September 23, 2020

Another Look: It’s Holy Week in America

Originally published January, 2010. In this re-posting, I did not change references to the times or events happening at that time.

Scot McKnight discussed this over at Jesus Creed as well. I encourage you to check out his perspective and those of his readers.

• • •

I grew up fully immersed in sports. Sports were a part of almost everything I did, every friendship, most activities. I became a jock. I got pretty good at basketball, and played competitively through my junior year in high school, capping off my career with a team that won the first regional championship in school history.

But I was especially focused on baseball. At the time of my conversion, as a senior in high school near Baltimore, I played for a school with a storied tradition. That year we again had a talented team that won our conference, beating out our rival, the school that would produce Cal Ripken, Jr. a few years later. I was honored as County Player of the Year, and there was little I loved more than baseball.

That was also the spring I met Jesus.

For some reason, at that time in my life, I thought this spiritual awakening meant that my life was supposed to change completely. Not just internally. Not just “spiritually.” Not just morally. Totally. Like the first disciples, I was being called to drop the nets, climb out of the fishing boat, leave the family business behind, abandon it all and follow Jesus.

To me, that meant I was through with sports. I don’t think anyone told me that specifically, but nobody said differently either. When I graduated and started thinking about studying for the ministry, no one suggested I find a school with a baseball team. It was all about the Bible. It was all about following the Lord. It was all about spreading the message. And so I went to Bible college. Our school had a soccer team and a basketball team, but I never seriously considered playing. In fact, I rarely even attended games. Sports were now outside my radically narrowed focus. I was headed in a different direction.

Our first church was in a tiny mountain village in Vermont. My wife and I didn’t have a TV in our home by choice, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because reception was non-existent. Occasionally I listened to the Orioles or the Cubs on the radio when a distant AM station would come in, and once or twice we went to Fenway to see a game, but sports was no longer a regular or central part of my life, my thinking, or my interest.

We continued in this vein when we moved back to Chicago for seminary. Life for us was all about school, work, church, having babies, and learning about family life. While there, we got caught up a little bit in the fun of watching the Chicago Bears win the Super Bowl, and we occasionally watched games at friends’ homes, but sports remained on the periphery.

Then our children started growing up. Girl’s basketball games began appearing on our schedule. Then, even more significantly for our future lifestyle, we started Little League baseball with my oldest son. After more than 15 years of living, for all practical purposes, without sports, we entered a season of life in which, for the next 20 years, sports once again became a prominent focus. In fact, it would not be overstating it to say that, except for the church, nothing filled our lives so much as interest and involvement in sports. Whether spending time at facilities cheering on our children, coaching, watching sports on TV as a part of our family experience, or attending professional sporting events as special occasions, we had become a “sports” family.

That culminated this last fall when my son played his final college football game. Our role as “sports parents” is suddenly over. It remains to be seen what will happen with the next generation, our grandchildren. But the lifestyle is still a big part of who we are. We continue to watch sports on TV and follow various teams. Having grown up in Chicago, I remain a lifelong Cubs and Bears fan. Living near Indianapolis, we root for the Colts and enjoy attending games at our Triple-A baseball park. I check scores daily. The remote is used regularly to flip through channels in hopes of finding a good competition to watch. We host or attend parties for big games. As a chaplain, I have found that sports can be a bridge for building friendships and creating opportunities for ministry.

So, sports remains a central part of our lives and daily conversations these days.

Sometimes, though, I feel twinges of spiritual concern.

I felt that twinge yesterday, when I read the thoughtful article by Shirl James Hoffman in Christianity Today entitled, “Sports Fanatics: How Christians have succumbed to the sports culture — and what might be done about it.” I encourage you to read it too, and see if doesn’t raise issues for you about our American preoccupation with all things sports.

Hoffman writes:

Americans are consuming sports on an unprecedented scale. The ancient Romans, long considered the gold standard for how sports-crazed a culture could be, were dilettantes compared to the sports fans of this century. The Romans could squeeze 50,000 spectators into the Coliseum for gladiatorial contests — a quaint assemblage next to the 107,000 seats regularly sold for University of Michigan or Penn State home football games. In 2006, Americans spent over $17 billion on tickets to sports contests and $90 billion on sporting goods, over double what they spent on books ($42 billion). Sports magazines take up prime space on bookstore shelves; the granddaddy of them all, Sports Illustrated, sells as many copies in a month (13.2 million) as To Kill a Mockingbird has sold since its publication in 1960. A tenth of The World Almanac is devoted to sports, more than is allocated for business, science, and politics combined.

