It’s no secret that sports often compete with Jesus in the hearts of many Christians. So how are we to think about, engage in, and enjoy sports without making them idols?
In his new book, In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship, David Prince has a twofold aim: (1) Examine sports from a biblical-theological perspective and (2) show how sports give a limited but genuine window that can help us apply our lives to the gospel story (7).
One of the benefits of the book is that although it can be read through from beginning to end, each chapter stands alone, and so readers can engage with each according to its specific focus.
From the outset Prince—a pastor and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky—makes clear that God didn’t create sports, but he did create us in his image, and sports are “an inevitable and reflexive response to the world God created” (15). Through this theological foundation set within a creation-fall-redemption framework, Prince establishes how believers should think about sports. Sports are part of imaging God’s beauty and also part of our dominion-taking, creation mandate.
Sports can make for healthy competition, which spurs creativity, increases focus, and mutually sharpens gifts (25). Nevertheless, one way we deal with competition Christianly is through the countercultural practice of cultivating joy, even in defeat. In stark contrast to worldly thinking—summed up in one professional soccer player’s words to me, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser”—we can glorify God by being dignified and gracious in defeat. Loss can’t diminish our joy because our joy lies in glorifying God, not the game.
Spiritual warfare marks the Christian life, and Prince shows how the New Testament’s many athletic metaphors highlight the temporal goals of sports to give a framework for the eternal goals of the gospel (49). Persevering in the face of hardship is a key truth about both sports and the Christian life; putting up with bad calls from referees is part of the game, just as injustices are part of life in a fallen world. But Prince is careful to repeatedly show that desires for sports must be subordinated to desires for Christ. Sports are useful in serving him, but “anyone who says ‘Christ is useful’ is worshiping self, not Christ” (53).
Means for Discipling and Parenting
A strength of In the Arena is the way it frames sports as a means of discipleship, particularly for parents. “Sports are not the problem,” Prince observes, “inadequate leadership in the home is the problem” (68). Sports expose character so that parents can see where to teach their children to be like Christ. Self-denial, not self-promotion, is a key to glorifying God in sports—but it’s also vital to playing sports well. Prince even has advice for how parents can deal honestly with their kids and help them “lead from the bench” (76). And in the current climate of absentee fathers, he observes that sports are a unique medium through which dads can engage with and witness to kids.
Prince also taps into the “sense of entitlement” and “parental overvaluation” prevalent nowadays. A sports culture where “everyone is a winner” means “nobody wins” (89). Sports shouldn’t be a vehicle to affirm our children’s individual desires over the good of teammates, family, church, and everything else. As he rightly asserts, “Narcissism, laziness, and self-protection are not the fruits of the Spirit” (89). And so Prince calls parents to assert authority for their child’s ultimate good. Learning to say no is a key part of parenting, and sports are “one of the few places left in contemporary society, outside the military, where no is a common word and authority is exercised in the pursuit of a goal bigger than the individual” (92).
Sports can help us recover respect for authority and a collective mindset. And when we “fight for our children’s right to lose,” as Prince puts it, we can truly disciple and show them that the gospel is more important than the sports (100).
There’s a difference between safe parenting and Christian parenting. In the Arena sounds a warning against domesticating sports. Theodore Roosevelt’s response to the call for the abolition of football on campuses because of the 1905 death of 18 men was this: “We are producing mollycoddles instead of vigorous men” (108). And just as the book begins with a quote from Roosevelt’s “Citizen in the Republic” speech, the Roosevelt mantra rings loudly across its pages. Whatever one’s view on the ethics of violence in sport, there’s much insight here.
In many ways, sports are a microcosm of culture. Calculated risk-taking is being eroded in favor of comfort and self-preservation. Christianity, however, is about counting the cost. “Sadly,” Prince observes, “evangelicals seem to be leading the movement to train bravery and adventure out of our children in favor of a cult of safety” (112). And this trend is affecting the self-denying pursuit of personal holiness and sacrificial missions.
Wisdom that Transcends
As a pastor and former professional athlete, parents often ask me how they should disciple children who show potential to make sports a career. With the huge time commitment and personal sacrifice it takes to become a professional, and with the normalcy of Sunday games, this isn’t easy to answer except to say that Christ, not sports, is ultimate.
It’s hard to find much fault with this much-needed and accessible book. Some may see a need for greater engagement with a biblical defense of the ethics of competition or violence in sports. But it’s still covered in this brief yet theologically solid primer on sports and Christian discipleship.
Pastors, coaches, parents, and children should read In the Arena. It is loaded with gospel wisdom and principles that transcend sports and can be applied to many other pursuits.