Christianity In Sports: Where Christ and Talent Collide
Growing up as a sports fan there were several Christian athletes to look up to. It was common to see players in the middle of the field praying before and after a game or to hear a player thank their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ during an interview. Today there are still players who use their platform to share the Gospel, but it seems that the culture around sports has changed with the culture in America.
Now, if a player thanks Jesus after a game, devotes time helping orphans overseas, or sings worship songs on the sidelines, it becomes something to be mocked and ridiculed on radio shows and on the internet. Sometimes a player is also worshiped in a way for being a Christian influence. Tim Tebow has become a player that is mocked and also worshiped in different circles. The fad of “Tebowing” came from him praying on the field. Several radio sport shows have bets of how quickly Tim Tebow will say, “I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
For my first post in this series on Christianity in Sports, I wanted to not only have the people I interviewed to define what a Christian athlete is and what they should act like, but I also wanted to know how God can use the platform they have to reach others with the gospel and make an impact on the people around them.
Interview with Ted Kluck: Ted Kluck is an author of several books like Facing Tyson, The Reason For Sports and Paper Tiger. He has also written articles for ESPN.com and ChristianityToday. Ted was a proffesional indoor foorball player, coached high school football and served as a missionary. To find out more about Ted visit his website TedKulck.com.
1. What should a Christian athlete look like, is it possible to be committed to Jesus and committed to your team?
TED: The answer to the second half of the question is yes, absolutely. This is like saying, “Is it possible to be committed to Jesus and your job as an insurance adjustor?” or “Is it possible to be committed to Jesus and playing the violin?” Sports are means by which we can, as believers, enjoy and glorify God. But like any other created, physical thing they can also be outlets for sin and idolatry. So as to what a Christian athlete looks like (besides exactly like Tim Tebow…kidding…sort of) my answer would be “someone who is walking in close communion with the Lord, spending time in the Word of God, repenting of and receiving freedom from sin and active in his/her local church.”
2. Is Tim Tebow too in your face with his faith, should he be more quiet about his faith?
TED: For me, just aesthetically, the Tebow thing gets a little old (if you’re a homeschool mom, pause now to dash off a piece of hate mail that you will then sign, “In Christ”). Seriously, I’ve been interviewed about this before and I’ve learned that it is absolutely FORBIDDEN in Christian culture right now to do anything besides completely fawn over Tebow (see: hate mail). Here’s the thing about Tebow: I love his courage, I love the way he plays the game, I love his work ethic, and I even love that he’s outspoken about his faith, to some degree. I especially love that he’s a Christian competing at a high level. I love that he’s made it this far. But to me the faith-based grandstanding is just a little bit much. If my kid knelt in the end zone in one of his pee-wee games I’d ground him for a least a week for upstaging his teammates and making a spectacle of himself. As to the second part, I don’t necessarily think he should be more quiet…just maybe more nuanced. As he gets older and matures on and off the field, I’d like to hear a little bit more of a “sin/redemption” Gospel message from Tebow. Right now he says, “I’d like to thank my Lord and savior Jesus Christ” at the beginning of each interview in the same way that Nascar drivers say, “I’d like to thank Valvoline for sponsoring the number fifteen car out there today.” It feels a little tacked-on. But then again, he’s just a really young guy. I’m happy to just enjoy watching him play and be thankful that he’s sharing his faith.
3. Why does it shock so many Americans that athletes like Tebow or Kurt Warner share their faith openly?
TED: I actually don’t think it shocks that many Americans. I think we Christians like to THINK it shocks many Americans. I think we sometimes like to invent martyrdom/persecution where none exists. If being persecuted means getting an opportunity to play a child’s game for millions of dollars at a high level, being continually given outlets to share your faith, and then making millions more in product endorsements…sign me up for that kind of persecution. Speaking of Warner, I think he’s an example of a guy whose message got more meaningful and nuanced as he got older.
4. Has American’s love for sports turned into idolatry?
TED: I think mankind’s love for ANYTHING has turned into idolatry, if that thing is not checked by an abiding love of Christ. Money, food, sex, and sports are just the obvious examples. When I was a young athlete, sadly, football was definitely an idol for me. I probably loved it more than I loved my redeemer. It’s been written that whatever it is that you think of the most, or whatever it is that you feel you couldn’t live without, is your idol. We would be wise, as believers, to heed that reminder, and trust in the Lord our God with all our hearts. I think if we trust God completely with our sports, He’ll bless us in that process – even though that “blessing” doesn’t always mean becoming a rich, famous, NFL superstar.
