Friday, January 29, 2010

Onward Christian Athletes - Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of five articles related to the recently released book, “Onward Christian Athletes – Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers.” It is written by Tom Krattenmaker and published by Rowman and Littlefield. I have read and re-read the book in order to learn what I can from its pages. I would recommend that you buy a copy and read it yourself. This week’s notes will deal with chapters 9 and 10.

Chapter 9 – A Match Made in Heaven-or Hell / The Dissonance between the Values of Jesus and the Values of Big-Time Sports
Chapter 10 – The Salvation of Sports: “Getting it Right” in an Emerging New Era of Faith in Sports

In chapter 9 the author questions the integrity of Christian sports people, points to instances of dissonance between what he sees as the values of Christ as expressed in the Scriptures and the values of Sport (primarily professional sport). He questions the fairness of certain practices in sport as practiced by Christians and points to instances like the University of Colorado’s “fifth down” situation in a win over the University of Missouri.

The author questions the appropriateness of Sunday play and they way the Church in the USA has grabbed such events as the Super Bowl for evangelistic outreaches.

The disconnect between values like grace and mercy as expressed in the Bible are contrasted with ideas like “killer instinct” which are both extolled by Christian athletes and coaches at the same time.

The author rightly points to the general culture of sport and its clash with Christian ethics when the sport culture says things like, “It’s only cheating if you get caught.” He is right that we in sports ministry are far too silent on such issues. He also takes us to task for what he calls the inconsistency between Jesus’ way of non-violence and our love of violent sports like American football. He mentioned particular players from past and recent years who were outspoken Christians, but were also labeled by their peers as among the game’s dirtiest and most dangerous players. “Those keen on leveraging Jesus-professing players for the advancement of evangelical faith have to cringe when one of their vanguard is named the league’s dirtiest player.” He’s right, I do cringe when our compartmentalization of faith and sport leads to such a lack of integrity.

The author sees inconsistency between the values held by Christian athletes and sports ministries and their association with professional sports organizations and the sponsors of television commercials, in stadium promotions, etc… He thinks the Church is at best naïve in its setting their Super Bowl outreaches right alongside the beer,, erectile dysfunction and other such ads which would seem to be directly opposite to the Church’s values. I think this opinion is foolish at best. The players and coaches don’t make the decisions about who sponsors this week’s television coverage of their games. I suppose the author would prefer the Church stay meekly in its place, the cloistered and safe environment of its own building rather than share its message in the public arena.

In another section, the author quotes one academic about the role of the sports chaplain and its similarity to a military chaplain, “Their role is not to question the war but to help the soldiers adapt to the war that they inevitably must fight. From the organization’s standpoint the chaplain’s job is to help athletes adapt to the pressures, ethos and values that are presented to them on a daily basis – not to challenge them. You can’t have soldiers question the value of the war. And you can’t have an athlete, with the help of his team chaplain, challenge values of athletics.” I respectfully disagree with this view on a number of levels. Primarily, if we are to be of real value to the sport community, we must be God’s representatives in it and not just stand outside barking at it. If we lovingly embrace the sports world we can, and should, shape its ethics and values. Our lives of faith, as informed by the Scriptures, should have a redemptive and transformational effect upon the culture of sport. To do so will require more than using sport as a platform for shouting clichés.

The author quotes another religion-in-sports scholar and critic as saying, “You can’t imagine Jesus up in a box seat. You can’t do it.” The scholar thinks Jesus would be somewhere outside the stadium, in a bad part of town, mingling with the outcasts, passing out food to the poor. Wow, that kind of babble may work in academia, but in the real world Jesus is present in the box seats, in the luxury boxes (of which the author either seems to loathe or be envious), in the bad part of town passing out food and even on the pitch with the players, officials and coaches. Such attempts to minimize sport as unimportant or the exclusive province of the elite are foolish and counterproductive to the conversation.

The author speaks of the often divisive results of evangelism in the world of sport. Whether in the clubhouse among teammates or in the stadium with fans at a “Faith Day” the author sees the process of evangelism as a force for division in communities. In some instances, I’m sure he’s correct. That will largely depend upon the people who are doing it and how they go about it.

I chapter 10 the author presumptuously makes his suggestion for the right way to handle matters of faith and sport. He titles his ideas as “The Salvation of Sports” and tells us how to “Get it Right.”

