Friday, August 30, 2013

SportsCenter doesn't get it.

SportsCenter doesn’t get it. There may be no more powerful and influential force in sport, in the USA or even in the world, than ESPN and all its properties. They are ubiquitous in the world of sport and they set the tone for much of the other media in sport. They are usually at the leading edge of technology, they brand things very strongly and they sometimes determine what will be the topic of conversation at work, in the neighborhood or even at church. For those who live in the world of sport, their values are often askew from those held by participants in sport. SportsCenter appeals directly to fans, those who observe sport, not to competitors, those who live in sport. A few examples and their implications for us as we serve the men and women of sport follow.
·        Their intended audience is the sports fan, their aim is to entertain. The sportsperson’s intended audience is, ideally God, but many times the sport itself as it tests the competitor’s skill, discipline and fitness.
·        Their approach toward the player is that he or she is a commodity to be consumed. They will trade on the competitor’s name, image, likeness, profile in society, sexuality, weaknesses, or anything else which could generate controversy or a story which will drive ratings and profits.
·        They emphasize the individual over the team. Even in intrinsically team sports they will find ways to focus on one individual and pretend that his or her success is of greater import than that of the team. This is usually in direct opposition to the competitor’s attitude and is often divisive in locker rooms, changing rooms and clubhouses.
·        They search for and spew obscure statistics in order to generate contrived significance for plays, players, victories, or losses. They’ll say things like, “This was the first time in 45 years that a left handed, pitcher from Hoboken, New Jersey wearing number 23 on a blue jersey has thrown eight straight fastballs.” What they miss is that for the competitors, each play, each game, each season, and each career has significance all by itself because they are living in it. They don’t need to conjure up significance from some external source.
·        They value highlights over genuine success. I cannot count the number of instances in any given “Top Ten List” of highlights in which the highlight play comes in the middle of a game where the highlighted team actually loses. The monstrous, 450 foot home run from the highlight often comes in that team’s 8-1 loss. The powerful slam dunk and following posing for the camera is many times the sole bright spot in a popular team’s twenty point loss to their rivals. The men and women of sport have a better handle on what defines success in their sport, it’s not on the highlight reel, it’s on the scoreboard.
·        They show as many reactions to big plays as they show big plays. Watch any television sport show or promotional commercial this weekend. If you’ll look closely you’ll see a 1:1 ratio of plays and reactions to plays. A player will make a great play and it will be immediately followed by one or two reaction clips by the player, his teammates or even the fans. As I’ve thought about this it seems that it’s really clever. Television producers are clear about their audience, the fans. The vast majority of sports fans cannot personally relate to making the play as they lack the ability to do it, but they can all relate to the reaction shots. They can all do that. They will even mimic the reactions they saw the player make on the highlight as they chat around the coffee pot at work or in the foyer at church.
So what? Why is this important? Let’s keep in mind that the people of primary import for us are the players and coaches of sport. Rather than have our view of sport be unduly influenced by a decidedly fan oriented entity like ESPN or other sports media, let’s be sure our values for sport are more strongly oriented toward those of the actual sports community and the Lord Jesus. Be intentional about your consumption of sports periodicals of all sorts; video, television, websites, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and whatever comes next. Let’s listen to our Lord’s voice and those of the men and women we serve as we seek to represent each before the other as both prophets and priests in the world of sport. To do that faithfully will eclipse a whole millennium of “Top Ten Highlights.”

Friday, August 23, 2013

Comfort in Chaos

Below is a reflection from May of 2010 which is also included in the new book, Free to Compete – Reflections on Sport from a Christian Perspective. ( ISBN: 978-1-938254-15-4 paperback 176 pages) I hope it both challenges and encourages you as you serve the men and women of sport.

Comfort in Chaos

Our service of the people of sport is often mundane and slow.  There are hours of standing and watching a practice, long bus rides or plane flights to endure along with occasional doubts about the wisdom of such use of time.  At other times we’re in a vortex of noise, confusion, anxious personalities, screaming people and indecision.  To serve effectively we must find a way to be comfortable in such chaos.

We feel the chaos for a number of reasons, among them is the fact that we’re really not in control of most of the situations where we serve.  Someone else is running the practice, the competition, the emergency room, the surgery center, the coaches’ conference room or changing room.  The lack of control feels like chaos.

Another reason for our discomfort is that we’re seldom the center of attention.  If we’re Church leaders, we’re probably used to everyone following our lead and our agenda.  It feels chaotic when we’re not in charge of the timing of the team’s activities.  We have to become comfortable with that and simply fulfill our responsibilities.

The closer one is to the court, pitch, field or ground at the time of competition, the more the chaos is amplified.  While standing on the sideline of college football for 15 seasons has ruined me, I hate to watch games from the seats, it has made me progressively more comfortable with the rush of chaotic-feeling noise and activity which surrounds me and the team.