Interview With Stefan LeFors: Stefan LeFors played quarterback for the University of Louisville from 2000-2004. He later was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in 2005 in the 4th round. After a short time in the NFL, Stefan played in the Canadian Football League. He worked for the University of Louisville’s athletic department and also as a radio color commentator for UofL football games. LeFors is currently the head football coach at Christian Academy of Louisville.
1. As a former player, was it difficult to balance your devotion to the team and God?
Stefan: There were times, as a player, that it was difficult to have that balance. The schedule that a college student athlete takes on is rigorous. It is easy to fall off the straight and narrow but for me, I knew what my priorities were and I tried to the best of my ability to stick to it. I quickly learned that I was not the only one that was trying to find the perfect balance. There are always others that have been through it and it was vital for me to have relationships with those people.
2. How has Christ used your platform as an athlete/coach to witness to others? Any specific story that is more memorable?
Stefan: Athletes and coaches in the sports world, for some reason, are fascinating to many people. Fans felt like we were connected in a way just because I wore their favorite team’s jersey. This allowed me the opportunity to share my story about my family background. I was the only hearing child in my family. Both parents, an older brother, grandparents, most of my aunts and uncles are deaf. Being able to hear is definitely a blessing from God. I was able to share my story about how I ended up at a Christian school where I got saved in 8th grade. It was by the grace of God that got me into Christian Life Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That move my parents made to get me into the school changed my life forever. How I was able to get a football scholarship to the University of Louisville is another story that I would say was another amazing blessing from God.
3. Now as a coach, how do you encourage your players to represent Christ on and off the field?
Stefan: The biggest reason I am here coaching at Christian Academy of Louisville, is to develop these young men both spiritually and physically. Football brings a lot of life lessons to the table that I was fortunate enough to reap the benefits of. I try to love on these kids as much as I can and try to be a part of their lives. I am new to the coaching world, but I already know I was meant to do this. The instant connection I feel with these young men allow me the opportunity to encourage and strengthen their faith.
4. Is there a Bible verse that encouraged you as an athlete or that encourages you now as a coach?
Stefan: Jeremiah 29:11 This verse lifts me up every time because I know that wherever God takes me, I am willing to go. No matter what I want to happen or where I want to be, God is behind the scenes preparing the way. I just have to do my part to make sure I don’t miss the signs and listen to what God is trying to tell me.
Interview with Brian Kiser: Brian played for the University of Louisville basketball team 1992-1996. Brian was known for his three point shot as well as being a strong Christian. After graduating he served on staff with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, using to the influence of sports to reach others for with the gospel.
1. How does an athlete balance being a follower of Christ and being devoted to his team?
Brian: Certainly following Christ will cause an athlete to be less selfish in his sport. He realizes that the purpose of competing is to bring God more glory, not himself. Therefore he will become more of a team player, less focused on individual success. He should be an encourager, truly making the game more enjoyable for everyone else.
2. Is it hard to be a player when so many fans are worshiping the team or you as a player?
Brian: All athletes receive some level of attention from fans, classmates, etc. The Christian athlete is creative and quick to find ways to divert that attention to Christ, who is worthy of all glory.
3. Was there ever a time that you had to make a choice between what God says in the Bible and what a coach or team wanted you to do?
Brian: No. During my entire career at UofL, my coach and teammates always respected me and my faith.
4. Do you have a story about how Christ used your platform as a basketball player to reach others with the Gospel?
Brian: About 10 years ago I had the opportunity to go to Lithuania with 6 other Christian coaches. We worked an elite basketball camp and were able to share the gospel with all of the players each day. There is probably no country in the world where basketball is more popular than Lithuania. What a privilege to eat meals with these young men, stay in the same dorms, trade t-shirts, and explain to them biblical salvation. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing the message.” Basketball gave us the opportunity to be heard.
For me personally, this is a kind of journey as I dive into what Christianity looks like in the realm of sports. I think Ted Kluck nailed it when he defined a Christian athlete as “someone who is walking in close communion with the Lord, spending time in the Word of God, repenting of and receiving freedom from sin and active in his/her local church.” I still have many, many more interviews to come. I hope you will continue with me as I journey into more on how Christ can and has impacted the world of sports.
By Jon Hancock