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Sportianity: A Critical Review

This is an excerpt from Sports Ministry by David B. Lewis,David Irby,William Galipault & Wayne Rasmussen.

As sports ministries were advancing in the 1970s (namely, Fellowship of Christian Athletes [FCA], Athletes in Action [AIA], Pro Outreach, and Sport Chaplaincy Ministries), Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford wrote a three-part series critiquing “Jocks for Jesus” in what he termed Sportianity. At that time, he concluded that sport was influencing Christianity more than Christianity was influencing sport (Deford 1976c). Though his critique is often cynical and paints in broad strokes a picture of prominent sports ministries, he raises issues relevant for reflection:

Don Cutler disagrees with the movement’s lack of social concern. “If the New Testament says anything, it is that this man poured himself out for you, and now it is your responsibility to pour yourself out for others.” . . . In the process of dozens of interviews with people of Sportianity, not one even remotely suggested any direct effort was being considered to improve the morality of athletics . . . no one in the movement—much less any organization—speaks out against cheating in sport, against dirty play; no one attacks the evils of recruiting, racism or any of the many other well-known excesses and abuses. Sportianity seems prepared to accept athletics as is, more devoted to exploiting sport than serving it. (Deford 1976a, 18-20)

Despite a critical analysis of emerging sports ministries, Deford did acknowledge a broadening perspective of FCA’s focus by quoting then vice president of FCA’s finances, Ron Morris, a former collegiate basketball star and ordained Methodist minister:

[With respect to FCA] I see a danger in our being overly evangelistic. It is important for us to understand where we stand. We’re not breaking new ground. We’re not even reaching the uncommitted kid. The boy we get has almost always been raised in a church, his mom and dad are members. We provide a strengthening process, the identification of a peer group. We get these kids to camp, we get them to play together on a team, and their trust factors go up. Through this athletic camaraderie you have an affirming process, and, unfortunately, in life we don’t get affirmed too often, do we? We ought to understand that what the FCA does best is affirm, not evangelize. (Deford 1976b, 3, 4)

Morris recognized that sports ministry is more than evangelism; it should also help shape, encourage, and affirm the Christian athlete through an intentional process of educational discipleship. Too often quality behavioral traits are merely hopeful byproducts of sport participation rather than planned for specifically (Brown 2003).

Pre- and Postgame Prayers

According to Deford, many viewers take issue with public displays of pre- and postgame prayer, suggesting that the players’ prayers lack authenticity and meaning. He adds, “Game-day religion has become a sort of security blanket, something on the order of superstition” (Deford 1976c, 14). Without knowing the posture of their heart, it is presumptuous to assume that the players’ prayers lacked genuine meaning. Yet Deford’s criticism might accurately assess the experience of some—but not all—Christian athletes and sport enthusiasts. Prayer does not have to become a rote, ritualistic, or superstitious exercise. Granted, times of perplexed questioning, doubt, and bewilderment will arise. Even the psalmist exhibits such displays of lament over the apparent futility of labored prayer (Psalm 22 and 80). Routine does not reduce the need for prayer, nor does it encourage its neglect. Christian disciplines are not limited to exciting mountaintop encounters with God but are likewise manifest when He seems to have abandoned His people within the valley of the daily routine.

Ministry Expansion Caution

Many current sports ministries encompass more than athletic evangelism. However, ministry expansion must be approached with caution. Ministries have specific points of focus and cannot effectively engage every human need that arises. They must use their resources appropriately and be faithful to the mission to which they have been uniquely called. If they attempt to address every need and issue, they might overextend themselves and become ineffective to serve their primary objective. They need to honestly evaluate their own limitations and pour themselves fully into the Kingdom role to which they are equipped and called to exercise, regardless of the voices that might critically suggest otherwise (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12:3-8).

More Excerpts From Sports Ministry