SPORTS: A New Idol for A New Generation

Posted on June 29, 2016 in Family, Theology by

Football is my religionI recently watched the Cleveland Cavaliers pull off an improbable comeback to win the NBA finals. With their team down 3-1 the Cavs won 3 straight games to bring home Cleveland’s first NBA championship; a promise LeBron James issued two years ago. It was an exciting game and series for fans, but it also reminded me of how much Americans worship sports.

To be fair, I love sports. I’ve been playing and watching since I was a kid. What I am most thankful for is that my parents never allowed sports to interfere with our family, or our life as part of the church. That doesn’t seem to be the case today.

How often have you said to your pastor, “we won’t be around much the next few months, it’s _________ season.”?

That phrase is uttered countless times each year as Christian parents prepare for baseball, soccer, gymnastics and other sporting seasons. Suddenly, the family calendar is based on practices, games, and tournaments. And for the months that follow nothing seems more important or more in focus than making sure every practice, every game, and every tournament gets crossed off the calendar. One blogger recently lamented:

“Sports has taken over more and more of the life of believers. Almost overnight we have awakened to the sad fact that, in many communities, sports has even usurped the hours believers meet on the Lord’s Day.”

While sports is a good thing, it can also become an idol.

Randy Alcorn recently wrote:

“To grasp a biblical theology of happiness, we must understand the nature and extent of our constant temptations toward idolatry.”

It seems sports has become more invasive into our lives as the years go on. Years ago there weren’t any games on Sundays to conflict with family worship. Suddenly it seems there is never a Sunday without a game, practice, or tournament. The outcome is that for months on end families are absent from church, absent from small groups, and just plain absent.

Our enemy is smart. He knows that distracting believers with good things is a tremendous way to bring about spiritual stagnation and even ruin in the lives of God’s people. Rather than seeking to tempt us with evil or immoral things, our enemy has learned that tempting us with “good” things will bring about the same end.

At this point you might be mad at me. You might be wondering who I am to say that your pursuit of sports is an idol. Just because you take your family to the tournament every weekend for 3 months out of the year doesn’t mean you have an idol in your life. But I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what an idol is.

John Piper once wrote:

“We all make a god out of what we take the most pleasure in.”

Christians tend to think of idols as the things from the Bible people worshipped. We remember the stories of people bowing down, paying homage, and offering sacrifices to a physical image. We forget that an idol, by definition, is anything that has a central, controlling presence in our lives, something we are wholly devoted to. Are you starting to see how sports have become an idol in American culture?

And because we are all about grace and not “judging” people, the fact that many Christian families abandon corporate worship on Sunday morning in favor of sporting events is not to be challenged. Those that dare urge a brother or sister to consider the reality that sports has become an idol are called Pharisees, and accused of being legalistic. Legalistic? For seeking to adhere to biblical commands to keep the Lord’s Day and not allow anything to interfere with it? Have we really fallen that far?

Ironically, many families are setting a wonderful example of what it means to be wholly devoted to something. They sacrifice, give, serve, and attend with a faithfulness that is unsurpassed. Bad weather doesn’t stop attendance. Long distances can’t deter presence and faithfulness. And no price is too steep for people to take part. Unfortunately, that thing is sports rather than being part of the living body of Christ. The example being set is how to be entirely devoted to an idol that has supplanted Almighty God.

The aforementioned blogger accurately states:

“Devotion is the operative word. When the team says, ‘We need you,’ we sacrifice to do it. But when it crosses the time allotted to spiritual edification and worship, the Ruler of the universe is often sent to the bench. In the process, we teach our children that devotion to sports is more important than both devotion to God and loyalty to our spiritual family. Have you considered that you may be teaching your kids to worship sports?”

As parents we forget that what we do in moderation our kids will often do in excess. I’ve seen it over ad over again, parents wondering why their kids don’t place a priority on being in church and being an active part of God’s body are the same parents that placed greater priority on sports (or other hobbies/recreations). This isn’t hard to figure out.

Parents have a responsibility to impart biblical values and convictions to their kids. The eternal soul of our children is far more valuable than any sporting event. With some prayer and intentional communication we can work out compromises that impress the importance of our kids’ spiritual lives above all else. Many (not all) coaches will respect the fact that your child might have to miss part of a practice or game in order to take part in worship and other church activities.

I’m thankful my parents were willing to talk to my coaches and let them know I would leave early from any practice or game on Wednesday night in order to be in church. It made an impression on my coaches, and on me.

Plus, I got to go to church in my football or baseball uniform.

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