people will we become? If we spend more of our energies involved in inherently exclusive events like sports, cutting the weaker links from our teams and banishing to the sidelines those who aren't athletically inclined, then how do we ever learn to practice compassion and love for the outsider? If we spend more of our time listening to game strategies than we do to Scripture, how will we learn true humility? Can sports alone truly make us better people, the kind of people God has created and redeemed us to be? I am worried because I think we are more and more as a society answering that last question with an unqualified "yes." I know that a Sunday liturgy may not seem to be the most exciting pastime, but I also have faith that gathering with the faithful on a regular basis teaches us to place our treasure where moths do not consume and no rust destroys. It also forms us to be Christ to one another. We eat together at a table and share our many gifts, rather than play together on a court, lifting up only a narrow definition of "talent."

Perhaps this just sounds like a complaint from a tired, discouraged pastor who is ranting and raving about a new false idol. The last thing I want to do is ruin anyone's good time. But at what point do we need to stand up and say something? Things like Souper Bowl Day of Caring are a good examples of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but still I think we slowly are losing our youth--and ourselves--to the allure of the sports gospel.

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