I had no idea disgraced ex-Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel professed to be a Christian. I have no idea if in actuality he is or not. But Tom Krattenmaker of CNN has penned a poignant piece, Jim Tressel Should Make Us Rethink Sports Evangelism, that might make some suspect perhaps Tressel could not possibly be.
Krattenmaker makes some valid points. But I don’t think that we should conclude from what he writes that, in light of his professional indescrtetions,Tressel is somehow disqualified from being a Christ follower. Flawed, certainly. Disqualified, certainly not. After all, any honest perusing of the Bible will reveal that all of God’s children are at least a little… well, warped. Christianity is not fundamentally about those who profess Christ being good, but rather about God being good, just, and gracious to those who are not good enough. But Krattenmaker’s article does give me reason to pause when thinking about our cultural tendency to deify athletes – then discard them when they no longer serve our purposes. He has caused me to rethink how we might approach athletes with the gospel.
I have recently begun serving as chaplain of the Bristol White Sox, the Appalachian League affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. It is an enjoyable ministry opportunity, and one I am familiar with. I served this same roll with one of the the Houston Astros farm teams several years ago. And I pinch hit for the then-chaplain here in Bristol last Summer, when he was experiencing some health issues. So this article makes me rethink what it is that I want to do with the ball players I will interact with these next few months.
Here are some of my random thoughts about the subject:
1. The focus needs to be on encouraging heartfelt following of Christ, not putting athletes on a pedestal or soap box. While there is truth that people will more readily listen to a professional athlete than some Joe off the street, this does not make the athlete any more qualified than the Ordinary Joe to be an ambassador of Christ. In fact, in some ways this whole notion of propping up Christian athletes as spiritual role models seems contrary to the example of the Apostle Paul, if not even the gospel. Paul noted that among the Corinthians that not many of them were anything special, as the world sees it. (1 Corinthians ) The pattern of early Christianity was not to target the great, but to serve the weak and ordinary masses. Much of the power of the movement was that God took these Nobodies and made them his people. I wonder if we have lost some of the culture changing power because we have shifted our focus.
2. The propping up of the Christian athlete as a celebrity does not seem to do the athlete any real favors either. The message to them is contrary to the gospel. We tell them: “Be great in the world so that you can do great things for God.” Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be great must be the least…” That seems to be a pretty drastic difference. Is it any wonder that many of these athlete-heroes stumble and disappoint us? We have been directing them down the wrong path for spiritual formation. We prop them up, send them out, watch them fizzle and then discard them for the newest model.
It’s not that star athletes should be excluded from public ministry. But it seems we would be much wiser to encourage personal spiritual formation, even at the exclusion of the pubic forum. In the long run we do the athlete more good equipping them with a faith that will serve as a foundation both for the challenges of their career and the challenges of the rest of their lives. As they grow in genuine godliness they will influence for the better those who are around them. Maybe most will never speak to the masses, but so what? Scores of faithful men will in time make more impact than one or two celebrity speakers. And a few will still have both the stature and the opportunity in the Public Square.
I remember reading years ago that after Hall of Fame hoopster Julius Erving (aka: Dr J) became a Christian, his spiritual mentor instructed him not to “go public” for one year. Some would probably mistake this for hiding, maybe even being ashamed of the gospel. But I see this as wisdom. Dr. J’s mentor cared enough about him as a man that he wanted to take the time to see a firm foundation built.
By removing the emphasis of the spotlight we better serve the athletes and minimize the public disappointments like those Krattenmaker mentions.