None of this has been lost on evangelicals, who have been quick to harness sports to personal and institutional agendas. Less than a century ago, major segments of the evangelical community considered sports a cancer on the spiritual life; today their denominational progeny lead the parade to stadiums. The cozy coupling of sports and evangelicalism shows itself not only in the outsized athletic complexes that are common features of church architecture, but also in the ease with which sport and its symbols show up in the sanctuary. Pastors incorporate pithy sports metaphors into their sermons. Famous athletes are invited to pulpits to tell how their faith helps them compete. Some churches celebrate Super Bowl Sunday by canceling the evening service and assembling in the sanctuary to watch the game on large-screen TVs. “Faith nights” sponsored by local baseball teams draw entire congregations to the ballpark. Evangelistic organizations that center on the public’s fascination with sports flourish.

However, Hoffman later opines:

Variously described by those inside and outside as narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic, big-time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians for centuries have understood as the embodiment of the gospel. There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative — with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination — while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle. If evangelical ethicist R. E. O. White is right to assert that self-absorption is behind all wrong social relationships and, for this reason, self-denial is the first ethical condition of discipleship, then elite athletes immersed in the self-consumed atmosphere of sports, where self-denial is a recipe for competitive disaster, face a fundamental problem.

…If indeed sport is marching toward Gomorrah, it seems to have escaped the attention of large portions of the evangelical community, which continue to bask in the reflected glory of Christian athletes. Much evangelical commentary glorifies athletes and sports, but becomes timid in situations that warrant indictment. Rarely does the evangelical press ask touchy questions about tensions between the moral culture of Christianity and that of big-time sports. The silence is deafening.

In its vision of sports, bolstered by the large number of Christian athletes who have joined professional and collegiate teams, the evangelical community has yet to ask how the influx of believers has affected the morality of sports. There may be no more vivid illustration of historian Mark Noll’s “scandal of the evangelical mind” than the way the community has neglected to think Christianly about sport, or has excused itself from crafting a sensible philosophy that will help them mine the spiritual riches that sport has to offer. [emphasis mine]

Back in 1976, Frank DeFord wrote a series of Sports Illustrated articles called “Religion in Sports,” in which he asserted, “Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting.”

In those articles, he coined a phrase, “Sportianity,” to describe a “new denomination” of Christianity that has embraced sports, has intentionally infiltrated its arenas for the purpose of evangelism, but which may have become, in fact, sports’ handmaiden.

Unlike DeFord, I am not qualified to speak on the complex relationship between sports and religion in America. My concerns are much more personal and pastoral. It seems to me that sports represents one of those areas of American pop culture that has simply inundated Christianity and left us helplessly going with the flow.

  • Now churches schedule services and programs around sporting events and calendars, not vice versa.
  • Now it is common for individuals and families to miss services and church activities to be involved in sports, whether simply watching or participating.
  • In many minds, any specialness which Sunday maintains is usually more related to sporting events that are taking place that day than to Lord’s Day worship.
  • People who would complain loudly of “legalism” or authoritarianism if the pastor suggested we dress up a little bit to honor God when we come to worship have no problem with wearing jerseys and other sports gear to church to show allegiance to their teams (picture the 80-year old woman wearing her Colts jersey, face paint and team-colored ribbons last week in our service).

But wait, isn’t most of this just harmless fun? Am I being too hard on God’s family here?

I am aware of the good aspects of sports, and I fully affirm them. After all, sporting fields and stands have been the context where I have sought to live out my faith over the past 20 years. But somehow, I wonder…

  • Have we lost some perspective here?
  • Was I completely wrong to have relativized sports, to have set it aside as a less worthy pursuit, when I was in the state of first love with Jesus?
  • Has the Sportian lifestyle swallowed up a distinctive, counter-cultural Christianity?
  • Do we live in a day in which it is simply impossible for pastors to admonish their congregations about a devotion to sports that has crossed the line, tying up their time, emotional energies, and finances in something which is not, in the final analysis, all that important?

Sportianity’s Holiest Celebration
And now we have come to Holy Week, which culminates on the holiest day of Sportianity’s year: Super Bowl Sunday. Here in Indianapolis, where we have a rooting interest in the game’s outcome, it’s just about all anyone is talking about.

  • We’ll have our daily devotions listening to messages from sports pundits and talk-show hosts.
  • We’ll have a special season of fellowship with our friends and coworkers, praising our team and encouraging one another with new insights into the game.
  • We’ll share the good news with neighbors and coworkers that our team is best and will certainly win.
  • We’ll utilize apologetics in commending our team against unbelievers, giving a reasonable defense as to why they will triumph.
  • On game day, we’ll gather before the sacred flat screen altar, share the holy appetizers, and participate in the liturgy of watching the big game (and especially the commercials) with exclamations of praise and/or lament.
  • We’ll go forth into the world on Monday to talk about our experiences and rejoice that we were together.

