Sports and the Gospel

Writing for USA Today, Tom Krattenmaker isn’t so sure conservative evangelicalism is all-together good for college and professional sports. While he lauds the civic-mindedness of many high profile Christian athletes, Krattenmaker is concerned with the exclusive claims many outspoken Christian athletes make with respect to salvation. From the column:

But Jesus’ representatives in sports aren’t just practicing faith. They are also leveraging sports’ popularity to promote a message and doctrine that are out of sync with the diverse communities that support franchises, and with the unifying civic role that we expect of our teams. Typifying the exclusive creed taught by many sports-world Christians is the belief statement published by Baseball Chapel, which provides chaplains for all major- and minor-league baseball teams. Non-believers in Jesus, the ministry declares, can look forward to “everlasting punishment separated from God.”

Urban Meyer, Tebow’s coach at Florida, has praised his quarterback’s faith-promoting ways as “good for college football … good for young people … good for everything.” Such is the rhetoric usually heard from those who defend sports-world Christianity as wholesome and harmless.

But should we be pleased that the civic resource known as “our team” — a resource supported by the diverse whole through our ticket-buying, game-watching and tax-paying — is being leveraged by a one-truth evangelical campaign that has little appreciation for the beliefs of the rest of us?

Having researched and thought about Christianity in sports for the better part of a decade, I am impressed by the good that’s done by sports-world Christians. Jesus-professing athletes are among the best citizens in their sector, and they commit good deeds daily in communities across this country.

These sports stars, like all Americans, have a right to express their faith.

Evangelical players and ministry representatives in sports aren’t out to harm anyone, of course. On the contrary, they see themselves as fulfilling the Bible’s Great Commission (“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew 28:19). In this sense, their mission is pure altruism: They seek to share the gift of eternal life.

But there’s a shadow side to this. If their take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which their creed boldly states — everyone else is wrong.

Of course, there’s the rub. Christian athletes like Tim Tebow actually believe in the exclusivity of the Gospel for salvation. And they want others to embrace Christ as their only hope for forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. For many outspoken Christian athletes life is about far more than sports. And out of love for neighbor and their Savior they risk ridicule and offense in saying so.

Here’s how Krattenmaker closes:

Is sports-world evangelicalism really “good for everything”? Certainly a lot, but not everything. Not if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, non-evangelical Protestant, agnostic or anything else outside the conservative evangelical camp.

What do you think? Should high-profile athletes use their platform for the proclamation of the Gospel? What guidelines, if any, should be kept in mind?

  • Myson

    Well, what is wrong with the exclusivity of the gospel? It is by nature exclusive! Of course, if we are talking more on political beliefs, such as who we vote for and so on, how does that have anything to do with the gospel at all?

  • Spencer Barfuss

    I think this verse provides the reason why athletes should always use the platform they have to share the one true gospel…

    “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” ~ Luke 9:26

    If someone truly loves Jesus, they will speak his name before men. If we really loved God, would we resist speaking His name? When an athlete has the opportunity to give glory to the One who holds all things together, and works all things together for His perfect and pleasing will (including sports games), and to the One who has provided His only Son so that we might be forgiven and reconciled and justified before the holy God of the universe, wouldn’t God be more glorified in the speaking of His exclusive saving name before thousands, perhaps millions of people, than His exclusive saving name not being mentioned at all?

    I think part of the wonderful promises of Scripture is the joy that is set before us for enduring persecution for Christ’s sake, for great is our reward in heaven. If that’s true, and if what Paul said is true about the sufferings of this present time are not worthy of being compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us, then surely speaking His name before the masses is a small way to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous Light. And I doubt they’ll receive any persecution for speaking His name, aside from the occasional newspaper writer like the one quoted who questions his motives or the editorial writer who doesn’t understand the supreme value of the gospel and Christ. And that’s not really persecution at all.

    Anyways, I ramble, but really think the answer is clear on this one. To the one who deserves all glory, honor, power, praise forever and ever is worth speaking speaking of always, for every opportunity, for all time, no matter what the cost. God will get the glory, and we’ll reap the rewards of suffering with Him.

  • Chris

    One guideline: The Sabbath law. This would seriously cut into many religiously held beliefs about the nature of Sunday — it would affect the lives of both Christian athletes and the men who rush home from church to catch the game.

    Wanna see some serious controversy? Try this one on for size. Eric Liddle did.

  • John Amos

    “The Big Kahuna”, a stage play turned into a film starring Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey answers this question with stunning clarity (the last 20 minutes are priceless). The young salesman who uses his placement at a sales convention to evangelize not only shows a lack of integrity but grossly overlooks the multi-dimensional lives of his two co-workers.

    Our Lord is worthy of all praise. One day he will have it from every tongue and every knee. But is the Christian athlete saddled with the entire weight of the Great Commission when the microphone is put in his face? I don’t think so. The Church carries out the Great Commission in the pulpit, at the font, and upon the table. Evangelism is not restricted to these, but without the context of the Church how can we say we are fulfilling the Great Commission?

    We would be more effective in showing the sports world how the gospel creates an alternative society with a more compelling allegiance (“Jesus is Lord”) by observing the sabbath in the midst of our athletic regiments. There’s a guideline to keep in mind.

  • Chris

    Nicely said.