The stadium as altar

The pastors I admire the most are very good at pointing out the ways in which society tends to idolize certain things. Tim Keller is is so in tune with the various ways that idolatry manifests itself in industrialized Western society. His diagnoses are sharp and precise. Another pastor like this is Mark Driscoll. He was in a segment on ABC’s Nightline to discuss idolatry in Seattle, where he pastors Mars Hill Church. In his sermons and talks he often says, “Idolatry is when we take good things and turn them into God things.” Very similar to what Keller says in this short clip on the Amazon page for his newest book, Counterfeit Gods. In the Nightline segment, Driscoll drives around Seattle with Terry Moran and one of the things he points out is Qwest Field, the football stadium of the Seattle Seahawks.

This topic, sports, is something I’ve been wanting to write about. In my experience in the Korean American church, we are no less vulnerable to this tendency to idolize sports as the rest of the body of Christ. In the process of writing this, all the recent news and talk about USC football started swirling around. You might know someone who in your opinion is taking all of it way too seriously. But it isn’t because of recent events that I write. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now, and I want to write about it because I haven’t heard it addressed too often in my circles. I want to point out the potential for sports to become an idol for us to get us to consider and reflect on to what degree it is true for us. If it has started to replace God as the center of our lives, then we must repent and allow God to return to His rightful place in our lives. If everything in this life is to be considered as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, then we must take care that we do not forget the Lord and His Kingdom work for something that, in the long run, is trivial and worthless. We must take care that it doesn’t become too great of an influence on our lives, our character, and our witness.

That being said…”us” and “we” most likely will not include females. The obsession with sports is mostly a male issue.

Sports, like movies and video games, is entertainment. Obviously, I’m not going to say that watching sports, or watching movies and playing video games, is inherently sinful. But we do need to consider how much we indulge ourselves in it, to the detriment of our witness and character. Do we ever consider how much of our lives are devoted to spending money and time on sports? The jerseys and shoes, the tickets, the hours of standing in line to get the best seats, the hours of watching TV and reading blogs. Sometimes it gets to the point where we start to sacrifice the time that we could spend at church or reading God’s Word in order to get our sports fix. Some people pride themselves on knowing a lot about sports. When we look to sports to give us meaning and identity, it has become an idol. When it starts to replace God in our lives, it has become an idol. When it takes us away from being Christ-minded and Christ-like, we are worshipping it rather than Christ.

Some examples…perhaps you know people like this.

  • People who constantly check their smartphones for scores and updates, even in the middle of a conversation or during worship service. Not only is it pretty rude, but it shows where their priorities are.
  • People who act so personally invested in the success or failure of an athlete or team. When their team is winning, they are proud and they rub it in other people’s faces. When their team is losing, they groan and complain. That athlete or team has become an idol for them.
  • Fantasy sports can be a way to have fun with friends. But to some, having a fantasy team means getting too involved with watching games and keeping track of statistics and scores. It can become an unhealthy and ungodly obsession. Especially when it also involves money (i.e. gambling).
  • I’ve seen fellow believers yell angrily during games at various people, fans of the opposing team, referees, even players on their own team. Some of these same people are really cranky and unapproachable after their favorite team loses an important game. How much of an influence has sports become on their life if it starts to affect their emotions like this? That they could be so incensed over things like a bad call by the ref and yet not care at all about more serious things like Christian persecution overseas.
  • And that blasted channel, ESPN. It’s well-produced and the people there do a great job, but sometimes it’s just crazy to think that there’s a channel devoted to all things sports-related 24/7. There are some college-age and young adult Christians who watch ESPN way too much. ESPN ESPN ESPN ESPN. What does ESPN even stand for? One of my roommates in college would sit down in the living room to watch ESPN, then get up and go to his room, but he would leave the TV on. I would hear the sportscasters’ blabbering leaking into my room while trying to have some quiet time to myself, with no one in the living room. I would get sick of getting up to turn off ESPN. Much less hear it being turned on. My other roommate would, first thing after waking up, pour a bowl of cereal, sit on the couch, and turn the TV straight to ESPN. It didn’t feel right to me that the first thing he would fill his mind with in the morning was sports. Not prayer or God’s Word, but sports. Sportscasters in fancy suits and bright studios reporting on multi-million-dollar contracts, coaching changes, players getting suspended or arrested, this stat, that score, that highlight reel. Is it sinful? No. Is it profitable? I don’t think it is.

It’s one thing to watch a 3.5 hour football game. That’s a huge enough chunk of time as it is. But some people go and watch on top of that hours of post-game commentary. They have fierce debates with friends about which team or conference is better. They read blogs on the NFL draft and high school recruits and insider rumoring and squabbling.

Sports is such an ingrained part of American culture that sometimes one needs to know something about sports in order to have any decent conversation with another guy. It’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s the reality. I believe we can redeem this cultural activity if we intentionally participate in it for the sake of the kingdom (“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”). I hope that the friends we make based on a mutual interest in sports can also be friends that we can share the gospel with. “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” But there must be a balance. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Titus 3:9 says “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to replace “the law” with “sports.” Definitely a lot of controversy, dissension, and quarrel that comes with sports. In the end, in the big picture of God’s plan for redeeming the lost, how profitable and valuable is the time that we spend on sports? It is up to each of us to determine if we have gone too far. This verse reminds me, though. Theology, just as much as sports, can be an idol. But that is for another time…

Thoughts?

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I felt the same way, after the UCLA game, and I realized how degrading people can be. Sports is fun, and it can be constructive at times, but some people are so involved in it. Sometimes I felt hurt by guys in KCM because I didn’t find myself fitting into that whole sports culture.

  2. my pastor has been fasting ESPN since the beginning of the year and I can’t believe how tough that has to be for him. I have to watch myself and stay mindful of how much time I spend reading about sports, but thankfully, by His grace, I’ve been getting bored quicker. In the end it all starts to sound the same to be so I tune out…sports commentary can get too serious and overwhelming sometimes.

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