Then, on to spring training, the Final Four, the NFL draft, the start of baseball season, the NBA playoffs…

…with ESPN at our side, for he hath said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”

• • •

Cartoon Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc –


  1. Can anyone explain to me why it is that people get so emotionally caught up in watching sports? That was never really something my family did when I was growing up (our family time involved watching Star Trek, instead) so I approach the whole thing as a somewhat bewildered outsider. But I guess it’s really no different than someone whose identity is caught up in celebrities or in a particular band or in nationalism or in Apple gadgets or whatever. Still, aren’t _all_ of those things idolatry?

    At the same time, I wonder if we _all_ have some sort of private idol we worship, something that seems so normal to us that we wouldn’t even name it as idolatry, even though it might be obvious to everyone else. Sports may be an especially blatant form of idol-worship, but others of us might have a private shrine in our hearts set up to materialism or intellectualism or self-righteousness or workaholism or sex. And many of those private idols are even more destructive and even more demanding of our time and energy than sports. So I’m really hesitant to criticize sports-obsessed people because there’s a good chance I have a few equally un-Christian obsessions of my own.

    • the topic of private idols usually comes up in sermon themes at least once-a-year in the churches i have attended…

      i have wondered about the depth or level of such idol worship, but for most of us i think it is simply more distraction and/or entanglement than real devotion…

      maybe we could coin a new term like ‘idolettes’? or idol-lite? there is so much in our culture to distract us, or divert our attention toward, rather than the priorities of the kingdom our own personal spiritual health. i don’t know anyone that has their identity in any particular sport/team/standing, although there are some avid fans out there. same with politics. people do get emotionally ramped up with the election dynamics, but i don’t think there are many that put their very lives on the line or think the outcomes are either going to personally bless them or curse them…

      well, maybe political results come close… 😉

      we have to be careful of the subtly which our limited attention/emotional capacity is spent on. there are no BIG idols in my life, but then i am not so enthralled with the kingdom that i live 100% for God & His priorities…

      as with every area of my life, i am proportionally allowing greater kingdom jurisdiction in all of them, which i understand to be the process of transformation/sanctification as i continue on my spiritual journey. yet i know i can never attain to my idea of a standard of perfection in any one area as i continue one step after the other…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      That was never really something my family did when I was growing up (our family time involved watching Star Trek, instead)…

      That means you were in a somewhat Fannish family. And SF fandom and Sports fandom really don’t have that much overlap — most of the types who gravitate to Star Trek (or various similar fandoms) were probably the Omega Males & Omega Females of their sports-worshipping high schools. Time and time again, I have found that first-generation Fans/Otaku/Furries/Bronies et al come from dysfunctional-to-abusive family situations and/or school/social careers that are literally Hellish. It’s a coping mechanism, finding some geek culture where there are others like you, and as my writing partner puts it, “obsessing over imagnary furry critters (or My Little Ponies, or the Voyages of the Starship Enterprise) beats sucking a load out of your dad’s shotgun as an escape method.” Note that this applies to FIRST-generation fans; second- and later generations are literally raised in the geek culture of the fandoms.

      • That’s an interesting analysis. Although I was (and am) a sports fan and Star Trek fan, there are elements of truth to what you said.

      • That means you were in a somewhat Fannish family.

        Fannish or Finnish??? i couldn’t tell if Michael Z was from Scandanavian stock, but then if he were a Viking’s fan i am sure there must be some built-in ethnic affection… 😉

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Fannish or Finnish???

          Let’s just say I don’t think they were singing the Kalevala.

      • Interesting idea but I’m fairly geekish and have non-geeky parents and a great family. Still, I think you have a point.

        “SF fandom and Sports fandom really don’t have that much overlap…”

        Hah! Not unless you’re Vox Day.

  2. See Tom Krattenmaker “Onward Christian Athletes” for a look at this issue.

  3. During our regular Sunday afternnon church service, I was thinking of having the A/V tech run the game on the video screen behind the pastor, sound off. As long as he doesn’t turn around, he’ll think we’re his most enthusiastic congregation ever!
    (Haven’t figured out yet what to do about those GoDaddy commercials.)

    • I was going to say those commercials are approved by a certain pastor who wrote a book recently, but that might qualify as a cheap shot.

