A famous professional athlete attended our worship services intermittently. He, and others like him, had given up regular attendance or publicly claiming to be Adventist. But being married with children, he desired to bring them up in his childhood religion. The only problem was the conventional thinking among some that his profession was the devil’s workshop.
Many professional athletes feel unaccepted in our denomination. Our attitude toward sports appears to have driven many of our young, talented, successful athletes to other denominations, where they are welcomed with open arms. We have lost tremendous opportunities to show the world, through them, our distinctive beliefs, and how Adventist Christian athletes can be paragons of fair play, integrity, and discipline.
Despite the fact that sporting events are overcommercialized—athletes and spectators are exploited for financial gain and reduced to negotiable commodities—they can be massive mission fields for the church. Although the ancient Greco-Roman cult of the body still exists, wherein physical attractiveness is promoted at the expense of spiritual development, and spectators worship popular sports figures treating playing fields as places of passionate worship of these icons, we can all learn lasting life lessons from athletics. Sports, physical exercise, and other recreational activities are very important to our development as spiritual beings, and can provide compelling metaphors for Christian living.
The apostle Paul used them effectively to impart profound lessons about Christian virtues. When he called believers to virtuous living, he underscored the fact that in order to be winners, athletes had to exercise self-control in all things, as should believers in Christ. He wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor. 9:24, 25).
To convey the importance of a disciplined lifestyle Paul invoked these images: “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:26, 27).
To describe consistent commitment to Christ and the significance of not abandoning the true gospel, Paul wrote to the Galatians, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” (Gal. 5:7).
To encourage steadfastness and persistence in the amazing race of life, Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14).
He also implored Christ’s followers to “fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim. 6:12). Then, speaking of his own journey, he concluded, “The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
Because of the globalization of sports and its increasingly large role in popular culture via instant communication devices, professional sports may be an untapped resource for Christian mission. Should we not recruit those who were raised in our faith, teach them how to be “in the world, but not of the world,” and send them out as missionaries to the vast population of spectators?
I am eager to hear what you think about this.
Hyveth Williams is a professor of homiletics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. This article was published January 19, 2012.