It’s happened to all of us. Maybe we did it ourselves. Maybe we overheard someone else do it. Or perhaps we were the minister to whom it was done.
“Preacher, you gotta wrap this up early today. The game comes on when church lets out!”
It’s a proven fact that on game day, the pews are a little emptier than they normally are. That holds true even if the game begins well after church, as many people will skip or leave early in order to get their “let’s watch the game” party together (especially during tournament times like March Madness or the Superbowl). When it comes to queso or the cross, it seems chips-and-dip often wins. Then there’s the area of children’s sports. Many children’s leagues have claimed the times ordinarily reserved specifically for the church, and now, instead of bringing them to worship or to youth group, parents drive their kids to Wednesday evening practices and Sunday morning and afternoon games. Occasionally they protest the team is taking time away from church, but I have yet to hear a protesting parent who was seriously considering finding another activity for their child which didn’t require those specific time commitments.
Sports is easily the most culturally accepted idol of our age (although the twin idols of “self” and “humanism” seem to be giving it a run for its money). It’s thought that some 96% of people have some sort of connection to sports, whether it’s playing on a team, supporting friends or family on a team, or simply being the people who, rain or shine, root, root, root for the home team. (And if they don’t win, it really is a shame.) Regularly-scheduled television programs get moved or booted off the air to allow viewers to watch the games. Ticket prices to get into arenas and stadiums can fetch upwards of thousands of dollars. Athletes themselves rake in tens of millions of dollars each year to play their games and compete in their events. After all, in a culture of bread and circuses, we must have our circuses.
This is not to say, however, sports are somehow inherently evil. They’re not. Many young women and young men have found families in their teams. They’ve been molded by coaches who poured into their lives as no one else ever could. They learned the value of teamwork and hard work and working for something they truly want. Citizenship, a regard for the rules, humility and grace in the face of defeat, all of these things are taught by sports. All of these things help grow individuals and make them into solid, responsible human beings.
The problem only comes when we keep things out of balance, as our culture seems to do when it comes to sports. As much as I love Kentucky, and as much as I cheer for the Wildcats (which is far less than the average UK fan, I must admit), I will forever be outraged and ashamed at the riots which take place during the NCAA tournament when the Cats lose . . . and when they win. I’ll never understand the level of fanaticism which requires the villainization of fans of other teams or which mandates the victimizing of hapless bystanders. Things are not as they should be.
When I personally refer to “The Big Ten,” I mean the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments (not the athletic conference). The first of the Big Ten is, quite simply, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In its original ancient context, it meant that literally. There were many other gods on the market, and the Israelites knew about them: Ba’al, Molech, Chemosh, Tiamat, Astarte, Marduk, Isis, Thoth, Ra, Osiris, you name it. To have no other gods before YHWH meant to worship no other gods, period. This was a jealous God who demanded absolute loyalty and who would never be satisfied with “You can worship me and some other deity, too.”
I said that’s what it meant in the original context, but it still means that today, too. Other gods still vie for the worship of mortals, including those I listed. Personally, I think those other gods are demons masquerading as something worthy of worship — they just happen to succeed on occasion. Think about the upswing in paganism in places like Greece, Iceland, and the U.K. Those other gods still want to be worshiped. In our contemporary context, though, we also seem to have an overabundance of other things trying to play at being gods: beauty, wealth, fame, status, sex, career, family . . . sports.
When you decide to go to a game and not to church, you’ve put your sports ahead of your God. When you think the pastor should let you go early because you have a game to watch, you’ve put your sports ahead of your God. When you teach your children to never miss church unless they have a game or a practice session, you’ve put your sports ahead of your God. Or perhaps I should say you’ve made your sports your god. Go out, play ball, enjoy the game. Really. But do it in a way that keeps it in its proper place. Don’t turn the tournament trophy or the star quarterback into an idol. Don’t let your team become your pantheon. Worship your God with your heart, soul, mind, strength — and your money, your priorities, and your time.
You can always record a game, but you should never put something else before God.