Imagine standing in your church sanctuary on a typical Sunday morning before the service begins. You look toward the entrance and notice a famous athlete from your hometown team walking in with his wife and children. He may be an NFL pro bowler or an Olympic gold medalist. You’ve seen this person manufacture last-second comebacks, win a Super Bowl, or star in local TV ads.
As far as you know, this is their first time at your church. From afar you watch as his family quietly settles into some seats near the back. You might not be one of his fans, but you remember seeing him on TV, and know there are some big-time fans in the congregation.
How would your church respond? Point out the special guests during announcements? Would congregants seek autographs after church? Would church staff wait by his car afterward to request an informal meet-and-greet with church leadership? While this response may sound extreme, each represents an experience of Christian “celebrities” when attending a local church. During my first year in the NFL, my wife, Erica, and I have either personally encountered or heard firsthand accounts of these types of uncomfortable interactions between churches and star athletes.
Sadly, we’ve found that many Christian NFL players and wives feel hesitant or even afraid to join a church due to the superficial, preferential treatment they receive. As the body of Christ, we can do better.
Sin of Favoritism
John Calvin is correct about our hearts being idol factories. The sin of idolatry is visible across our culture. It worships heroes from Captain America to America’s Team, from the Avengers to Adele. While there is nothing sinful about admiring the gifts and talents of a person made in God’s image, famous or not, it’s a sin to replace God with that person on the throne of your heart. Idolatry breeds favoritism—and favoritism has no place in the church of Christ or the hearts of his children.
James 2:1–4 condemns favoritism among God’s people. Congregational distinctions were being made, catering to the rich while dismissing the poor. While distinguishing individuals isn’t inherently wrong, favoritism is. John Perritt helpfully explains that favoritism distorts our view of the world and thereby deifies others, devalues the self, and dethrones God.
I’m no exception in falling short in the area of favoritism. About a month ago while buying a new mattress, I asked the salesman about current discounts and heard nothing noteworthy. So I said, “You know, I play in the NFL. So if there are any additional deals you may have for someone like me, that would be great.” I was leveraging my identity as an NFL player to entice this salesman into giving me a special discount. I was seeking favoritism for my own gain.
Favoritism knows no tax bracket, profession, or people group. We’re all susceptible to perpetrating and propagating this subtle sin, whether by treating high-status people differently than others or by exploiting that treatment for personal benefit.
While at times I attempt to benefit from favoritism, more often favoritism makes it difficult for me to have genuine relationships. My work comes up often in conversation with brothers and sisters in my church. Sometimes as people ask about the NFL, my team, or my position, the lack of interest in other subjects can make the question feel more like information extraction than honest fellowship.
Being loved unconditionally is something professional athletes often miss out on. Constant evaluation is unrelenting throughout the week from coaches, talk shows, and fans. Yes, my job is in the entertainment industry. But there comes a point when I can tell whether someone cares more about the well-being of my soul or their underperforming fantasy football team. I don’t want my church to be an extension of the entertainment industry, but an extension of Christ’s love and truth through people who “from now on . . . regard no one according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 5:16).
Some of the most refreshing conversations with my brothers in Christ have revolved around my personal life or hobbies outside of sports. It’s encouraging when brothers or sisters ask questions like “Have you been able to get away lately for some rest?” or “How can I be praying for your family?” or “Did you get a chance to check out any of those bands you like at the jazz festival last week?”
As a Christian NFL player, it’s also important that I grow in patience. There have been times when, in impatience, I’ve intentionally brushed someone off or casually disregarded an honest, genuine question. It’s vital for God’s Spirit to transform me to be more like our ever-patient, always-caring Savior.
Most Awkward Church Moment
Erica and I had an especially awkward church moment in the middle of a Sunday morning sermon. The assistant pastor asked the congregation for a show of hands identifying fans of the hometown team. To keep a low profile, my wife and I didn’t raise our hands. Noticing this, the preacher squinted at us, motioned in our direction, and said, “Why don’t you have your hand up—you play for the team, don’t you?” Immediately, every head in front of us swiveled around and stared at us as I nervously chuckled and raised my hand.
Once he resumed the sermon, most eyes were still trained intently on Erica and me as we tried our best to appear unaffected. I was embarrassed and upset for the rest of the service. I wanted to leave as quickly as possible because it felt like the object of worship in the room had shifted from God to us.
There are many problems with spontaneously acknowledging a professional athlete in the congregation. First, if a trusting relationship doesn’t exist between the pastor and athlete (in this case, it didn’t), the athlete may feel used, even disrespected. Second, if the athlete has brought a teammate that day for the first time, what message does the newcomer hear? That he too may be called out and put on the spot if he continues to attend. This isn’t something an unbeliever or young Christian should worry about in church. Finally, it can imply that the athlete enjoys special favor with leadership other congregants do not. It’s easy to remember a professional athlete’s job when there are so few of us, but the message to the flock isn’t one of care and impartiality.
I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on that moment and have since repented of ways my heart seeks to be a consumer in church. Erica and I know our temporary platform in the NFL is to be used for God’s glory everywhere, including the local church. Church isn’t supposed to be like the movie theater, where we consume two hours of entertainment and walk out a critic. Church should be where we corporately approach God’s throne to worship as the body of Christ and faithfully use our gifts to serve one another. By God’s grace, I later connected with this assistant pastor to thank him for his service as well as explain our discomfort at what he did. He patiently listened and acknowledged his error before committing to be more careful. I’m pleased that we both desire for Christ to be glorified maximally through his church.
I hear story after story from teammates and fellow NFL players who’ve tried their local church only to encounter the same fan-oriented favoritism they receive elsewhere. Such treatment isn’t an excuse to avoid corporate worship, but it’s definitely a hindrance to new believers or curious visitors. If the local church is more aware of the way it thinks of these “superstar” souls who walk through their doors, favoritism can be destroyed and the body strengthened. Imagine a world where the most exciting, community-building, and worship-inducing place to be on Sunday is the local church. How much could our societies, communities, and families benefit from congregations centered on worshiping Christ? Many walk into church each week with sinful wounds God often chooses to heal through worship and fellowship.
When we turn from favoritism, what do we turn to? Is there a manual on how to treat a pro athlete or “star” in our church? If there were, I imagine it wouldn’t deviate much from the manual on how to treat any other human being. Ephesians 4:29–30, 32 is helpful here:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. . . . Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
When I think about our church in New Orleans, it gladdens me that I see a place where corrupting talk is sparse and kindhearted forgiveness abounds. My prayer is that every city would be fortified with a church winning the struggle against its own favoritism as disciples—both poor and rich, young and old—are raised up for God’s eternal kingdom.