Let’s become comfortable with the chaos which accompanies our world of sport and simply relax.  Our relaxed attitude will make us more effective in service, more winsome in nature, and more intuitive in heart with those whom we serve.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Sport Chaplains’ Dirty Little Secret

Below is a reflection from December of 2009 which is also included in the new book, Free to Compete – Reflections on Sport from a Christian Perspective. ( ISBN: 978-1-938254-15-4 paperback 176 pages) I hope it both challenges and encourages you as you serve the men and women of sport.

The Sport Chaplains’ Dirty Little Secret

After many years of serving coaches and competitors in various sports and almost as many years of networking with sports chaplains and sport mentors around the USA and the world, I’ve become convinced that our dirty little secret is that many, if not most, of us are just as performance based in our sense of personal worth as those whom we serve in the world of sport.

We can all see how driven by their last performance our charges are in how they perceive their personal identity, even those who claim a relationship with Christ Jesus.  We all hear players say things like, “I’m 7 and 5.”  That is a direct statement of worth based on wins and losses.  They might protest when asked about that, but it’s still an indicator of what’s really important to them.  If we ask, “How are you doing?” many will reply by stating their team’s record or their personal statistics rather than anything deeper than their most recent results.  I usually get the same sorts of replies from coaches, administrators, fans and even sports chaplains.

For sports chaplains, we usually point to more “spiritual” results.  “85 players came to chapel today.”  “15 players committed their lives to Christ last week.”  “Our team has 80% of the players attending Bible study each week.”  “10 of the 12 coaches are in our weekly Coaches Bible studies.”  Honorable results all, but they must not become the basis for our identity or the defining marks of the validity of our ministries.  Would I be less valuable to God if 5 players attended chapel instead of 50?  Would Christ be less pleased with me if this year no one committed his life to Christ through my ministry?  Am I a failure if no one wants to start a Coaches Bible Study?  Is my identity tied directly to my performance of “spiritual tasks?”

Why is this important?  If I find my worth and identity in my performance, I will do whatever it takes to get to the desired results.  I’ll manipulate people to acquire the decisions which validate my ministry.  I’ll be sure to report the numbers which satisfy those who finance my ministry, even if they’re a little exaggerated.  I’ll choose programs over people, methods over relationships and masses over individuals because they provide the results which define my success and my worth.

If we are to have any hope of being agents of Christ’s transforming power in the lives of the people of sport, we must find our worth in our relationship with Him.  At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as He is being baptized by John in the Jordan River, He comes up from the water and hears a voice saying, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Mark 1:11)  To this point, Jesus had zero followers.  He had performed zero miracles.  He had healed zero people.  He had raised zero people from the dead.  He had accomplished nothing to earn His Father’s love and approval.  He is pleasing to God the Father because Jesus is His Son.  That’s all.  The relationship was the basis for God’s pleasure and approval.  Jesus was identified by His relationship with His Father, period.  That continued throughout His life on the earth and beyond.

This is pretty easy for me to see because it’s very easy for me to fall prey to such a performance based mentality.  It is a constant battle to check my attitudes, my values, my priorities, my methods and my relationships to see if they are reflective of a heart which finds its worth in relationship with Christ or if it seems driven by performance and easily defined results.  It’s very easy to find my emotions and perspective directly reflective of the most recent results of the teams I serve.  It is also very easy to find my sense of identity being tied directly to the success or failure of our ministry’s most recent events.  If you were honest, you’d probably confess the same.

So what shall we do?  Let’s regularly evaluate our ministries to see how clearly we communicate each one’s intrinsic worth to our loving Father.  Let’s be sure to lead others in ways which value relationships over results.  Let’s honor faithfulness over success.  Let’s guard our hearts from the insidious cancer of performance based worth and prefer to live in the freedom and security of knowing we’re well pleasing to God through our relationship with Christ Jesus.  Having such a secure basis for our own worth will leave us free to serve selflessly and to help others find their own freedom from the burdensome yoke of slavery to performance.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sport Culture

This month in the USA begins a new season of sport for those of us who work with school and club based teams. Coaches and competitors of all ages will be fully engaged in training, study and skill development. How fully engaged are we in the culture of sport? Below is a reflection from 2009 which is also included in the new book, Free to Compete – Reflections on Sport from a Christian Perspective. ( ISBN: 978-1-938254-15-4 paperback 176 pages) I hope it both challenges and encourages you as you serve the men and women of sport.

 Sport Culture – Live in It

How comfortably do you live in the culture of your sport?  Does it fit like a well-worn batting glove or more like a size eight shoe on your size twelve foot?  Do you find it relaxing or stressful?  Do you speak its language and enjoy its nuances of gesture and posture or do you seem like an outsider?  As you serve Christ in the world of sport, do you live in its culture and work to transform it or simply import Church culture into sport? 

Can you speak the language of baseball with baseball players or do you speak Evangelicalese in the dugout?  Do you find yourself at ease in the culture of football or do the footballers look at you like you don’t belong on the pitch?  Does the practice gym and all its sounds and smells seem pleasant to you or do they itch your soul like a bad sweater?

