In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship (B&H 2016, $16.99), David E. Prince

My sports career flamed out in freshman year of high school, but playing football, basketball, and baseball as a teenager instilled a work ethic and discipline I may not have learned anywhere else. Playing sports also helped me deal with failure and disappointment (so has a lifetime of cheering on perennial losers), and my years warming the bench taught me not to yearn for recognition or depend on being the star player I never was.

The fact that I have benefited from playing sports and yet witnessed the perils of worshipping it as an idol makes me thankful for the wisdom and careful insight of David E. Prince in his latest book, In The Arena. Prince, assistant professor of Christian preaching at Southern Seminary and senior pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, draws from his personal experience playing sports and cultivating a love of competition in his eight children. Inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s classic quote from his “Citizenship in a Republic” speech — in which the president describes the valiant efforts of “the man who is actually in the arena” — Prince models a critical engagement with sports that promotes Christian discipleship and character.

“God kindly provides us the windows of smaller arenas where we can be challenged to demonstrate the virtues necessary for faithfulness in the ultimate venue of our lives before God, our Creator and Sustainer,” Prince writes. “Athletic competition provides practice games for life, whether experienced by participation or observation, but to benefit fully, we must be intentional about the lessons it can teach us.”

Among those issues is an understanding of sports fandom that, rather than demonizing those who rabidly cheer on their favorite teams, seeks to understand the cultural rootedness of particular sports and how Christians can engage and enlighten those identities with the gospel. In the book’s opening chapter, Prince also confronts those who dismiss sports with a surprising but convincing argument that athletic competition is an inevitable reaction to God’s creation.

“People created sports in response to the world God created. Sporting competition is capable of reflecting God’s creative glory and design in his image bearers, and thus presents an opportunity to celebrate our unique identity in God’s world,” Prince writes.

Prince also provides a helpful analysis on sports and spiritual warfare, demonstrating how athletes and fans can learn to endure trials and keep themselves from idolatry. But the most crucial chapter of the book, “Sports and Christian Discipleship,” explores how sports merely expose character and that parents must seize these revealing moments of competition for the purpose of building godly character.

“Whether we are protecting the Lord’s Day to prioritize worship with the local church, having conversations with our children to help them think rightly before and after competitions, or guiding them through the disappointment of bench-warming, Christian parents must lead with intentionality in every area of our children’s involvement in sports,” Prince writes.

In the chapter on discipleship, Prince provides a list of questions parents must ask their children before and after each game, and also instructs parents on how to be supportive during the game. His pastoral application in each chapter and his call for the churches to be strategic in their relationship to sports display a sincerity and thoughtfulness that no one has yet to apply to this realm of cultural awareness.