His ideas fall into two primary areas:
· Pluralism – open the doors widely to everyone of every faith. Form a Fellowship of Religious Athletes. The author falls into the same trap as most other secularists or pluralists by misunderstanding people of genuine faith. We have a belief in a particular faith, not in a cosmic other under which all the religions fly their own flags. This notion is noble at best and foolish at worst.
· Address the real issues in sport – racism, performance enhancing drugs, violence, sexism, the “win at all cost” ethic, cheating, etc… The author’s impression is that those in sports ministry have nothing to say about these matters because he doesn’t read about them in the paper or hear them quoted on radio or television. He misunderstands that many of us are addressing these issues directly, but are doing so from within the sports community rather than in the public arena. We’re working to effect change from within, rather than in the media.

In summary, “Onward Christian Athletes” is a book which challenges many of the presuppositions and practices of the Evangelical Sports Ministry community. The author boldly asks a number of questions which most of us would not ask ourselves or our peers in ministry. For this I am thankful. After reading the book thoroughly twice and then reviewing each chapter again for the purpose of writing this review, I have both affirmed some of my strategies and methods and I have evaluated and modified others. I trust that will be true of many of us who are highly committed to honoring Christ Jesus in the world of sport, as we lovingly serve those who compete in it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Onward Christian Athletes - Part 4

Partners in Ministry,

This is the fourth in a series of five articles related to the recently released book, “Onward Christian Athletes – Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers.” It is written by Tom Krattenmaker and published by Rowman and Littlefield. I have read and re-read the book in order to learn what I can from its pages. I would recommend that you buy a copy and read it yourself. This week’s notes will deal with chapters 7 and 8.

Chapter 7 – For God, Country, and the Republican Party: The Conservative Politics of Jesus’ Pro Sports Warriors
Chapter 8 – Domesticated Christianity: The Political Acquiescence of African American Christians in Sports

In these two chapters the author writes almost exclusively about political issues and the alignment he sees between Evangelical Christian sports people and Conservative Republican politics. He speaks in politically correct tones about the issue of homosexuality in the sports world as raised by Nebraska Football Coach Ron Brown in “Sharing the Victory” magazine. While many of us deal with the issue in private ways, Coach Brown is one of the very few to address it in a public forum, thus drawing the author’s scrutiny and enflaming some opinions.

Like most who claim political correctness as the central tenet of their secular faith, the author calls for tolerance toward every opinion and every lifestyle. Evangelical Christians tend to value love over tolerance and such love leads us to challenge and correct certain behaviors which God condemns and are often harmful to those practicing them. Tolerance is too easy, too benign and too indifferent given Christ’s command to love Him and to love each other.

The author again sees direct correlation between the matters which Evangelical Sports Ministries report and the results which best motivate their donors. Again I would say that in many cases he is right. We often report matters which are incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to measure. For example – if the potential donor is most concerned about salvations among sports people, the author believes that sports ministries will report, and by inference embellish, their ministry’s results in evangelistic presentations. His indictment is that we simply market our ministries to donors by telling them what they want to hear. We must be clear in our motives and reflect Christ-honoring integrity in how we report the results of our ministry. I have personally been uncomfortable for years in reporting numbers “reached,” a terribly vague statistic. It’s one thing to report how many people checked a box re: making a decision to trust Christ and it’s quite another to report how many committed their lives to Jesus. That may be better reported after years of observing of a transformed life.

The author quotes John White (former Athletes In Action staffer) and his estimate that 90% of AIA and Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff people favor the Republican Party. While John is intelligent and insightful, this is purely his opinion with no basis in fact and quoting him just to make a point is presumptuous of the author.

The author goes on to list, by name, a number of sports ministry leaders, who have direct ties to political issues and to people who represent political causes. He points to these causes being exclusively associated with the Conservative wing of the Republican Party. He also lists foundations and other donors who generously support both sports ministries and political causes. What the author sees as nefarious association or even conspiracy, the sports ministries see as alignment of values between themselves and the donors.

The author strongly indicts prominent Christian African American sports figures for abandoning their brothers and sisters as they choose to represent Christ Jesus in public rather than to appeal for issues like racial equality in the sports world and beyond. He implies that these players and coaches have sold out in their adoption of the Conservative Christian political agenda. In his chapter heading, “Domesticated Christianity: The Political Acquiescence of African American Christians in Sports” he stops just short of calling these people house n------s. I was offended at his assertions because I know a number of the people he mentions, some listed by name, and have observed their character and convictions.