    • I remember when I lived in Wisconsin and church events revovled around the Packers. Man…it was a like a religion there…

  4. Matt Purdum says

    Football is a gladiatorial war game about worldly empire. We do not assist Christ in bringing His Kingdom when we teach our children war (and the glory we think attaches to it). The Bible also suggests we are to avoid violent men. I wouldn’t have anything against kids playing such games for recreation, but you can talk until you are blue, you will never convince me that Christians are people who should care about or be involved with American professional sports.

    • Randy Windborne says

      Must disagree with you, Matt.

      We have lived in the midst of a horrible war our entire lives, and so will our children while this age lasts. Our children have a brutal enemy intent on destroying them, so if we don’t teach them about war, they’ll be easy pickins.

      IMHO, as always.

      • Matt Purdum says

        Kind of agree, Randy, but hardly think Lucifer wears a jersey.

      • The children should learn to stand up for themselves, and sports can do that. Courage is important.

        But outsmarting or out-playing your opponent in a game is not the same thing as ending lives in war. Even in the fighting sports like MMA, boxing or jiu jitsu, the objective of the sport is using the least amount of force necessary to subdue your opponent, for ending a fight with little bloodshed is more honorable and demonstrates greater control. Also the fight is always between the two fighters, and never involves the innocent. Again, honor.

        Modern warfare, with its focus on maximum destruction of civilian property, aerial bombing or drone attacks, is far from honorable. We should most definitely not encourage our children to make excuses for it or engage in it. As President Kennedy said, what we need now are courageous men and women who will say no to war.

  5. Here’s another problem that I don’t think you mentioned. As a male who doesn’t have any interest in the typical American sports, I find that I have very little male companionship. There’s very little to talk about! There’s some politics and family talk, but what really seems to get men talking is sports and I have no interest. It would be nice if we could talk about spiritual things, but there doesn’t seem to be much interest.

    • I think it is a good thing for people to connect around common interests, but sports does seem to dominate in our culture, leaving a good number of folks out.

    • Matt Purdum says

      The culture shoves sports at us, Stephen. As long as men are talking about sports they won’t be changing the world for the better. As long as Christians watch war games, they offer no challenge to the world’s evildoers.

      • One could say the same for many other things besides sports, of course. Like Star Wars, Beyonce’s hair, and so on.

    • Same thing here. Aside from the occasional game of baseball I don’t have much interest in sports, either, being something of a geeky hipster. I’ve found it’s not as big an obstacle in Japan, but in America it certainly rings true.

    • I think you should know a little so at least you could participate then move the conversation elsewhere. Just don’t start the conversation with “how does that make you feel” or you could rouse suspicion.

      I’m not passionate about sports (OK Steelers) and was more of the bad boy with no time for sports (ok.. i sucked at it) when i was young, but I do run and lift so it does allow me to get involved with a number of conversations and then drive them in a different direction. Sports talk is a bit shallow and can get old quick and its surprising what kind of lines of conversation I can get going in the gym. But the key is to dupe them into thinking your one of them in the beginning….

  6. ” It would be nice if we could talk about spiritual things, but there doesn’t seem to be much interest.”

    Ain’t that the truth. Outside of a few, I cannot get people in my own congregation to talk about the things of God.


    As far as idolatry goes, we are all idolators at heart. It can be sports. I’m gulity, too.
    But it can be anything…anything at all. We have our idols.

    • What’s a “spiritual thing”, though? I’m not much of a sports fan myself, either, but I have found that being willing to participate in various things having to do with sports is a good way for me to get to know people.

      I would also say this. In the African American congregation church I was a part of, they probably went a little further than my comfort zone in honoring athletes in the congregation, but I think they see it as an alternative to the young men and women in the congregation getting involved in who knows what kind of problems. I do see in that community that sports can be a force for good. It can bring discipline and order to kids’ lives who wouldn’t really have it otherwise.

      Sure, I think professional sports and the emphasis we put on them is out of hand, but I certainly don’t think that sports as an activity is necessarily non-spiritual.

      • By “spiritual”, I mean the things of God. The gospel. How He loves and upholds us…stuff like that.

        Sports is a pretty hot topic at our fellowship time (amongst the men, anyway).

        You are right…there are a lot wordse things people can be focused on.

  7. We have a similar situation in the UK, where premier league football (soccer) dominates the media and public interest (including mine). Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of professional football in this country, and indeed, in Europe is the amount of money that is spent on the game. A ticket might cost £50, and some fans watch every single game, irrespective of the distance. The players earn at least £10,000 a week in the top league, more likely something like 20-30 thousand, and perhaps as high as £200,000 a week (before tax). Chelsea payed £50,000,000 for a striker, Fernando Torres, who has scored them less than ten goals in the year he has played there, and this figure is someway off the transfer record for a single player (I think it was Christiano Ronaldo, from Manchester United to Real madrid fo 80 million euros.

