Every Friday in Church in the Wild, pastor Brad Williams addresses cultural issues that local churches are forced to deal with simply by virtue of existing in the world. 

I am a pastor in Alabama, and I graduated from the University of Alabama. I know about people taking sports a little too seriously. College football is the state passion, and either Auburn or Alabama have played in five of the last five BCS National Championship games. People in Alabama are crazy about their sports.

I know that this zeal for sport is similar across the states, and this devotion can prove challenging for the local church. The love of sport is beginning to crowd out church participation. Little League games are being played on Sunday, and if your church service has a Wednesday night service, odds are practice or games are going to be on that night as well. The temptation for pastors is to clamp down and try to squeeze out the competition, to try and make parents and students choose between sport and church, and to rail against seemingly misplaced sports-related excitement and label it idol worship.

“The problem isn’t that people love sports too much, but that they love them incorrectly.”But sports are a good gift. They teach teamwork, responsibility, and discipline. They teach us how to deal with triumph and with defeat. In this way, sports help us to mold our character. They give us a sense of community with others who went to our schools or appreciate our favorite sports team. Sports are fun. Cheering for our team is fun, and really loving our team is fun. I do not think that these virtues are in conflict with our love for Christ or how we serve the community as a church.

The emotions experienced during a football game are not comparable to the deep devotion we have to Christ. The church is a place of community, of fellowship, and of worship, and our worship does not have to look like our cheering does at a football game. Just because people are not outwardly displaying the same exuberance does not mean that their love of Christ isn’t deep and true. Most folks in our church do not make a habit of shouting for mom or dad when they do laundry or dishes, but I do not doubt their devotion to family because of this.

Even if some are guilty of sports idolatry, the common pastoral practice of making people feel a kind of nebulous guilt for being too enthusiastic about a sporting event and too little at a religious event is the absolute worst way to call it out. How much love for sport is too much love? Is it dressing in school colors on Saturday that puts us over the top? Arriving early? Tail gating with friends before and after the game?  The average person who hears this may walk away feeling ashamed that they love sports so much, but how does this help them to love Christ more? How will they know if they have crossed the line into some kind of Christian/sports love syncretism?

The local church pastor ought to stay far away from this approach. Instead, the pastor ought to be pointing out opportunities that sports provide an avenue into our community. I encourage the people at our church to coach little league sports if they have the time. Just this year, I received a desperate call from our local recreation center asking me to coach U6 girl’s basketball the day before the festivities began! I would be surprised if most local recreation centers were not also in constant need of help. Coaching sports is a wonderful way to mentor children, to teach Christian principles, and to get to know families in the community.

Yes, we may have a problem when people miss repeated services to attend sports events. Some painful decisions about whether or not Sunday can be missed for a game needs to be dealt with before the season begins. Yes, it may be the case that some people need to re-evaluate their priorities in life. But in the end, the problem isn’t that people love sports too much, but that they love them incorrectly. Let’s encourage one another to love sport for Christ’s sake, and open one another’s eyes to great number of good works we may do at our local recreation center with children’s sports by being good coaches, umpires, referees, or parents whose number one priority is not to win every game.