The author claims that sports ministries have failed to adequately address racism within and without the world of sport. I would say that he is right. Especially if one measures as the author does, by what is discussed in the public arena. Many of us work on this issue in our own local ministries, in our communities and in concert with others around the country. These efforts seldom make the newspapers or television broadcasts because we are not seeking the media spotlight. Consequently, most of those outside the sports community, like the author don’t know it’s even happening. I personally prefer this more direct and humble way to the self-serving, media driven way which is the province of the author.

In one section the author quotes a university professor’s indictment of white Pentecostal preachers and what he referred to as “Word Churches.” The author mistakenly thinks that “Word Church” refers to all churches who hold tightly to the authority of Scripture. That phrase actually refers to a narrow section of Evangelical Christianity which believes that our words have creative power similar to that with which Christ spoke all of Creation into existence. The author’s ignorance of Christian culture is obvious here and it assaults the credibility of his argument.

The author strongly condemns Coach Tony Dungy (formerly of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts) for speaking at an Indiana Family Rally. He says that his presence alone was an endorsement of all that the organization believes. A number of the issues of import to the author were on the wrong side of a politically correct world view and he implies that Coach Dungy was either inattentive to the issues, foolish for his being there or simply a puppet of the politically powerful.

Finally, the author says that many African American coaches and players have eschewed their blackness in order to gain the favor of powerful white men. He says that they have been domesticated by adopting the values and politics of the Evangelical Christians. He is accusing them of abandoning their race in the pursuit of fame, riches and social standing. By joining “The Lord’s side,” as described by Coach Dungy, the author says they have in effect left their brothers’ side. If find this assertion utterly repulsive and insulting to the African American men and women I have known and with whom I have worked.

In summary, I found it difficult and even distasteful to review these two chapters. However, we must have the courage and wisdom to hear our detractors and to learn from their observations, even if sometimes misunderstanding or poorly informed. Let’s resolve to consider these matters, to evaluate and to either adjust or affirm our ways to most accurately reflect the ways of the Lord we love. Let’s not be pushed around by the capricious ways of the general culture or its barking dog, mass media.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Onward Christian Athletes - Part 3

This is the third in a series of five articles related to the recently released book, “Onward Christian Athletes – Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers.” It is written by Tom Krattenmaker and published by Rowman and Littlefield. I have read and re-read the book in order to learn what I can from its pages. I would recommend that you buy a copy and read it yourself. This week’s notes will deal with chapters 3 and 4.

Chapter 3 – Faith Coach: Discipling Athletes for a Roster Spot on God’s Team
Chapter 4 – Winning for Jesus (But Finding Him in the Loss Column): The Tricky Relationship between Evangelism and Sports Success

In chapter 3 the author finds if offensive that the sports chaplains associated with professional sports teams are exclusively Evangelical Christians. He does acknowledge that they are the ones who have voluntarily served and invested themselves for years. He seems to indict those outside Evangelical Christendom for not showing up.

Sadly, the author only sees the “Sports Evangelism” model of ministry in sport. This model is most easily seen to the casual observer as it often works to capitalize on the media and its obsession with high profile sports people. He believes, sometimes correctly, that the “Faith Coach” or “Team Chaplain” is single-mindedly focused on discipling athletes for the purpose of public proclamation of the Gospel. He does not seem to be even aware of the other models of ministry in sport which operate outside the media spotlight.

The author points out what appear to him to be even more political ties between Evangelical sports ministries and the Christian right wing of the Republican Party. While most of those I know in sports ministry are not politically active, he sees these people as political pawns unwittingly using their popularity to promote the causes of the wealthy and powerful who fund their ministries and represent causes which they support.

He takes the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to task when he says, “FCA is largely silent on big issues in sport.” He points to racism, performance enhancing drugs, player safety, coaching ethics, sexism, etc… Given that he measures all things by national media exposure, I’d have to say he’s right. FCA does not publish widely about these matters, rather certain members of our staff and others in our network are working to be influential and to effect change related to these issues from within sport, rather than from outside it like a journalist.

The author quotes some of sports ministry’s critics when they reference the “lack of theological heft” in our work and communication. On this matter I believe he’s right. We are much too willing to have our expressions of Biblical truth displayed on a football player’s eye black, in a 6 second sound bite on the 6:00 news, a trite phrase or cliché scribbled on one’s shoes or other “bumper sticker” proclamation. We can do better than we have on this front.

The author is more than a little presumptuous in his call for a prophetic message. If he supposes to be the prophet, he’s way out of line. If he means to provoke a prophet from within the sports ministry community, he may get more than he can handle.