    In Europe, football matters enough, to enough people, that a single human being is worth fifty million pounds. Or perhaps not a human being, but a football player. So our current obsession with football/soccer manages to both grossly distort someone’s value, and displace, de-centre, and distort it.

    • Richard Hershberger says

      By way of comparison, the highest payed American athlete is Alex Rodriguez, a baseball player. He has a ten year contract paying an average of $27,500,000 per year. According to the Wikipedia list of largest sports contracts, the highest footballer is Christiano Ronaldo, coming in at number eight. I was surprised to see that the largest per annum contract went to a Finnish auto race driver whom I had never heard of: Kimi-Matias Räikkönen. Go figure.

      As for Chelsea overpaying for a striker, I am reminded of the baseball executive who was asked about the high price of talent. He replied that he was not concerned about the high price of talent. It was the high price of mediocrity that bothered him.

  8. This is a difficult issue, one I can relate to.

    Boys (and even the nerdy ones like me) have an inner need to know that they are powerful and capable. Sports is an excellent way to give boys affirmation, especially as boys tend to be more energetic and less able to focus on the hum-drum of school. For most men, the classroom wasn’t their thing, the athletic field was. It’s where they were initiated as men. You have to respect that, even if sports isn’t your thing.

    Being able to show physical prowess, coordination and strength became valuable when most people lived close to the Earth and used their physical bodies each day. Sports were a way to take the edge off and have a little fun, with little pay, recognition or big time sponsorships involved. Ideally, I would like to see a return to that sort of a time, with less focus on pro or even college sports (which is more or less pro; they should pay the athletes).

    • Good points!

      And just look at how much money some actors and actresses receive…and they are not even endangering life and limb.


      • Steve, as a Lutheran you might appreciate this.

        In the movie Sweet Land, which is about a bunch of Norwegian/German immigrants living in rural Minnesota about 100 years ago, they show the men and boys of the Lutheran church playing baseball out in the church yard after church on Sunday, and even after the potluck dinner! I guess those guys really loved their baseball!

  9. Randy Windborne says

    Hoffman wrote, “There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative — with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination — while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle.”

    Servanthood, generosity and self-subordination are key elements to teamwork. A sports squad that functions as a team invariably beats a squad of overpaid self-absorbed stars. Last year’s NBA finals come to mind.

    While I wouldn’t describe an NFL game as “Darwinian,” the ferocity of the game serves to remind us that we are immersed in a far more dangerous struggle. We can be injured or even lost from our team forever (apologies in advance to those of the once-saved always-save persuasion).

    Just my opinion.

    • Personally, I don’t think you need to apologize to the ‘once-saved always saved’ bunch. They are the ones who view the Christian faith like a business contract…not us.

  10. Randy Thompson says

    “Variously described by those inside and outside as narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic, big-time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians for centuries have understood as the embodiment of the gospel. There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative — with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination — while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle. If evangelical ethicist R. E. O. White is right to assert that self-absorption is behind all wrong social relationships and, for this reason, self-denial is the first ethical condition of discipleship, then elite athletes immersed in the self-consumed atmosphere of sports, where self-denial is a recipe for competitive disaster, face a fundamental problem.”

    Yikes. This describes Republican politics.

  11. Randy Windborne says

    I like to watch recorded football games while I work out. I do aerobics on a bicycle mounted on a hydraulic training in the basement with the game playing on a screen in front of me.

    I tried to watch the Pro Bowl tonight, but the players were apparently playing flag football, or 2-hand touch maybe. It was so uninteresting I switched to some ridiculous crime series for inspiration.

    Can we just bring back the gladiators and a few lions?

  12. This is for all those from Wisconsin…!!!! 🙂


  13. In his epistles, Paul has sprinkled some sports metaphors (running a race, boxing, wrestling, winning a crown). These metaphors certainly do not exist on every page of his writings, but they occur enough to suggest that the apostle liked sports.

    I enjoy sports myself with a clear conscience. I have known high school football coaches who use their vocation to preach and live Christ before young, impressionable teens. I myself have used sports to forge friendships with people that have led to led to opportunities to share the gospel.

    God graciously gives all of us things to enjoy. We can delight in them and give glory to God, or we can idolize them and ruin a good thing. May the Lord give all of us wisdom.