It’s rare that I provide commentary on current events outside the church. The thing is, the story of the sex abuse scandal/cover up at Penn State, in my opinion, is NOT about the unbelievable fall of another hero (I think we’ve learned that it’s “shame on us” if we put anyone but Jesus on a pedestal). I mean, it is shocking – Joe Paterno: 46 seasons as a head coach; 409 victories (most ever); 2 national championships; 5 perfect seasons; a statue of himself on campus! A bunch of books written about him; his motto: “success with honor”. Before someone reminds me, he is innocent until proven guilty. Nah, the thing that shocks me most is how the culture of sports and it’s derivative notions of success seems to have completely blinded those Penn State students (the rioting and looting ones) to the real measure of morality: God, HIS values, and HIS definition of true character.
In fact, it brings up a valuable discussion of how our culture influences our church. In particular, has the culture of sports influenced our way of thinking in the church? Our notions of success? Our definition of a real leader? Below, I have copied a paper I wrote back in 2006 pertaining to this very topic. Keep in mind, I am a HUGE sports fan, as you all well know! Also keep in mind that my ideas are NOT a commentary on how we should think about these things, just reflections based on powerful historical and social forces. I probably end up raising more questions than answers, which I suppose is ok. I simply want us to think deeply about how powerful worldly cultural norms can affect us.
THE CULTURE OF SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
and its effect on our churches
“WHO IS MY BROTHER?”
12th ANNUAL INTERNATIONAL TEACHERS’ SEMINAR
November 16-19, 2006
The culture of sports and entertainment in the United States, Europe, and many parts of the world has had a tremendous impact on our churches. Our churches are made up of people – each person has a different personality, background, and experience. Each church is operating within the context of our society, and is influenced by patterns of thought and demands for attention. This class is NOT designed to present a theology of worship for the road ahead. Nor will I offer many solutions. Rather, the goal is to assess the forces that are at play in our culture, and ask relevant questions that will stimulate conversation about important issues as we seek to grow mature, God-centered members in our churches.
Our culture is anything but neutral. It is not passive. Only a fool believes there is no underlying, spiritual agenda behind cultural forces. The question becomes, are they all bad? Is everything worldly? Can we learn positive things from our culture? How should popular culture converse with biblical principles? What should we be aware of? Most importantly, how should we as teachers/preachers lead our people confidently through this world, without becoming of this world?
Culture: the integrated pattern of human behavior that includes thought, speech, action, and artifacts, and depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary).
As it relates to Sports and Entertainment, what thought patterns matter? Have we become “entertainers” as we seek to present the gospel? Are people truly educated in worship, or are they educated in “being entertained?” In an effort to reach people, have we “dumbed down” the gospel? If we have, has it been necessary? Is everything a game? Have worldly notions of success been helpful in our evaluation of success in ministry? Have principles been subordinated to personality? I truly do not know the answers to all of these questions. However, I do know that these questions resonate with many, simply because the culture of sports and entertainment have been powerful influences in so many areas of ministry.
NEGATIVE AND CAUTIOUS VS. POSITIVE AND CAUTIOUS
Before beginning our conversation of how the culture of sports and entertainment have affected the church, it is important to address the cautionary aspect of any assessment such as this. There are many books about how the church should relate to the culture in which it lives. To put it simply, they either have a negative or a positive view about addressing the trends of current popular culture. Caution is a natural result for anyone attempting to address popular culture and the church. We are called out of this world, not engrossed in it. However, the caution that is overly negative can lead one to assume that our culture is not to be considered at all, and tradition alone holds the key for leading the church through the muddy waters of worshipping God today. I would rather advocate a cautionary approach to engaging culture, but positive in the sense that I do believe we need to find ways to present the gospel to an ever-changing, technologically advanced generation. Caution is in order, but there is hope.
I may not provide many answers, but hopefully I will ask enough of the right questions that make us think through leading our churches effectively in the present, and well into the future.