The author says, “American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed.” He is absolutely right in this assertion. Much of the ethic which rules sports ministry places more value on winning contests, national rankings and the elevated profile of the Christian sportspeople than it does the more Biblical values of faithfulness, loyalty and commitment. He points out the Faith = Winning ethic in Christian sports ministry. He infers that Christian sports ministry’s message is that if one trusts Jesus, he or she will be more successful in sport. While this cannot be said of the entirety of our ministries, I know it to be true of some, either explicitly said or implied. Conversely, this same way of thinking leads us to believe that the Gospel has more power if it’s spoken by players who compete for the national championship team over against the bottom feeders of the sports world.

The author quotes a number of articles from sports ministry periodicals which detailed the growing numbers of players attending Bible studies and team chapels as their team was winning, but failed to mention anything about the decline once the team was losing. He quotes one such magazine which said, “The Lions were playing together because they were praying together,” implying their success was due to their attendance at the Bible studies and their conversions to Christ. He questioned the propriety of the reporting of players “getting saved” and other matters in the national media. I would agree with him. Matters related to private meetings should remain private. Public meetings are another matter entirely. Often times immature, zealous, enthusiastic, young Christians share information which we should be wise enough to protect from public scrutiny.

Probably the most painful parts of this whole book to read were the sections which quoted Reggie White (former NFL defensive lineman) in the last months before his tragic death. Simply said, Reggie believed that many people in sports ministry had “prostituted him” for the Gospel and for fund raising efforts. I am afraid that he may be right. That would certainly not be true of everyone with whom Reggie worked, but it could certainly be true of some of us. In our zeal to accomplish our mission, we could certainly be guilty of a utilitarian attitude toward sport and sadly even toward athletes and coaches. This has prompted me to carefully evaluate my practices and to confess and repent of such harmful attitudes when I find them in myself.

Hang on. There are two more weeks of these notes to endure. I pray that we can stand the bright lights of careful evaluation and I trust that we will emerge from the testing better equipped, purged of some unneeded baggage and ready to faithfully embrace the world of sport with a redemptive message and a loving heart.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Onward Christian Athletes - part 2

This is the second in a series of five articles related to the recently released book, “Onward Christian Athletes – Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers.” It is written by Tom Krattenmaker and published by Rowman and Littlefield. I have read and re-read the book in order to learn what I can from its pages. I would recommend that you buy a copy and read it yourself. This week’s notes will deal with chapters 1 and 2.

Chapter 1 – “On Any Justice Sunday: Evangelicals, Pro Sports, and the (Conservative) Campaign for Jesus”
Chapter 2 – “A Cross on the Logo: Representing for God in the High-Profile World of Major League Sports”

In these two chapters the author takes issue with the link he sees between Evangelical Sports ministries and the “Christian Right” of the Republican Party in the USA. He spends all of chapter 1 in making his point and the theme continues throughout the rest of the book. He has done his homework and draws clear lines of connection between ministry personnel (several mentioned by name), conservative political organizations and those whose wealth funds both.

In chapter 2, he makes many comments about the ways in which high-profile Christian athletes express their faith in public. He takes issue with such proclamations being made in public and with a number of these statements and their lack of depth or understanding of Biblical values. In many cases, he’s right. Too often we in sports ministry shove immature Christian athletes into the public spotlight only to be embarrassed by their immature statements. That is our fault. He mentions language like, “God just took control of my body.” “The Lord took over the game tonight.” Philippians 4:13 written on players’ eye black, a poor application of this scripture, and other immature expressions are placed under the author’s microscope.

In another section, religion is likened to superstition. In many cases I would say he is right again. Too often the chaplain’s prayer, the recitation of “the Lord’s Prayer,” writing scripture on one’s shoes, getting scripture reference tattoos, etc. is little more than a superstitious appeal for God’s favor and a guarantee of success. Many immature Christian athletes treat their faith like a good luck charm. This is to our shame.

Lastly and maybe most sadly, the author seems to find fault with an integrated approach to faith and sport. He sees it as a weakness in the Evangelical mind that our faith would permeate every facet of our lives. He rather seems to recommend compartmentalization. He would prefer that the Christian athlete leave his faith in the locker room or better yet, leave it at church. Be an athlete on the field of competition and a Christian at church. I would contend that this dualistic, compartmentalized approach is exactly what leads to much of our inconsistency and the sad lack of integrity in the lives of Christian sportspeople.

I pray that we will have the courage to look these criticisms directly in the eye, prayerfully consider them and then either affirm the methods and values which stand the test or modify our approach so as to be most faithful to the enduring wisdom of biblical truth.