Did you follow this year’s World Series between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals? It was an entertaining matchup seeing the Nationals jump out to a two-game lead (even on the Astros’ home turf!), only to have the Astros storm back to take a 3–2 lead in the best-of-seven series, and then to see the Nationals come back and win in Game 7! We saw some of the best pitchers in the Majors face each other, while also facing off against some of the best hitters in the game. It was fun to watch, to say the least.
Like many of you sports fans out there, I really enjoy major sporting events. But, as I’ve enjoyed playing and watching sports throughout my life, a question has occasionally come to mind: Can competitive sports add value to a Christian’s life? While we know there’s a lot of room for bad sportsmanship, aggressive behavior, and desire for personal gain or glory on the part of players and fans alike, we should also understand that these problems arise from selfish motives and poor decisions of individuals, rather than the sports themselves. As with so many other things in life, character comes from how we choose to use something, and with sports there is also incredible potential for positive, healthy benefits.
Throughout my life, many of my closest friends have been buddies with whom I spent hours throwing, hitting and/or kicking some type of ball around. My brother and I spent many hours playing basketball, especially in our driveway back home, with good friends. Sports can even be an activity that whole families enjoy together. I have great memories of playing Little League baseball “under the bright lights” with my dad coaching and my mom, brother, and sister watching from the stands.
Sports done right can be fun, and having fun with other people helps to build friendships. In Ecclesiastes 3:4, we read that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” God says that there are times to enjoy life, and sports provide a wonderful way for people to do just that.
Just watching sports will often highlight lessons in leadership, such as the importance of good coaching, encouraging others, “sacrificing yourself” for the good of the team, and being on the same page as your coach and teammates. I’ve heard many stories over the years of famous professional athletes giving tremendous credit to a special coach they had in high school, college, or some other level in their athletic career. Many athletes explain how their coach helped them in life as well as sports. Hearing stories of coaches that have incredibly positive impacts on the lives of their players, even after the player-coach relationship is over, can be very inspiring and instructional. And, sometimes it isn’t the coach that displays extraordinary leadership; sometimes it’s a player on the team that leads the team to success.
Watching inspiring stories of leadership in sports is helpful, but perhaps the best teacher is when we participate in a sport and have the opportunity to practice leadership ourselves. A good leader on a sports team will put the team first, support the coach’s leadership and authority, strive to keep morale high and positive, and encourage the other players and help them to grow. Sports provide many opportunities to learn and experience leadership lessons. Jesus’ example of servant leadership (Matthew 20:28) works in all areas of life, but it’s also fascinating how well it works particularly in the realm of sports!
Most sports have a very specific goal—to win! It’s a simple goal, but the execution can be complex. There are many objectives on the road to scoring points and achieving victory. The coach must help the players build camaraderie—a “team first” attitude—and ensure that the players play the game as a unit, not as individuals. In most sports, the greatest teams are the ones that play as a team so that their individual talents and abilities blend together to form a powerful force. As Christians, we can learn lessons about teamwork from sports and apply those lessons in our jobs, congregations, and even our families and marriages.
Jesus Christ is building a team for a great purpose. His “team” is the Church of God, and one of its primary goals is to preach the gospel to the world (Mark 16:15). In 1 Corinthians 12:20, we read that “there are many members, yet one body.” The way sports keep score and have very clear objectives to reach the goal often clearly highlight the important biblical principle of teamwork.
If and when you watch the next big game, look out for lessons that you can learn and share. Look for exemplary players or coaches who exhibit biblical qualities, people that lift the morale and performance of their team. And, when you see specific instances of friendship, leadership, and teamwork, let those examples inspire you in your own endeavors in life, and remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath [or crown], but we an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:25).