SPORTS: STAFF OR SWORD?
We are surrounded by sports. Sports or gaming of many types have become a mainstay in America. Sports and competition have worked into every level of society. Our kids suit up for little league at an early age, and many continue to engage in sports until the body proves unwilling to cooperate anymore. Even then, the competitive urges and desires are still within us. I for one will probably be catching ESPN Sportscenter each night until my dying breath. I enjoy playing golf, basketball, and many other sports. I find it beneficial for my health and it has helped me by teaching me great lessons that pertain to character, fortitude, and endurance. I can say (finally) that I ran a marathon in 2004. It happened to be one of the most brutal physical experiences of my life. However, I was trained by it in ways that will last a lifetime (1 Cor. 24-27). I believe sports is more than a physical endeavor, and holds value for many things that we should consider:
°Sports can be a positive trainer of character.
°Sport is an excellent teacher of hard work and discipline
°Sports can provide an individual and team with crucial, lifetime lessons that can be directly applied to spiritual formation and leadership.
°Sports can cultivate a strong sense of team, while exposing the folly of egocentric individualism.
°Sports and play have been proven to be healthy not only for the body, but for the brain, and can have a positive impact on how kids grow to learn.
The Seattle Supersonics were recently sold to an owner who lives in another city, one that is hungry for an NBA team of their own. The natural emotion experienced by many in Seattle is fear – fear that after this season plays out, he is going to move the team. This has spawned a debate over the benefit of an NBA team for a city, and more specifically, the benefit of sports for our culture. During this debate, one member of the Seattle city council was quoted as saying, “The Seattle Supersonics provide no cultural value for the city of Seattle.” In other words, the Sonics, and sports in general are fun, but don’t make us better people. I disagree with that wholeheartedly. It is a form of entertainment for most of us, but enriches us in a variety of ways.
The real issue for us as Christians is this: what effect does it have on our churches? I am convinced that there is much positive to learn, but there are also some negative consequences that exist as a result of pulling the wrong things out of sports. There is a subtle line between healthy, friendly, beneficial competition, and the swelling of pride that can lead to a lot of sin. Add to the mix our insistence on winning, and the result can be a disastrous confluence of positive and negative values as we try to integrate them into the administration of the church.
In order for us to fully understand our obsession with sports as a character-builder, especially as it applies to life in the church, it will be helpful to review some background information. In his book, Muscular Christianity, Clifford Putney offers an historical survey of our attitude about sports and Christianity. The term “muscular Christianity” started with two men from England, Charles Kingsley and Thomas Hughes.
Kingsley: A Christian who questioned the morality of an ever-increasing Industrial England. He saw a parallel between the average man and leadership of the church/state – they were become lofty and effeminate. He felt England needed to continue to rule the world, and to do so would require strong, brave men of God. In 1857, he wrote a novel based on this idea entitled, Two Years Ago.
Hughes: A Christian man who viewed strength and piety as the embryonic Christian gentleman, and agreed with Kingsley that the average Christian man was becoming soft and womanly. He also wrote a novel in 1856 about this subject entitled, Tom Brown’s School Days.
Both men saw the answer in sports. This was the way to turn boys into men of character, specifically channeling them away from masturbation (the “deadly habit”) and teaching them hard work, duty, and loyalty. Sports, with its rigid rules and clear chains of command, were seen as the best way to accomplish this.
This idea gained acceptance in America as Hughes toured and lectured on the subject. The most prominent public figure in support of this idea was Theodore Roosevelt. He saw muscular Christianity as the solution for the soft American man prevalent in the churches, but he also envisioned a renewed commitment to physical strength as a way of keeping America strong and dominant.
