The 2017 NCAA men’s basketball final contenders have been determined. Millions of eyes will be trained on televisions tonight as Gonzaga and North Carolina vie for the championship. How should a Christian engage in this sports-saturated culture? Pastor and author David Prince examines how to have a distinctively Christian approach to sports in this excerpt from his latest book, In the Arena.
What would a distinctively Christian approach to sports look like?
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5—7), Jesus teaches about the characteristics of the kingdom of Christ. His message turns the wisdom of the world upside down and is a call for his disciples to live distinctive lives. The distinctiveness of Christ’s followers will bring verbal and even violent persecution at times (Matt. 5:11–12) because the disciples of Jesus constitute an alternative kingdom community who are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14–15). In other words, Christians are to constitute a unique Gospel culture within a culture.
Let us consider what Jesus’ call for His followers to be salt and light means for how we think about our interaction with sports as Christians.
First, a distinctively Christian approach to sports must actively seek to preserve the good in God’s cultural gift of sports. Jesus told a tiny band of Palestinian peasants with no cultural power or authority, “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13). Before refrigeration, salt was used to preserve meat from inevitable decay and to season food. Animals are a part of the good creation of God and are used as food to nourish and sustain his image bearers. Meat, not preserved, will rot and be harmful, but meat properly preserved and seasoned can become, not just good, but very good. Jesus then provided two warnings. The first is that salt contaminated and diluted is worthless, and the second is that its saltiness, once lost, cannot be restored (Matt. 5:13).
The implication for Christians in relation to sports is clear. If Christians uncritically absorb sports culture, they will have no preserving influence. But, they will also be ineffective if they withdraw from sports culture.
Contaminated salt and unused salt are simply different pathways to decay. When Christians are absorbed into the culture or withdraw from the culture, they are forsaking their responsibility to be “the salt of the earth.” The result of Christian unfaithfulness in this way is cultural decay and darkness. Christians who providentially grew up in areas and within families where a value and love for sports has been passed on to them must not engage in athletics as a participant or fan in a passive way but rather as those who have “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Second, a distinctively Christian approach to sports will seek to illumine the world. In a world marked by darkness, dimly lit by common grace and general revelation, Jesus tells this tiny band of followers, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). I cannot imagine how outrageous that claim must have sounded.
Israel had been called to be “a light for the nations” (Isa. 42:6), and Jesus would claim to be on mission as “the light of the world” (John 8:12). And because His followers were to reflect him and the values of His kingdom, they are to be “the light of the world,” described as “a city set on a hill,” and “a lamp,” not to be covered or hidden (Matt. 5:14–15). In other words, the preserving work of Christians as “the salt of the earth” and their illuminating work as “the light of the world” is to be a communal blessing—a public good.
Therefore, the light of the Christian Gospel should permeate all public places, including the athletic fields and stands. The pervasive cultural interest in sports provides a particular, specific, and strategic place for Christians to be the light of the world.
Third, a distinctively Christian approach to sports will be God-centered and God-directed. In other words, it will be for the glory of God. Jesus says, in the same way a lamp shines, and a city on a hill cannot be hidden, Christians are to let their distinctive Gospel light shine for the benefit of others, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The Christian is not given distinctiveness in order to parade their virtue and righteousness before the world. Doing that is simply a manifestation of pride—not salt and light. The goal is not that others would see them and follow their morality but that they would glorify God in Christ.
Jesus’ call for us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world means that we should not simply condemn sports culture and withdraw from it and that we should not uncritically absorb sports culture. When we do either, we are hastening cultural decay and darkness and forfeiting Christian distinctiveness.
Rather, Christians should participate in a cruciform engagement with and celebration of sports culture as capable of reflecting the truth, beauty, and goodness of God. When Christians live daily as the salt of the earth and the light of the world, our Christian theology intersects with our geography, and we are liberated in our daily lives to do all—including sports—to the glory of God.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.