By Dr. Brian Bolt1
If apt to pay attention to sport this summer, you know Serena tied Stephi’s major’s title record at Wimbledon; Olympians are weighing the dangers of the Zika virus in Brazil; LeBron bested Steph in an NBA finals comeback; Henrik and Phil had an epic 18-hole battle at Troon; and Messi retired, but is reconsidering after being described by the Argentinian president as “God’s gift” to the country. But sport also appears on smaller fields and venues all over the world, often witnessed by parents and grandparents in bleachers and folding chairs. Sport, the reality series fueled by the drama of the unknown, has become a cultural mainstay that captures hearts indiscriminately, and draws new and unsuspecting converts daily.
Among the throngs of participants and fans are confessing Christians, people who view life as a gift of God’s grace and earnestly desire to follow Jesus Christ in their day-to-day lives. So between halves, periods, or seasons some take a timeout to ponder the role of sport. They wonder about potential benefits and pitfalls. They wonder about affections and passions and the physical and emotional safety of sporting environments. They wonder about their own hearts, gripped by the joys and obsessions of competition, about poor players being pushed aside, excellent performers pushed ahead, and why sport can seem both underutilized and overdone at the same time. Recently, a handful of practitioners and scholars contemplated the same and other questions, and came up with a “Declaration on Sport and the Christian Life” as a way of putting some markers on the field to be explored and discussed by those interested in Christianity and sport.
In brief, the authors conclude that sport is a wonderful option for those who enjoy participating as a player or fan. The passion of sport can lead to meaningful and enriching experiences when one participates with gratitude to God and genuine humility. The primary purpose of sport is not hard to see among competitors: people love to play. We desire to excel, to belong, and yes, to win, or at least to invest enough to have a chance. And of course, there are other potential benefits such as the development of certain character traits, rewards like scholarships or endorsements, the fostering of relationships, or for some, even the enhancement or development of Christian faith.
But like many other human endeavors, these effects are conditional, and sport brings its own list of potential negative consequences. When sport is reduced to a tool it’s often an inefficient one. Sport for children and adults has a way of being all-consuming. Whole families can become intoxicated by sport success or opportunity afforded through sport, and when sport decisions compromise deeply held personal or family values or require lengthy rationalizations, these are warning signs that sport has moved from appropriate affection to idol. Our whole selves, including body, mind, and soul, are important to God. Christians are called to contemplate the consequences of participation, whether physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. There is even a threshold where non-participation in a sport is the wise choice, and Christians are called to reflect on this individually and in community.
Whether played on the public stage or in a vacant field, sport has power for good and ill. Christians can discern the difference, and can move sport closer to what it ought to be.
To view the entire declaration, visit sportandchristianity.com
Dr. Brian Bolt is a Professor of Kinesiology, Department Chair, and intercollegiate men’s golf coach at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, US. For the past seven years Dr. Bolt has served as the Kinesiology Department Chair and oversees both Kinesiology academic programs and intercollegiate athletics. Coach Bolt is also Calvin’s intercollegiate Men’s Golf Coach and has led teams to NCAA DIII nationals two of the last four years. Dr. Bolt’s scholarly and service work centers on the practical connections between sport and Christianity, teaching and coaching methodology, and working with underserved youth in sport and mentoring. Dr. Bolt is co-chair of the Sport and Christianity Group. ↩