This idea resonated with many in America who saw too few strong men in the church, and viewed the emergence of “effeminate preachers” as the demise of the authority in the pulpit. Consider the following quotes:
They (churches) were filling the ministry with men who lacked a “vigorous, manly life…” They were encouraging parents to “say of their pallid, puny, sedentary, lifeless, joyless little offspring, ‘He is born for a Minster,’ while the ruddy, brave, and the strong are as promptly assigned to a secular career.” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1858
Churches have become places Christ “would have hated – places where Jesus’ cross has been taken out of his hands and smothered in flowers.” Henry King, President of Oberlin College, 1896
It is “ten times more important for children to know the destruction that came upon Rome because the people became physically weak and morally corrupt than it is to study the names of the successive Caesars.” Charles K. Taylor, 1890’s
“If the true Christian aim is service, not ecstasy, then that is the most important Christian treatment of the body which fits if for the most perfect, the most abounding, the longest-continued service in upbuilding the Kingdom of God.” Josiah Strong, 1890’s
“Religion is a man’s job.” Reverend Jasper Massee, 1912
“The church and the world to-day are calling, not for puny, weak-backed, dyspeptic, priggish apologies for men, but for strong, masculine fellows, who can hold their own with any man.” Spokesman for the Brotherhood of St. Andrew, early 1900’s
“the more of virility and of rugged manhood there is in the pulpit, the more will the vigorous men of the city be influenced by its message.” John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
“Where in all the sweep of freaks and failures, of mawkish sentiments and senseless blathery, can there be found an object to excite deeper disgust than one of these thin, vapid, affected, driveling little doodles dressed up in men’s clothes, but without a manhood in his anatomy? He is worse than weak – he is a weaklet.” Rev. Dr. James Vance, speaking of sentimental clergymen
“men need an emphasis on the heroic and aggressive in Christianity.” E. W. Halford, Laymen’s Missionary Movement vice-president, early 1900’s
In general, the feeling around the turn of the century is that strong men were absent from the church. Consequently, men were leaving the church in large numbers. Women were doing the bulk of the teaching in Sunday School, and the men in the pulpit were weak and feeble examples of a visionary preacher. The church was losing the respect of the world, and muscular Christianity was the answer. Today, there are many familiar groups that were founded at this time, with muscular Christianity as the backdrop:
Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) – founded in 1851
Salvation Army – founded in 1878
Boy Scouts – founded in 1910
Men and Religion Forward Movement (forerunner to modern Promise Keepers) – founded in 1911, aimed at large, men-only revival meetings. In 1912, they had a goal of holding 7,000 meetings, with 1.5 million men in attendance.
It was during this time that sports became the ideal way for young men to be made strong, team sports were introduced formally, clubs and organizations were formed, and the vitality of the church was viewed as keeping the pulpit full of young, strong men.
In his book, God in the Stadium: Sports & Religion in America, Robert J. Higgs argues that when sports and religion intersect, it has to be done carefully. Spiritual leadership includes aspects the shepherd’s staff (care, nurture, comfort, guidance), as well as the knight’s sword (protection, authority, order). Jesus provides an amazing example of integrating the two. He led with compassion and concern for people. He also stood firm in the face of opposition, even confronting hypocritical leaders and sin boldly when necessary. He did not sin, but beautifully provides us with the ultimate example of how to lead on all fronts.
Today sports has been televised and covered more than any other time. Money and profit have influenced competition, moving sport from harmless play to a market-driven commodity. Can any coach (college or professional) honestly say that they do not worry about job security from year to year? A hot topic each year in every sport is “who is on the hot seat?” Like it or not, the people on that list are those not winning on a consistent basis. Often, it only takes one or two seasons of marginal performance for a coach to be replaced.
