My Experience in Sport & Rec Ministry
I serve as an administrator of sports and recreation at a local church and as an adjunct professor for sport management and ministry. In addition, I have been an athlete, coach, spectator, and a parent. This means I have spent many hours watching games, observing practices, researching, and sitting in the stands. My roles and experiences have helped me come to understand the struggle of integrating the Christian faith within the sporting context.
Through my own personal growth and struggles, as well as research in the areas of integration of faith within sports, I have found this to be an area in which transformation and discipline are needed. Yet, for the Christian athlete, parent, or coach, there seems to be a struggle or a wrestling to integrate faith and sports. This struggle has led them to respond in a “compartmentalized” manner that adheres more towards our secular and global sports culture than that of Christian response and play.
Recently I have found myself in a number of gyms in which I witnessed contradicting behavior. While I don’t know every detail, and only God can truly know, it strikes me odd that coaches, parents, and leaders of recreation ministries and athletic teams believe they are developing and living out Christian principles of faith and honoring God, while at the same time, dehumanizing the referees, gossiping with others about the integrity of the other coach, and verbally abusing players for their performance. Why has this become the norm? How can someone speak of sports as an opportunity to teach character while behaving in a way contradictory to the gospel? How can one confess Christianity, but bear such un-Godly fruit within sixty minutes of athletic competition? This answer is compartmentalization.
Compartmentalization can be defined as the space in which an area is subdivided. Imagine a house diagram where each room is a “compartment” within the entire space of the house. Certain rooms hold certain belongings that are not integrated within the rest of the rooms or house.
Compartmentalization allows for putting the areas in which we are unsure of how to live in room, while behaving in the culturally expected actions of the activity. Compartmentalization allows for separation of actions while still believing we are living within Christian principles.
Compartmentalization is not a new concept. Ancient Greek philosophers spoke of compartmentalizing life into five realities: physical, mental, social, financial, and spiritual. Today’s psychologists refer to compartmentalizing as consciously separating life into compartments as a way of avoiding negative emotions. Business leaders suggest we even compartmentalize our work so that we are able to separate work issues from real life. While compartmentalization can be beneficial in certain areas, it is not a biblical concept.
I feel blessed that over the years I have had the pleasure of watching in person my sons participate in their sporting endeavors. From the days of Little League baseball and soccer to school sports, travel basketball, and travel volleyball. One of the best things my father gave me was his presence at all my events. My dad’s presence was stronger than most of what others tried to communicate to me about the way I should play the game. It was his presence that built confidence, a sense of genuine care, and that it was ok that I made mistakes and that he was present if I needed to talk about it or learn from it. The best part about my dads presence was that I was the most important person in his schedule for that time, not just another athlete he happened to see play when he could. The demonstration of my father’s commitment to my athletic endeavors created that desire to provide for my own children. While I have coached both of my sons on different occasions, I have found it most rewarding to simply be there….be there to watch them grow in character…be there to watch their sport development…be there to watch them experience the enjoyment of playing a sport of their choice.
Through the years I have often arrived at games with much excitement for the game and my child’s performance in the game. There have been times I knew my child would play well against a particular co-competitor and there were times when I was anxious as to how he would respond. Of course, the times in which I knew he would do well meant for a better mental and spiritual process for me. It was the times in which he struggled that created more “begs” to God than He probably wanted or cared about over a sporting match.
Recently, I was unable to travel with my son’s team. It was a back-to-back weekend travel schedule and I was there for the previous weekend, but due to work schedule and weather, I was not present for this series of games. What we know about being present is that the unknown is removed. You are aware of the game day operations, the teams participating, the refs, the coaches, and the interactions of the players and fans. It’s as though you can control (at least attempt to) what’s going on during the process. But, when you are absent, the mental faculties go crazy. You spend most of the time trying to create specific scenarios, interactions, and reasons for good or bad play. It really becomes an anxious event for you (the reason is its your child!). The unknown creates worry of failure while playing, fear of disrespecting officials and players, and the made up emotion of hurt for the team if they loose. There is also the emotion of a false sense of joy, excitement, and adrenaline that we create as we daydream about them winning. The unknown really created a roller coaster emotional experience.
On this particular weekend, I felt as though I was calm on the first day of the tournament. I awakened, prayed and asked God to bless the team and give them a great experience (of course He knew I meant wins). As the day went on, I would hear reports of the team losing one match, a second match, a third match that did include a win, and finally a fourth match. What happened? After all I prayed for God to bless the team. And by the sounds of my sons voice that night, he wasn’t experiencing any blessings.
Where does a father (parent) go from here? I wasn’t able to help him process all the events that would have caused such mishap. While he did share some wisdom with me regarding reasons for the losses, I found myself hurting that night for him and his teammates. The best I could do at the moment was go to my ever-trusty sports motivation quotes and send him two quotes to think about and tell him I love him. Meanwhile, I lay in bed praying to God for his experience the next day.
The next day arrived and I was up and ready. As a father struggling how to integrate my faith in Christ and sport, and share that with my son, I found guidance from bible regarding the mercies of the Lord being new everyday and sent it off to him in social media format. Just letting him know that today was a new day and we are reminded to put yesterday behind and enjoy the processes for today. I then jumped in, as many of us do, with prayers of blessings again for the team and his playing performance…only to be quickly stalled in the midst of my prayers. It was then the question of “what am I really praying for” came to light. While I can have multiple dialogues on whether God cares who wins or not during a sporting event, I was convinced that I was praying in a selfish manner. You see, in actuality I was praying for the selfish reasons in regards to performance such as:
As I continued to pray, I realized the need to re-focus. Sure, God does care about performance levels and behavior, but more importantly, God cares about His glory. When we pray for the glory of God to be displayed, just like it was in scripture (both with the first Adam in Genesis and the second Adam of Christ) we can do so as modeled by Jesus when he said, “Father, not my will but yours.” It’s then glory that can be revealed and create an altering transformation. Praying now for the team and my child was altered to:
Though I lived in a continual state of prayer on this day with anticipation of hearing about their matches, I am pleased to say that they responded to trials and placed third in their bracket out of sixteen. In final conversations with my son, we could dialogue about learning through the experiences. Learning how to communicate with teammates in difficult times, learning how to “play through” life’s disappointments, and learning how to lose and win in a Christ-like manner.
Most of all, I was thankful for the processes that God led me through that weekend. It caused me to re-focus on what’s most import – learning to pray for my child during his sporting events. While my son was facing struggles of competition, I too was facing struggles. Struggles of not being there physically to try to control the outcomes, struggles of wanting things to go their way so adversity wouldn’t be a factor, and struggles of how is it I’m to pray. Through my own adversity, God transformed the way in which I would pray for my child and his team. Not only does his performance need to reflect God’s glory, but also my prayers need to do the same.
The next time you’re at your child’s sporting event, ask God to show you how to pray for them and their team. It’s a learning curve we will all face.
Introducing This Week's Guest Blogger....
Greg English currently serves as Recreation Minister at Cool Spring Church and President of the Board of The Association of Church Sports and Recreation Ministries (CSRM). Greg is the husband to a Sports Fan Wife, father to one recreation athlete and one competition athlete and seeker of Christmanship in the Culture of Sports.