Church Worship

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Turf Worship: When Sports Become a Religion

  • Walt Mueller Founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding ( He is the author of several books, including Youth Culture 101.
  • Updated Sep 26, 2008
Turf Worship: When Sports Become a Religion

With the advent of another school, your students not only are heading back into the classroom but also onto the playing field. Fully two-thirds of America’s children and teens play organized team sports.

To lead your students into a deeper understanding of how their faith values relate to their athletics, it’s necessary first to come to terms with the changing place sports hold in our contemporary culture.

Amateurs No More
When was the last time you saw a kid riding through your neighborhood with a baseball glove hanging off his handlebars and bat resting on his shoulder? There’s been a huge shift in youth sports. It used to be that kids hurried home from school, changed into their “play clothes,” and then went outside to wear holes in their knees through, well, play!

For today’s students, the overwhelming reality is they play in a culture where the “professionalization” of youth sports encompasses every minute of play, from the time they are enrolled in 3-year-old soccer leagues all the way through high school graduation. The youngest of the young experience sports that are organized for them complete with regular practices, fancy uniforms, expensive equipment, the best playing fields, arenas, coaches, paid officials, aggressive game schedules, out-of-state-travel, and weekend tournaments. The price they pay for all this “privilege” may be some of the very things that make childhood what it is, such as just being a kid.

Additionally, our kids miss the important opportunities to play, to learn how to make their own fun, and solve conflict. Furthermore, all the running around cuts deeply into time spent together as a family.

Parents: Ugh!
I recently shared a cab ride from the airport with a dad who was more than happy to tell me about his athlete-daughter. He informed me that she was so highly regarded as a soccer player that the family’s summer would be centered around traveling across the country to various showcase tournaments, where she would be able to display her skills. In addition, he said his daughter was a highly successful baseball player. “Baseball? Not softball?” I asked. “Do they let girls play that down in Georgia?” “Yes,” he enthusiastically answered. “She’s leading the league with seven home runs.” I was impressed. I asked, “How old is your daughter?” “Six,” he replied. Ouch. God bless that little girl. The pressure’s even greater when parents live vicariously—trying to find redemption for their own athletic failures, unfulfilled dreams, or empty lives—through their kids. Many pressure and push in the hope their kid will score the college scholarship that will lead to a professional contract.

Characters or Character?
When a culture slowly slides into worshiping the idol of sport, those who have achieved the highest levels of success in their sport are revered as heroes and role models. Looking up to heroes and role models can be a good and positive thing if those individuals exhibit the high standards of character and sportsmanship that we’ve been told are the end result of participation in sports. However, it seems in recent years that high-profile athletes too often are shady characters rather than people of high character. Kids today look up to, and emulate, a growing number of professional athletes who trash-talk, taunt, perform arrogant scoring rituals, fight, spit, bite, cheat and retaliate. Increasingly, the heroes our kids follow embody everything but high ideals of good sportsmanship and fair play. As a result, the American sporting machine is producing fewer and fewer young men and women of high moral character.

What About the Church?
While the church has gone to great lengths to address how a biblical worldand life-view speak to many issues facing our teens, we’ve done little about what our Christian faith has to do with sports. Sadly, there is little or no difference among people of faith and the culture-at-large, except we may start and end our competitive “fellowship” with prayers. At the very time we should be saying something prophetic and different to the world, our sports practices betray attitudes indicating we speak and live with the world on this one.

Teach a Theology of Sport
Our mistakes in the past have been either to embrace the prevalent cultural attitudes without thought or question how those relate to our faith, or—to a lesser degree—to react against those realities with a pendulum swing that demonizes and ultimately dismisses sports as activities on the devil’s playground.

Just because the good structure of sports (remember, God made all things good) has been polluted by our depravity, that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. As with all things, God has given us sports as ways to celebrate and play … to His glory. Our goal should not be to eliminate sports, but to cleanse sports of darkness and depravity. In this manner, we can redeem sports and fully enjoy them once more.

Play Properly

No doubt sports and play make up a huge part of our student ministries. The play we organize and facilitate should emphasize competition marked by grace rather than cut-throat war. It should take into account the varying abilities of students, encouraging those who are athletically less-gifted, while teaching the more athletic student to be encouragers, not discouragers. When the games are over, we should be able to embrace each other as everyone says, “Now, that was fun!”

Disciple Student Athletes

Make connections between faith and sports. How often we forget this little principle in our youth ministries! Because of time commitments required to play a sport, we see our student athletes and their respective sports more as competition to conquer and less as arenas in which to encourage them to play to the glory of God. We should take the time to disciple those athletes into understanding how to use what they’ve been given to bring honor and glory to God. Eric Liddell, the runner subject of the film Chariots of Fire integrated his faith into his sport. His perspective should be one we instill in our student athletes: “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure!”

Don’t Forget God

The North American idol of sports needs to crumble and fall. Sports neither need to be abolished, nor should we forsake watching and cheering for our favorite teams. What we must realize is the “created thing” cannot take the place of the Creator in our lives. The “created thing” of sports has been given to us to enjoy, not revere. Teach your students through your words and example that there is a huge difference between the idolatrous error of worshiping the god of sport, and the right response of worshiping God through our involvement in sports.