The professional athlete needs to be respected and acknowledged for talent and character. Today, the bulk of the spotlight is on the athlete who can be the most provocative. Is anyone else tired of the media following every move of Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson? In the recent past, big name athletes have choked their bosses, fallen asleep in meetings, complained about not being the center of the offense, proclaimed they “no longer need to attend practices, criticized their coaches and teammates in the paper, and mocked the owners of their teams. After each instance, they seem to have no trouble finding another job! If these types of athletes are overly admired, there is the potential for a subtle shift to dangerous egotism. Egotism, even if subtle, can poison a leader:
“Egotism is on of the repulsive manifestations of pride. It is the practice of
thinking and speaking much of oneself, the habit of magnifying one’s
attainments or importance. It leads one to consider everything in relation
to himself rather than in relation to God and the welfare of His people. The
leader who has for long been admired and deferred to by his followers is in
great danger of succumbing to this peril.” (Sanders, 186-187)
Here is the problem: we love the positive aspects of sports and competion, but need to make sure we integrate them into the culture of the church appropriately, especially as it relates to models of leadership.
“The alliance of religion and sports in Christendom demonstrates a movement
Primarily toward the sword, so that what is conveyed even by the authority of
the Cross is a sense that the shepherd world is inherently inferior, when in fact
it is in many ways closer to what is most worthwhile in human life and belief.
If anything, this world is closer to the spirit and letter of the Gospels than the
knightly one.” (Higgs, 312)
To be sure, having the mentality of a shepherd is no safeguard against abuses (Ezekiel 34). There are bad shepherds, only interested in personal gain. However, there has to be aspects of both, administered with balance.
“One does not have to be a knight to be autocratic and mean, as rural violence
amply proves. A routine of shepherd labor can degenerate into barbarism as
quickly as the sports of knights. At some point both become mechanistic and
deterministic and can only be saved by the common ground between them,
the created world of freedom and play. There is no more lasting joy inendless competition to conquer than in incessant laboring to survive. Both brutalize and
demean. Joy or meaning lies elsewhere, between the extremes of both. The
proclamation of the ideal of the shepherd is no guarantee against abuses; my
argument is simply that its virtues have been obscured by the popularization of
the ideal of the knight, whose own virtues, as a result, become sordid.”
The apostle Paul shines as an example of a leader who successfully found this balance. His love and concern at one moment nurturing and emotionally, while at another moment forceful and authoritative. As he teaches young Timothy and Titus, he emphasizes attributes that come from a strong, spiritual character, not outward signs of strength and authority:
1 Timothy 3:2-7 – The picture of a deeply spiritual leader
1 Timothy 4 :8 – There is value in physical training, but spirituality is eternal
1 Timothy 4:11-12 – Authority is the result of example
1 Timothy 5:1-2 – Treat people with the appropriate level of respect
2 Timothy 2:1 – Be strong in grace, not your own talent or presence
2 Timothy 2:22-26 – Don’t quarrel, but gently, firmly instruct
2 Timothy 4:1-2 – Patience and careful instruction
Titus 1:11 – Silence people if needed. Strong leadership is NOT inherently destructive
Titus 2:1 – Character traits of deeply spiritual leaders
Paul’s model of a leader was a holistic, spiritual, growing person, who is constantly calling on inner spiritual disciplines to adapt their leadership to the complex issues of people and the church.
Some questions to consider
1. Has the historic idea of “muscular Christianity” affected our view of men in the church, especially those that preach from the pulpit?
2. Has our view of sports and the leadership of coaches influenced how we hire people for the ministry? In Seattle, Scott Green advocates hiring ministers based on the following order of qualities: Heart, talent, and faith. Above all, it takes the heart of Jesus to lead people. There has to be some talent and competency, and faith is required. I believe too many people were hired based on this formula: Talent, faith, heart. Talent and faith = a radical young person, poised to make a difference. The problem is, heart is in the rear. Unless there is a deep care for people, talent and faith can be inspiring in the short run, empty and hurtful in the long run.
3. Has a preoccupation with winning overly influenced our notions of success in the church? Has grace been subordinate to effectiveness? Are there valuable lessons, or even growth in the “dry seasons” of a church, or is growth in a church largely based on numbers?
4. Have sports-based notions of competition and success influenced how we evaluate ministers?
5. How can we successfully integrate the positive aspects of sports and competition with other tools of ministry and motivation?