On sports and the Christian life: An interview with David Prince, part 1
We are called to fight against sin as good soldiers of Christ Jesus who proclaim the gospel no matter the cost. Sports expose character, and for those willing to be intentional about using that fact to biblically form character, it provides a great training ground.
You have extensive background in sports from playing to coaching and everything in between. Tell me a little about your passion for sports.
My father was teaching me about sports before I could walk. One photo of me as an infant has a baseball right beside me in the crib. My parents bought the house in which I was raised partly because it was across the street from baseball fields, a football field, and a basketball court. I am thankful athletic competition has always been a part of my life.
The smaller sporting arenas of my childhood and young adulthood will always be sacred places to me. I rarely travel to my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama without driving by Joe Marshall Baseball Field where I played baseball as a child, the East YMCA where I played football and basketball, Patterson Field where I played high school baseball, and Huntington College where I played college baseball.
Recently, one of my middle school coaches read my new book, In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship, and he decided to go to my youth, high school, and college baseball field and send me a little container of dirt from each of the infields. What a gift. Those will always be sacred places to me. After playing baseball in college the most natural thing for me was to become a High School coach and after I became a pastor and professor I have been coaching my eight children.
I cannot explain who I am as a husband, father, pastor, professor, or friend without reference to sports, which have always been a part of my life. Nor would I want to do so.
Your new book, In the Arena, is about sports and Christian discipleship. What does sports have to do with making disciples?
The Christian life is spiritual warfare. Thus, it is not surprising that the Bible seizes both military warfare and sports competition as analogies for Christian living. Think about the shared language: blitz, bomb, blown away, formation, trenches, neutral zone, red zone, offense, defense, attack, press, assault, battle, battle-plan, field general, no man’s land, battle-tested, and so on. Anyone who listens to sporting figures, analysts, and commentators knows that the language of athletic competition and the language of military combat is a shared vocabulary.
There is a sense in which all athletic competition is an artificially designed mock battle. Of course, there is a danger in the co-mingling of sports and warfare language. Actual warfare is horrific, and in comparison, sporting battle is merely trivial. Nonetheless, when kept in proper perspective, the shared language can be helpful for the Christian since the biblical storyline is a story of spiritual war. We are called to fight against sin as good soldiers of Christ Jesus who proclaim the gospel no matter the cost. Sports expose character, and for those willing to be intentional about using that fact to biblically form character, it provides a great training ground.
Consider the New Testament language related to sports. The word “athlete” comes from the Greek word athleo, which means to compete (2 Tim 2:5). Our word “agony” comes from the Greek word agon, which means fight, struggle, or conflict (Phil 1:30; Col 2:1; 1 Thess 2:2; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7, Heb 12:1) and related to agon is the Greek word agonizomai, means to fight or strive against (Luke 13:24; John 18:36; 1 Cor 9:25, Col 1:29; 4:12; 1 Tim 4:10; 6:12; 2 Ti 4:7). “Gymnasium,” comes to us from the Greek word gymnasia, which means exercise or training for competition (1 Cor. 9:24–27; Gal. 2:2; 5:7; Phil. 1:30; 2:16). According to Paul, if athletes agonize to fulfill determined temporal goals, how much more should he and others agonize in gospel ministry (1 Cor 9:24-27, Eph 6:12, Heb 12:1-2, 1 Tim 4:8, 2 Tim 2:5)?
How has knowing sports so well helped you in pastoral ministry?
After decades serving in ministry, there is rarely a day that goes by that I do not reflect on how thankful I am for the training I have received for pastoral ministry. I am thankful for the Christian mentors I have had, the Seminary training I have experienced, but for the day-to-day grind of pastoral leadership and decision making as a shepherd of a local church the lessons I have learned through sports about leadership, courage, running a program, building team chemistry, communicating a big picture vision, teaching fundamentals, handling criticism, discipline, motivation, and inspiration have been most significant.
There are some important and practical leadership lessons that are best learned in the hot sun and heat of conflict among those who care more about the goal that brought the team together than any individual’s feelings. I, and countless others, have been shaped for the good of the church by our sports experiences. I hope to help people like me to be more intentional about leveraging those lessons for the benefit of Christ and his church. All athletic competition demands a measure of courage. The possibility of failure is ever present, but in the face of it, the coach, athlete, or team must persist. The persevering courage in the face of failure and criticism that we often find in the pursuit of temporal championships in sporting competition should both challenge and encourage us as we pursue what is eternal.
Would you advise a young pastor who perhaps isn’t as big a fan to become acquainted with sports as an entry point into conversations with unbelievers and also church members?
Absolutely. When I teach at conferences and seminars about a proper Christian engagement with sports, I usually began by asking some questions. First, I ask people to raise their hands if they have ever served in the military. Then, I ask the attendees to raise their hand if they have ever made a living as a farmer. Finally, I asked those in attendance to raise their hands if they have ever competed in athletics and consistently watch sports. Every time I have done this only a few people raise their hands in response to the first two questions, but almost every single hand is raised for those who have competed in athletics.
Soldier, athlete, and farmer as the three key metaphors in the Bible for what it means to walk with God. In Paul mentions all three and then says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7). It would seem imperative for us that since most Christians with whom we minister only have a personal point of contact with one of those metaphors, it would serve us well to have a biblically informed understanding of athletics and competition and leverage it for the sake of the gospel. Paul does not consider thinking through the relationship of sports to our Christian life an insignificant matter.
David E. Prince is assistant professor of preaching at Southern Seminary and is pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. This article originally appeared on his blog, Prince on Preaching.