Q. I’ve heard you relate how you once went to church and when the first words out of the worship leader’s mouth were something like “How ‘bout them Yankees?” you felt like shouting back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?” I have the same frustration. My pastor often gets sidetracked into talking about sports during his sermons. Why do preachers and worship leaders talk so much about sports these days?
I can think of at least two good reasons to talk about sports during a worship gathering of Jesus’ followers.
For one thing, sports provides many illustrations of the perseverance and dedication that are required to live as followers of Jesus. The Bible itself models using sports as a metaphor in this way. In writing to the Corinthians, for example, Paul said, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Paul wrote similarly to Timothy, “Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” And Psalm 19 even celebrates God’s creation by comparing the sun to “an athlete eager to run a race.”
A second legitimate use of sports, as I see it, is to “contextualize” the gospel by situating the message of worship and preaching within the milieu in which the hearers live. When I came to pastor a church in the city where Michigan State University is located, at first I didn’t know any better than to wear my favorite yellow fleece jacket with blue jeans to informal gatherings, thus inadvertently donning the maize-and-blue colors of its arch-rival, the University of Michigan. Some people had such a hard time with this that I had to swap the yellow fleece for a green-and-white MSU sweatshirt, signaling that I was identifying with the community and its popular culture. This set people at ease, creating receptivity and an openness to my ministry. I believe that carefully chosen verbal references to sports in worship and preaching can signal the same kind of intentional identification.
But this can easily be taken too far. We have to be careful not to use the spiritual authority behind worship and preaching to suggest, even implicitly, that God is on the side of one team and its fans and against other teams and their fans. I like the answer a priest from Notre Dame gave when asked what God would do when Notre Dame played another Catholic school like Boston College, with the priests at both schools praying that their team would win. “In that case,” he said, “I think the Lord would just sit back and enjoy a great football game.” We need to convey this same sense of divine neutrality (and divine interest in a great game, as both teams strive to do their best) when we talk about sports.
I think the greatest danger is to imply that being a fan of a certain team is somehow a legitimate defining aspect of a person’s identity. The spiritual authority behind worship and preaching can convey this message as well, if the local sports team is absorbed as part of the faith community’s identity. Sometimes I’ll watch a game show on which the players are asked to say three or four defining things about themselves. Very often they’ll say what kind of work they do, mention their spouses and children, and then say, “I’m also a big fan of such-and-such a team.” I believe that unless a person is actively involved in promoting a team’s efforts in some practical manner, it’s a dangerous illusion for them to allow their fandom to become a defining aspect of their identity, when they really have nothing to do with how the team (or their favorite NASCAR driver, etc.) performs. It’s perhaps even more dangerous for a community of Jesus’ followers to let this happen, because then they’re allowing an idol to share the place of honor that belongs to Jesus alone.
This is what I felt happened in the worship service you heard me describe attending. It was actually Palm Sunday, when we would expect the worship leader to call out something like “Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!” and have the people respond, “Hosanna in the highest!” to Jesus. Instead, the worship leader extolled the recent success of a favorite sports team. I really was tempted to shout back, “How ‘bout that Jesus?” But that would have been disruptive and disrespectful of the spiritual authority of the worship leader, so I didn’t shout anything back. But I thank you for your question, which has given me the opportunity to share these reflections. Sports is one of the greatest idols of contemporary American culture and we need to be very discerning about its presence and influence.