Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Football's on Sunday... So's Church

The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 begin with these words,
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me."
God first states what he has done for the Israelites, then he demands absolute devotion from them.

Christians today might seldom face the temptation to bow down and worship a stone idol, but we face many distractions that call us away from absolute devotion to God.

Sport is a significant distraction.

Sport distracts at so many levels. At a youth level many families invest in a child's sports career in the hope of gaining a full college scholarship. As this excellent CNBC article describes, "the odds of landing a college scholarship in many major sports are lower than the chances of being admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford."

Despite the horrendous odds many families miss church, take their children out of church sponsored youth events to pursue opportunities on the sporting field. Their children often fail to develop close spiritual friends and role models as their social circle increasingly consists of teammates.

Then we wonder why these children don't have a commitment to following the footsteps of Christ.

But it's not just our youth who struggle with the distraction of sports.

I recently engaged in a conversation with other ministers about church members leaving Sunday worship services early (or skipping them altogether) to attend or watch NFL games. Is this idolatry? Does this behaviour indicate that a person's allegiance to their team is greater than their submission to God?

The discussion raised a lot of issues and I'll attempt to briefly address some of them here.
  1. In many cases choosing football over worshipping God with one's spiritual family indicates an immature faith. There I said it.  However, please note that I said, "In many cases..." I'm unwilling to make a blanket statement for reasons I'll detail below. But there are many people who will miss a church worship service for any number of reasons and not feel bad about it, but make sure they're on the couch each week in time for opening kickoff.
    In some instances this attitude relates directly to the opening line of the 10 Commandments as people forget, or devalue, what God has done for them.
  2. We have made Sunday worship a non-negotiable act of faith.  Worshipping God on Sunday morning with one's spiritual family should be a highlight of a Christian's week. It provides a time of communion with God. It's an opportunity to acknowledge who God is and all he's done for us.
    But is it any better for a father to neglect his family in order to watch football than it is to neglect church attendance? Who's checking up on that? Some churches have made worship services an idol in themselves and elevated that hour or so each week above all other acts of faith carried out during the week.
    Yes, our times of worship are important, but does missing them mean we've turned to idolatry while neglecting our family (or some other aspect of our faith walk) just means we have human struggles?
  3. Does the church or the individual have the greater problem? For a short time I attended a church where I often heard members comment that Sunday worship and their small group meetings, were their favorite times of the week. The church did an exceptional job of making worship meaningful for these people. They wanted to be there. These people weren't skipping worship services for football.
    A Bible verse that is often cited to encourage attendance at church services is Hebrews 10:25 which starts by saying, "Do not give up meeting together." This phrase has frequently been used to strong arm people to attend church services. However the remainder of the verse is just as vital but more often overlooked, "but encouraging one another". If those "stronger" members and church leaders are not making the worship service an encouraging experience then their failure to obey Scripture may well be the cause of others not attending. Yet it's much easier to point the finger at the non-attenders than the non-encouragers.
  4. Attending a football game can have more spiritual merit than attending a church service. I know this sounds like blasphemy, but hang in there. I know a man that skips church when his NFL team plays at home. That sounds bad.
    He has four season tickets and often uses two of them to take with him other men and boys who are not well connected to the church. In the car on the drive to the game they pull out their church's small group lesson for the week and have a spiritual conversation. This relationship building experience facilitates conversations at other times about deeper topics. After sharing a football experience together it's easier to call that person and ask them to assist in raking leaves for an elderly member. There will be many more conversations between those driving together to a football game than would take place in the foyer of a church building.
    If encouragement is a significant motive for gathering in a worship service, there are times (not all the time) when this goal will be better met in a different setting. Ideally, it would not require someone to choose between worship and football, but in reality it sometimes does.
My goal in writing all this is simply to say... Sport can easily supplant and undermine our commitment to God, his church and his mission. However, we should be cautious about too quickly pointing the finger at those involved in sports and apparently neglecting God. Sometimes we need to look at ourselves first, and sometimes we just don't know the whole story. And yes, sometimes we are looking at the actions of an immature Christian who needs to be challenged about where their priorities lie.

In all of this conversation, don't let righteous indignation cause you to lose an opportunity to share the Gospel. As I wrote in my previous post, sports actually provide a great opportunity to discuss spiritual issues that we're reluctant to bring up in our churches.

You might also appreciate this related article on the Christian Chronicle website.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sports - A Window Into Society

This is a short, self-serving post. Life has been busy and I haven't written for a while. As I reflect on the past few months in the sports world, I'm reminded the extent to which these athletes, who live in the spotlight, reflect the lives and challenges that we all face.

So far this year sports have gifted us with these topics of conversation:

  • April/NBA - Racist remarks by the owner of the LA Clippers, Donald Sterling, are recorded and leaked to the media. The resulting backlash from players and the public resulted in Sterling being forced to sell the Clippers franchise.
  • May/NFL - Michael Sam becomes the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL. In September he was signed to the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys.
  • August/NFL - Ray Rice made a public apology after hitting his fiance. A few weeks later video of the incident was made public. As a result of the video Rice was dumped by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. The resulting discussion has caused the NFL to radically change it's approach to domestic violence and launch a major education program for its teams and players.
  • September/NBA - More racial furor in the NBA as Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry is recorded describing a player using racially derogatory terms.
  • September/NFL - Star running back, Adrian Peterson, is charged by Texas authorities for abusing his 4 year old son after a "whooping" with a switch resulted in substantial cuts and bruises.
  • September.Olympics - Olympic swimming superstar, Michael Phelps, was arrested for the second time for DUI.
  • October/NFL - The Dallas Cowboys wrestle with grace and forgiveness as Josh Brent returns to the team after 180 days in jail for killing his friend and teammate in an car accident while intoxicated.
So yes, I'm piggybacking on these terrible offenses (and I may have missed some) to highlight the value of blogs like God Meets Ball and the conversations they prompt.

There is a great likelihood that during the last few months the men in your church heard more about racism, parenting, and respecting their wives, on ESPN than they heard from their church all year.

The Bible contains so much teaching about loving our neighbours, and families, and it warns against the dangers of anger, alcohol and hate. Where do you want your church to receive its moral training?  How strongly do we want our men to hear God's standards rather than the opinions of media personalities pursuing ratings?

Further, just as the world of sports provides a lens into the homes of our communities, it reminds us of the challenges our families experience. Our members are touched to varying extents by racism, homosexuality, destructive parenting, and domestic violence. Our churches need to be places of truth, transparency and reality, not "putting on our Sunday best".
"Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God."      1 Peter 3:3-4
 What venues does your church have to discuss issues like those raised above?