Sunday, Sports, and the Super Bowl: A Christian's Dilemma

Robert Wayne | Contributing Writer | Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sunday, Sports, and the Super Bowl: A Christian's Dilemma

This Sunday brings the annual advent of the Super Bowl, when friends and family gather to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers try to prove they deserve to be NFL champions.

Sunday also is the day thousands of children involved in youth sports will lace up their basketball shoes, soccer cleats and hockey skates for a day of athletic activity.

Something else happens on Sunday, too. What's it called again? Oh yes, church.

The proliferation of youth and adult sports leagues that play on Sundays creates a conflict of choice between heading to the game and heading to church. Increasingly, sports win that decision.

"It's a big issue, but the problem often is like the frog in the kettle," said John Tolson, a Christian author, speaker and teacher who also serves as the Dallas Cowboys' team chaplain. "You have a cool pot of water on the stove and at first it's fine, but you slowly turn up the heat and the frog gets fried. It's like that with (youth sports). After a while we begin to acquiesce and give in to the culture."

The conflict often leads to cries among secular society that church leaders are simply too legalistic in their approach. Tolson, however, thinks the root of the matter goes deeper than legalism.

"The issue is, ‘Who is the authority in my life?'" he said. "And, ‘Who is calling the shots?'"

Three years ago, that "who's in charge" question prompted one pastor and other members of the ecumenical churches of Hanover Township in New Jersey to stand against youth sports being played on Sundays. The group met with parents, coaches and sports league organizers in an attempt to solve the dilemma that played out each Sunday.

"We had kids coming in with their uniforms on so they could hit the doors running when church was over," said Don Mossa, who pastors the First Presbyterian Church of Whippany, located about 40 miles west of New York City. "We're not different than a lot of locations. We were hearing from parents whose desire was to get to church on Sunday, but sports programs were digging in against them. We were feeling it in the churches."

The churches also received mostly negative press from local media, Mossa said.

"It was that Hanover Township just wants to make sure the offering plates are filled," he said.

The pastors and sports groups eventually reached a compromise. The leagues agreed not to schedule games until at least 1 p.m. on Sundays.

"It's an ongoing thing, but we have a partial win for Christ," Mossa said, explaining that a youth football league outside of the township still has 10 a.m. kickoffs.

At Orange Friends Church in Lewis Center, Ohio, Pastor David Mabry faces the same cultural challenge.

"I remember growing up and the church would come together. There were no Wednesday night or Sunday practices," he said. "We're now in suburbia here and the demand and the market (for sports) drives it. Parents want their kids involved and it's a higher priority sometimes."

That's not to say Mabry opposes Sunday sports participation. His oldest son plays in a church basketball league on Sunday afternoons.

"Theologically, I'm all right with playing sports on Sunday," Mabry said. "I don't think the Bible condemns it, but I do think it's wrong when play takes precedent over worship - when it teaches kids the wrong priorities, that sports are first and church is second.

But does it send a mixed message when Sunday - the traditional Sabbath for Christians - becomes compartmentalized into segments of time reserved for church and sports? Mabry doesn't think so.

"The great (Old Testament) command is to keep the Sabbath holy," Mabry said. "Jesus corrected that a little bit. I would say the Bible allows rest through recreation and restoration. (For some people) working in the garden is restful. Jesus got on the Pharisees' case because they were too legalistic with it. He made the right statement that the Sabbath is there to serve man, not man to serve the Sabbath."

Jeremy Hudson, a youth pastor in Springfield, Ohio, takes that Scripture to heart. As a missionary kid growing up in Mexico, he and his father played basketball with the locals on Sundays, hoping to make relational connections that would lead to godly discussions.

"They would bring a cooler of beer, but we didn't drink," Hudson said. "We knew we were getting through when they began bringing the beer - and two bottles of Gatorade."

Tolson takes a similar tact. Although he would prefer that the NFL play on Saturday, he does not want to miss an opportunity to share Christ with Cowboys' players.

"The reason I work with these guys on Sunday is because I hope to make an impact," he said.

Tolson uses the movie Chariots of Fire to make a point.

"He (Eric Liddell) did not run on Sunday and was deeply committed to that, but I think it was out of his deep commitment to the Lord," Tolson said. "If the Lord had said to run, I think he would have."

Tolson acknowledges the possibility that the NFL has created some of the Sunday youth sports conflict by setting an example for impressionable young athletes - and their parents - to follow. How can playing on Sunday be wrong if the NFL does it?

"I can't quantify it, but my sense is there probably is some effect," he said. "Knowing the fanaticism around Dallas, and watching the kids, if a Cowboys player spits over his right shoulder then these kids will spit over their right shoulder."

At least one large Christian youth sports organization would prefer members avoid playing or practicing on Sunday, but takes no official position on the subject.

"Since we work through the churches, and churches have Sunday functions going on, it would be a conflict for everything they're trying to do," said Derek Parks, director of ministry development for Upward Sports. The organization oversees basketball, soccer, flag football and cheerleading leagues and camps for kids through sixth grade.

For Mossa, Mabry and Tolson, the church vs. sports debate doesn't have a simple answer. All of them, however, agree that the dilemma should force Christians to consider how they prioritize their faith.

"Part of a person's process of maturing in their faith is having teachers and preachers lovingly challenge them to examine their hearts," Tolson said. That includes the importance church members place on sports.

On Super Bowl Sunday, most Americans will be watching the game, and thousands of Christians will certainly be doing the same. Regardless of who takes home the Lombardi Trophy, Tolson's question remains: who's in charge of your life?