We watch them. We play them. We talk about them. We listen to experts talk about them. Yet we see sports as nothing more than entertainment—meaningless, harmless fun. If not that, we see sports as bad or evil—after all isn’t the stadium, like a sanctuary, a place of worship? Whatever the case, Christians tend see sports as something altogether separate from the serious matters of life, such as faith.
Sure, some of us see sports as a “mission field,” a platform for sharing the gospel with those we might not normally come in contact with, whether that be with fellow teammates or the parents of those on our children’s sports teams. And that’s good and right, but the same should be true for the whole of life—everything and everyone should be our mission field. We are called to make disciples in all that we do.
What we really need is a fuller, more biblical view of sports—and not one that sees them as a mere evangelism tool. We need to see sports not as something without purpose and meaning, something secular, but instead as something with purpose and meaning, something sacred. This understanding—a theology of sports—will allow us to not only better enjoy sports but to also better worship God through sports.
A Common Grace
Though we usually credit humans for creating sports, God ultimately created sports as a common grace—described by Wayne Grudem as “the grace of God by which he gives people innumerable blessings that are not part of salvation.” We don’t believe God set the world in motion and then stepped away to let humans do their thing, nor do we believe He elevates the spiritual and separates it from the material. Through Scripture, we know that God, out of love, established and maintains a world that we are to enjoy and cultivate—for His glory. He gives us every good and perfect gift (James 1:17)—often through human ingenuity—including sports.
So, first and foremost, we have to stop seeing sports as purely a human creation, outside the rule and reign of the sovereign Creator. And, as a result, we have to stop feeling apologetic for caring about—and sometimes even spending time and money on—sports, as if it were all futile. God gives sports to Christians and non-Christians alike as a free gift to embrace and enjoy, and for that reason, they’re intrinsically sacred and meaningful.
The Imago Dei
As beings created in His image, God gives many men and women the physical, intellectual and emotional capabilities to play sports. Sure, animals are smart and physically adept, but they can’t do sports in the same sense that humans can. The imago dei doesn’t just distinguish humans spiritually but in other capacities, as well, specifically those required for sports.
When we watch and play sports, we see the image and glory of God reflected in all the extraordinary aspects and feats. Whether it’s in a sophisticated basketball offense or the unique throws of a pitcher in baseball or softball, the imago dei comes on full display, and the great and glorious nature of our God is showcased for the world to see.
Growth and Formation
There’s a reason we have so many sports cliches, like “There’s no ‘I’ in team”: Sports provide unique training grounds for growth and maturity. As we interact with sports, especially as our children participate, we’re given opportunities to practice selflessness, giving up our preferences and pride for a bigger purpose. We’re also given opportunities to learn self-discipline and perseverance.
Even as mere spectators, we can benefit from observing athletes. As we recognize the hard work and drive of others, we can look inwardly to consider where we lack self-discipline, where we are putting ourselves before others, hurting the health of our families, churches, workplaces and communities. This is why, in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul likens the self-discipline of sports to that required of believers in their faith.
Sports also function as what James K. A. Smith calls “cultural liturgies,” artifacts and rituals that shape us and instill in us a true, good and beautiful vision of human flourishing. For many of us, sports can stir up a greater delight in the Lord; as a common grace stewarded responsibly, they can form us more into the likeness of Christ.
Signposts and Shadows
All of God’s creation reflects His glory, and this includes sports; they function as signposts and shadows of greater realities. For example, the fandom of sports points to the innate desire in every human to be part of something bigger than ourselves—a bigger story, a bigger purpose, a bigger community. In the many moments of awe and excitement that we experience when watching sports, fandom also offers a foretaste of the sort of worship we were created for, the sort of worship we will fully experience in the new heaven and new earth.
But probably the most overt of these signposts is the concept of a team and all that it mirrors. NBA hall-of-famer Isiah Thomas once said that “the secret to basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” He was pointing to the fact that the greatest sports teams succeed when the athletes put their egos and differences aside for the greater good of the team, working collectively toward the same end. When we see a team doing this well, in any sport, it paints a compelling picture of community and the Church and, even more, the greater community of the triune God, allowing us to see His beauty and character in a whole new light.
Worship, Sin and Eternity
Of course, like any cultural artifact or activity, sports are affected by the presence of evil in the world. They are corrupted and tainted by sin, from the human ego to the greedy corporations that monetize them. It’s also easy to make sports a god, putting our hopes in them, trying to fill a void.
Nevertheless, we can’t let the reality of sin warp our view of sports. We need to be careful, for sure, always using discernment, always aware of our tendency to drift away from the gospel and to make things other than God ultimate in our lives. But we can’t forget that, in the end, sin doesn’t win. One day, we will live in a kingdom void of sin and corruption—everything that robs sports of all they might be. And it is our role now to usher in and live in this kingdom, making it on earth as it is in heaven—and that includes the way in which we see and interact with sports.