To import Church culture into the sport world is simpler, less costly and far less effective.  It’s easy to speak to players and coaches in the cloistered language of the Church, but it’s really hard to communicate deeply that way.  It’s simple to tell stories about church leaders from the 18th century or the high profile player you saw on television last weekend, but it’s much harder to listen intently and to watch closely the life of your team so as to speak their language and engage their hearts.  It’s quick, painless and trouble-free to tolerate the culture of sport in order to find a moment in which you can cram your canned presentation, it’s but much less effective than building the relationships which allow you to speak clearly to the hearts of those who trust you.

To live in the sport culture is to wear its kit, to speak its language, to read its periodicals, books, journals and to listen to its prophets.  The prophets of sport culture are most found in the newspapers, talk radio, sports magazines, on blogs or web sites.  Can you hear them?  Will you take the time to wrestle with the issues of daily life in sport?  Do you have an answer to their questions?  To live in the sport culture is to know its history, to respect its leaders and to relax in its sounds, sights, smells and emotions.

To be an agent of Christ’s transforming power in sport culture is to demonstrate God-honoring values and to love people extravagantly in the daily life of sport.  It’s simply insufficient to tell Sunday School stories, to repeat tired clichés and to recycle last month’s sermon for this week’s chapel talk.  If we speak of worship being something that happens exclusively within the walls of the church and exclude the activity of sport as an expression of genuine worship and praise to God, we miss our opportunity to help sports people experience real joy and fulfillment.

I would challenge you to do the same as many missionary leaders of past centuries and to take off the ill-fitting cultural trappings of the Church which only confuse and often repel those you seek to serve.  Then begin to live in the culture of the sport in which you serve while striving to communicate the love of God in relevant terms.  Above all, put on the character of Christ Jesus.  Such character is broader than any culture, adapts well to any situation and transforms hearts and minds by the application of Truth and extravagant love.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Year #20 begins

Yesterday, 1 August, 2013, began year number 20 of my employment with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Southern Illinois. Through those years we have seen a number of changes in the world of sport, in the world of sports ministry and in my personal life as well.
At home, my wife and I celebrated 20, 25, 30, and 35 year wedding anniversaries. Our son grew from high school kid to college student to graduate student to gainfully employed to husband to father. I started this role at 38 years old and am now 57. I have adjusted to people’s assumptions that I will want the senior citizen’s discount. My wife moved from the university administration offices into the football office 18 years ago and will now retire in December. I went from being the new guy on FCA’s staff to being one of the old heads.
Our local ministry has grown from part-time to full-time. It has been sustained with a low fund balance, has thrived with a strong balance, has drifted to dangerously low funding levels and back to a more stable foundation. We have had as few as one employee (me) to as many as three, and back to one again. Throughout these years the ministry’s breadth and depth has been carried by a wide network of volunteers in schools and in communities across our southernmost quarter of the state of Illinois.
FCA has changed in a number of ways a number of times. We have had several strategic changes; started, stopped and restarted our involvement in global sports ministry. We have made numerous changes to the ministry’s leadership structure and to our points of emphasis. We have successfully navigated the dot com boom and the 911 bust. We have dealt with good and bad economies. We have continued to have Sports Camps as the best, most effective method of ministry at our hand. We have dabbled in drug programs and other potentially distracting initiatives, but have kept the gospel, coaches and athletes as the central focus for our work.
The world of ministry in sport has changed as well. Maybe it’s simply my view of it that has changed. Prior to the late 1990s, all I could see was FCA and our US and global colleagues, Athletes in Action. I was vaguely aware of SRS Pro Sportler, but had no idea of the vast network of sports ministries represented in the International Sports Coalition. My friend and colleague, Lowrie McCown, introduced me to this marvelous team, invited me to the ACE Conference in Athens in 2003, and then asked me to be a part of the Serving the People of Sport Council in 2004. That invitation and the relationships made in these meetings have launched my service with people of sport into new, exciting, and challenging paths. I am immensely grateful to Lowrie and to all my SPS colleagues across the globe. Just since November of 2000, I have been privileged to travel to Greece, Italy (3 times), Thailand, Singapore (twice), Honduras (many times), Jamaica, Wales, Cuba (twice), and England. Wow, it’s been a remarkable for a guy from Carbondale.
One of the continuing issues to be considered among sports ministry leaders is the tension between ministry TO and ministry THROUGH sportspeople. As I have written elsewhere, a focus on ministry through sportspeople brings with it the potential to become manipulative and utilitarian toward the people of sport. If we are perceived as serving them so that they will help us accomplish our ministry goals, they will likely begin to avoid us or to simply comply with our requests out of duty, guilt or to avoid shame. Each of those will destroy the joy which normally accompanies Christian service.
Thanks to all my friends, colleagues, coaches, student-athletes, supporters, detractors, encouragers, and critics. You have each furthered the Lord Jesus’ purposes for my life over the last 19 years. I cannot wait to see what is in store for the next 20! Let’s get after it.