Some years ago humorist Roy Blount, astounded by the number of professional athletes who self-identified as Christians, set out with tongue in cheek to select an "All Religious Team" and an "All Heathen Team" to compete in what he envisioned as "an imaginary Christians vs. Lions bowl." He eventually had to abort the project because he couldn't find enough genuine heathens to field a team. It seemed almost every athlete was a Christian. Actually, what Blunt found so astonishing wasn't a recent phenomenon; the trend was evident at least as far back as the late 19th century when a virtual army of evangelical-minded football coaches such as Amos Alonzo Stagg, John Heisman, and Fielding 'Hurry Up' Yost prowled the sidelines at some of America's largest universities.
This was the era in which churches, centuries-old detractors of sports, began dipping their toes into its enticing waters by organizing church leagues and capitalizing on the images of squeaky clean athletes to harvest young, mostly male souls. In 1891 an Arkansas Baptist editor called baseball "the chief evil of the day," but by 1930 Baptist publications were using sports as a metaphor for the Christian life reminding readers that "God rewards the men who play on His team with eternal life."
Sport has become its own self kick start given the movement by turn-of-the century baseball player turned evangelist Billy Sunday and, later capitalized on by Billy Graham who featured sport celebrities at his crusades, the bonds tightened. Now the bonds have tightened to the point that the creative exploitation of sports can be considered a distinguishing feature of modern evangelical culture. These days no one is surprised when a player begins his post game interview by thanking God "who has given me the ability to play this great game," or when players kneel in the end zone or signal with upraised index fingers that they are, in their words, "glorifying God."
But sports have wormed their way into evangelical culture in other, less appreciated ways as well. Ministers recruit athletic metaphors to spice up their sermons. Congregations flock to church-organized "faith nights" at local baseball parks. Major sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Olympics are seized upon as opportunities to launch slick evangelistic campaigns. Sport evangelism organizations such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and Pro Athletes Outreach have been welcomed into the locker rooms of big time teams. "Chaplains" with a special talent for mixing sport and faith are granted access to athletes and in some cases given an office and tickets to games, provided of course, they don't say or do anything that might question the reigning orthodoxies that help fuel hot sporting blood.
Gymnasiums and fitness centers are now "must have" features of modern church architecture; seminaries and Bible colleges offer graduate level courses in "sport ministry" to prepare staff to oversee what often are enormous church-sponsored athletic programs. The sixty-four softball teams and forty-eight basketball teams sponsored by Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas dwarf programs offered by small town recreation departments. Christian high schools have allowed sports (mostly football) to dominate their image and mission; it is not uncommon for football coaches at smallish Christian private schools to earn salaries double or triple that of classroom teachers. All, more or less, take their cues from big-time sports.
One might suppose that all of this glomming onto popular sports has been backed up with some hard-nosed theologizing about the role of play, competition, and artful movement in the Christian experience, but the topic has been largely ignored by theologians and Christian ethicists. As to the promises offered by a sports-enriched life as well as the ethical blemishes that so often to dim the chances that those promises will ever be realized, the religious community has been strangely silent. It is easy to get the impression that the Christian community's invasion of sport has become its own justification; 40 million Christians couldn't possibly be wrong.
For decades, pragmatism, more than doctrine and theology has been the driving force in evangelicalism and using sport to advertise the faith and harvest souls in a sports-crazed world is an eminently practical thing to do. But the church has yet to ask itself whether or not exploiting sport for such purposes is a good thing to do. After all, advertising only works if consumers see some logical connection between the celebrity selling a product and the product itself and there seems no compelling reason for someone to become a Christian simply because their favorite quarterback, power forward, or NASCAR driver is. In fact, given the rising tide of violence, the cheating, swagger, duplicity, and the relentless search for personal fame and glory embedded in much of modern sport, the unwashed are entitled to wonder if the self-identified Christians in sport really have the Sermon on the Mount or the Golden Rule foremost in mind while the game is on. It is worth remembering that after spending millions of dollars on television commercials, advertisers discovered that not even Tiger Woods could sell Buick sedans because consumers couldn't believe that Tiger actually would drive a Buick sedan.
What is in danger of being passed over in this unexamined rush to big-time sports is the real possibility that the human experience of sport---guided by the Christian imagination---may have spiritual riches that the church has yet to mine. The Super Bowl, The Final Four, and the World Series are fine as secular spectacles but maybe it's time the church explored other models of sport, models approaching Catholic theologian Hugo Rahner's notion of "holy play," "a Godward directed harmony of body and soul.... an expression of "man's hope for another life taking visible form in gesture." Maybe it's time to move the gospel from the center of the field to behind the bleachers.