Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky
Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

The religion of sports


This week I had a chance to go to a baseball game in Baltimore with a couple of coworkers. Camden Yards is one of my favorite places to watch a game, so I was excited. Well, that, and my extreme enjoyment of baseball in general. So I was stunned to find out that one of my coworkers did not want to go. I thought: What is wrong with him? He must be dense in the head or emotionally broken or something. I reasoned, persuaded, argued, harassed, harangued, cajoled, and even threatened (mildly) to no avail. He simply doesn’t like sports.

I learned something about myself through this experience: I am a sports legalist. My way is right and everyone else is wrong. I tell people how they ought to act based on my own preferences and value structure. My standards vary to meet my preferences, and everyone else is beholden to them. And if you’re not with me, you’re against me!

On a larger scale, sports are very much like a religion to fans like me. We worship and study. We proselytize. We tell others how to act. We abide by a rhythmic calendar and a set of rituals. We seek to argue people into agreement with us and try to persuade them with everything from passion to statistics. And it pretty much never works. My efforts to make my coworker a follower of my “religion” were fruitless, and they were almost exactly like many evangelistic efforts.

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What I experienced pertained to faith and the Christian life as much as it did to sports fandom. Yes, it’s fine for people to not like sports. We can still be friends. But the larger lessons were about real religion, what we truly believe. Persuasion only works to a point; winning people is what matters. Winning doesn’t mean conquering in a contest of arguments or wills. If it did I would have convinced my coworker to come to the baseball game and I would have converted half my friends to be Minnesota fans. Winning means wooing.

We should invite, not harass. Instead of wearing our spite, anger, and incredulity (especially at unbelievers) on our sleeves, we would be better served by showing our enjoyment and passion. Happiness is magnetic; people want to go where the joy is, whether it’s in baseball or Jesus (and they’re not mutually exclusive). We would do well to ease off the declarations and diatribes and ramp up the displays of loyalty and enjoyment.

When I think of evangelism and Christian witness, too often what comes to mind is something akin to a sports bar argument or a fan chat-room brawl. Too often Christians see non-Christians as on an opposing team, as enemies instead of friends who believe differently. Instead of winning them we seek to defeat them. But if we want people to “come to the game” with us we need to be willing to let them walk away this time but not give up, and then to to attract them with passion and kindness.

Barnabas Piper
Barnabas Piper

Barnabas works for Lifeway Christian Resources and is the author of The Pastor’s Kid: Finding Your Own Faith and Identity and Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith. He and his wife live in the Nashville area with their two daughters. Follow Barnabas on Twitter @BarnabasPiper.


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