Article

Are youth sports a friend or foe of Christian discipleship?

Jul 3, 2014

“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

That memorable line is from the 1981 British historical drama film Chariots of Fire. It is the response Eric Liddell gives when he’s confronted by his sister for neglecting his responsibilities before God to focus on competitive running in preparation for the 1924 Olympics. His response is powerful because he doesn't see his athletic pursuit as neglecting God but as a means of glorifying God. Since sports were a means to a greater end of delighting in God, Liddell, a strict Christian Sabbatarian, refused to bow to international pressure to compete in the 100-meter race in the 1924 Olympics because it was on Sunday.

You do not have to be a strict Christian Sabbatarian to appreciate and learn from Liddell's example. I believe that the Lord’s Day should be set aside for corporate worship and gospel rest in celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In my understanding, the Sabbath principle is already fulfilled in Christ—who is our rest. But the Lord's Day is a gracious gift to remind us that our lives are “in him” and should be honored until he consummates his Kingdom and ushers in eternal rest in the new heavens and earth. Whether you are a strict Christian Sabbatarian or believe the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ, Liddell’s example is instructive for Christian parents as they think about their children's participation in sports.

Sports in Scripture

Eric Liddell’s sister considered all sports to be a waste of time. That notion is still around; a seminary professor recently commented to me, “Sports are not necessary, so why waste time on it—time that could be better spent advancing the gospel?” But, the Bible paints a different picture and is far from silent on sports and athletic competition (Gen. 30:8, 32:24, Ps. 19:3-6, 2 Sam. 2:14, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Phil. 3:13-14, Gal. 2:2, Eph. 6:12, Heb. 12:1-4). In fact, the apostle Paul uses the language of sports as one of his three primary metaphors, along with warfare and agriculture, for talking about the Christian life (2 Tim. 2:4-7). I consider sports to be a gift from God, a competitive manifestation of the performing arts, capable of displaying truth, beauty and goodness.

Sports gone wrong

But, as Christian parents, our responsibility is to teach our children to take every thought captive to obey Jesus (2 Cor. 10:5)—including sports. Paul made it clear that there is something far more important than winning a perishable wreath on an athletic field (1 Cor. 9:25). Some Christians simply pull their children out of sports altogether because they do not want to face the decisions that will inevitably arise while navigating athletic involvement and a commitment to church and Christian service. One of the problems with this shortsighted approach is that the kids playing on these teams will one day have jobs, children and other responsibilities as they serve Jesus and his church. Showing them how to navigate these matters while faithfully committed to the supremacy of Christ is not a problem but a wonderful opportunity for discipleship.

Nevertheless, like all of God's good gifts, sports can be easily corrupted. Some Christians make the mistake of prioritizing sports over church by reasoning that the youth sports opportunity is for a limited period of time and church will always be there. Clearly, teaching children that sports are a valid reason to neglect God is disastrous. Some parents fashion themselves as victims in dealing with these issues as though they cannot set boundaries on their children's participation. They reason as if the only options are not participating in sports at all or acting like the sports team’s practice and game schedule is in charge of their children's lives.

Shepherding in sports

The solution is simpler than many Christian parents want to believe, but it involves parental leadership, direction and conviction. The bottom line is, sports are never the problem, inadequate leadership in the home is the problem. Sports are often made scapegoats for parental failure of leadership. Liddell’s excellent Christian example is instructive. He was passionately committed to excellence in athletic competition, but it was for the glory of God, and therefore his Christian conviction led him to set boundaries and gladly endure the consequence. When a Christian family is involved in sports, they should be committed and diligent participants, but they ought to draw whatever boundaries are needed up front on their child's participation. As the father of eight children who loves sporting competition, I have had to lead my family in this way many times.

When you register your children to compete on an athletic team, you should clarify any boundaries that you have on their participation. For instance, all of my sons have played youth sports and we have told the leagues when we sign up that we do not play or practice on Sundays, so if a coach did not want one of our children on their team because of that, we wanted them to know beforehand.

Also, when my sons made All-Star baseball teams, we told the coach that we know most of the championship games are on Sunday and my child would not participate on Sunday, so if they did not want him to be on the team because of that, we would certainly understand. It is good to teach your children that Christian convictions have consequences and that you will gladly face them. Too many parents are rearing their children in Christian sentimentality, which wants them to have convictions for which they never suffer.

In our home, we do not treat other church activities as if they are the Lord's Day. We have biblical-theological convictions that demand setting aside Sundays, but we do not have the same approach to general church programming. We are not victims of the sports team’s schedule nor are we victims of the church program schedule. Parents have the primary responsibility to disciple their children and a major part of that involves watching the choices we make. For instance, if one of my children has practice or a game during the time of a youth event, then they usually go to their practice or game because we want to glorify God with the commitment we've made to the team. In other words, we do not want to use general church activities as an excuse to be lax on our commitments. We also view participating on the team and being involved as parents in the league or school as a unique mission opportunity of which we want to take full advantage.

I have found that if you are honest and straightforward about what you will and won't do based on your Christian convictions, people's respect for you is not diminished—it is strengthened. Sports, rightly understood, are but a means to a greater end of delighting in God. Though, like all good gifts, sports can be corrupted and become an idolatrous competitor with God instead of a means to glorify him.

I believe that God made me for a purpose. But, he also placed me in a home that enjoyed sports, and when I played baseball, I felt his pleasure. And I unapologetically hope my children feel his pleasure through sports, too.