Sports: Discipleship in Action

by Landon Liles

Sports. With one word, countless thoughts and memories rush into our minds. Perhaps it is battles won and battles lost on the field, or minds and bodies pushed to limits beyond what was thought achievable, or lifetime friendships of teams past, or fellowship with loved ones with each passing season. The fact is, sports permeate the entire globe. Sports are entrenched in many cultures and have been so for millennia. While the specific sport differs from country to country and culture to culture, the truth remains that sports are a critical staple in our human lives.

Due to the cultural significance that sports hold, the Christian has a responsibility to engage this aspect of culture wherever he or she resides. David Prince presents this call to live as salt and light in the area of sports as a key theme in his book In The Arena. Prince authored this book in order to address where and how sports fit into the life of the believer. He addresses sports from a biblical-theological perspective first and then brings to light the practical (and limited) window to help apply the gospel to this area of our lives (7). 

David Prince is a pastor and theologian with a rich history in playing, coaching, and watching sports. From youth to college, Prince participated and excelled in athletics.  As an adult and father, he participated as a coach and a spectator (32). Given his background, he brings a unique perspective to Christian discipleship in the arena of athletics. The wisdom shared in this book will be a blessing to anyone who reads it. It is written in such a way that the book can be read from cover to cover, or as singular self-contained chapters. This feature of the book will maximize its impact for every audience. 

Sports and Theology
From a biblical perspective, creation, sin, salvation, and the glory of God are four key themes that must be recognized as we participate in sports. We are to engage and view sports in light of Scripture, Prince contends, by understanding sports in our immediate cultural context. Sports fit into the life of a believer in the same way that arts, literature, fashion, and music would. “The theological commitments of those who follow Jesus as King,” Prince comments, “are to be lived out daily and geographically” (16). This is a manifestation of a believer living as a disciple, an ambassador of Christ, exactly where God has him. Through sports we can reflect the “truth, beauty, and goodness of our Creator God” (17).  

The saving work of our Creator can also be glorified. As battle is to the athletic field, spiritual warfare is to every day of our lives (47). Scripture tells us to do everything to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). This command encompasses all activities, not just the ones that are religious in nature. It is in these various activities that we are witnesses to the world of our salvation and transformed lives. 

Discipleship in Action
Discipleship is guaranteed in sports when motivated by the heart of one who desires the glory of God over one’s personal glory. This discipleship takes on many forms through many actors. Prince’s favorite sport is baseball. I resonate with this. Baseball is a fun sport to play. It is also an incredible sport that teaches us many valuable character qualities that are emphasized in Scripture. The following are just a few examples of how discipleship is lived out in sports.

Let’s begin with the issue of dealing with failure. In baseball you are a successful hitter when you succeed only 30% of the time at the plate. The failure to connect with the ball and get on base may be a result of the athlete’s mistake or a bad call from an umpire. The players, therefore, must deal with personal failure and injustices. As Christians, we will fail and we will deal with injustices throughout our lives. We know this is an unfortunate aspect of life due to the fall. Knowing how to handle failure in a Christ-like manner is very important and it can be learned well in baseball (56).

All sports, especially baseball, teach self-sacrifice. A player learns how to give of himself, both during preparation and during the game. Preparation requires the sacrifice of disciplined practice. For the good of the team, a player will learn sacrifice by surrendering himself as an out in order to advance runners—a counter-intuitive move in light of all the self-aggrandizing that permeates sports today (61). 

Sports also have a special way of teaching parents, especially fathers, about discipleship. If we take the time to put our own cell phones down, do we notice parents living in their own digital world while their children are being taught by someone else? This can be a special time of fellowship between parents and their children, such as playing catch at a park or in the backyard.  Like Prince, many of my fondest memories were with my dad in my pre-teen years, playing catch or taking batting practice. Here is a place to disciple our children (82).

When we consider earthly life in light of eternity, we must recognize there are real winners and losers, in the ultimate sense. Sports teach us many wonderful lessons, but perhaps none as critical as how to win and lose while maintaining the proper perspective of our loyalties.  In a culture full of self-esteem, an “everyone wins” attitude, and flattering children to help them feel good about themselves, a competitive game offers a glimpse into reality—the pursuit of a crown for a game (trophy) and pursuit of the crown of life (89).

Post-Game Wrap
Rarely does a book satisfy such a vast audience. From the sports critic to the sports enthusiast, this book is highly recommended. Admittedly, the majority of the world has a skewed view of sports: idolatry of the sport itself or a specific player, the love and pursuit of money, and the quest for one’s own glory are a few ways we see sin expressing itself through competitive athletics. 

Nevertheless, competition is not sinful in and of itself, and followers of the Lord Jesus must engage this aspect of our culture as lights shining the gospel message in a dark world. When it comes to sports, God can be glorified when we have a proper heart motivation and pursue competition according to his Word—whether we are a parent, player, or spectator.