The Idol of Youth Sports

 

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I fear that sports in general might be the defining idol of our culture. We find community with the same people who root for our team instead of our church family. We find joy in attending the game instead of attending church. We clothe ourselves with sports gear instead of the righteousness of Christ. By our time and actions we declare what is really important to us. Where you spend your time and money are greater indicators of what you value, what you love, and what you worship than what you say.

Not all passionate sports fans are immersed in idolatry. I am a diehard fan of the Chicago Cubs and the University of Kentucky Wildcats. I own jerseys, I watch the games, and I tweet at the players. Sports are not evil, but the very second that they become the object of our love, they transition from a gift of God into an enemy of God, an idol.

Sports dominate so much of our lives. And as a youth pastor one of the things that I have seen plague the lives of my students is the idol of sports. I slipped into it when I was in high school. It becomes very difficult not to because of the demands that sports and coaches put on their players from a very young age.

The Bible speaks a great deal about idolatry. Throughout the Old Testament we see that idols are manmade things that people create for themselves to worship. In some cases, the idolaters simply continue in the ways of their fathers, having never learned how to cast down idols. In Leviticus 19 and all throughout the Bible we are commanded to worship God and God alone. He is a jealous God and he will share us with nothing else. He alone is worthy of our love and praise. God does not respond well to idolatry in our lives. In Judges 10:13-14 God declares, “Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul warns the church to flee idolatry, saying that we cannot share fellowship with both God and idols. There is only room at God’s table for those who worship him alone. We cannot allow idols space in our lives, or the consequences will be severe.

In light of these realities and what Scripture has to say about idolatry, here are a few pleas that I have of kids, parents, and churches to help tear down this idol.

Parents, please don’t let your kids play sports on Sunday morning…ever.

There is no reason to miss church on Sunday mornings for sports with any kind of regularity, especially for kids. Kids need to be taught that nothing comes before their relationship with God. Adults may be able to worship elsewhere or even claim that they are being missionaries on Sunday morning to those at the ball field or in the gym, but kids are rarely mature enough to do the same.

Sunday morning is time set aside to worship God as a community of believers. Being missionaries to team parents is important. Worshipping God at the field or in the gym is important. But the time for that is the other 165 hours of the week. On Sunday mornings, there is no more important place to be than with the body of Christ worshipping our God, declaring to our coaches and teammates and their parents that we value God and church more than we value sports.

Parents, please build it in to your kid’s minds and hearts that their relationship with God cannot be so easily disconnected from their presence at church. Please build it into your kids minds that no baseball game, no volleyball game, no football game of any kind is more important than time spent with your local congregation praising God and hearing from his word. Please don’t let your kids skip church to play in a little league game.

Will there be consequences? Yes. Your kid might play less. They might warm the bench. Their coach and team might be disappointed in them. If that is something that you are not willing to endure, then you really might just love sports more than God. That temporary suffering of being benched or cut from the team is nothing compared to eternal weight of glory that is to come for unwavering commitment to loving God alone and tearing down idols in our lives. And it is nothing compared to the value of teaching your kids that God alone is God and that He is more important than anything else.

Kids, please be strong enough to tell your coaches at the beginning of your season that God and church are more important to you than your sport.

I know it’s hard. As soon as I entered the world of AAU basketball, my incredible parents taught me to tell my coaches right after I made the team (sometimes even before) that I would not be playing or practicing on Sunday. They made me tell my coaches that God and church were more important to me than basketball and that if it came down to it, I would choose God and church ahead of basketball.

I hated that at the time. Not because I disagreed but because I feared being benched or judged by my teammates who were sold out for the sport. But my parents taught me that it was more important to be sold out for Christ (and to make that known to coaches and teammates) than to be sold out for a sport.

Kids, I know it is hard. I know you might lose your starting spot. I know you might get cut. But please be strong enough, bold enough, and in love with God enough to tell your coaches that your sport is not the most important thing to you. The longest you’ll be playing organized team sports is through college, if you’re lucky. Sports don’t last. Athletic abilities don’t last. I’m only 26 and I can testify to that. But your relationship with God will last for all of eternity. I know it may not seem like it now, but sports are so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. They are so much less important than being at church, worshipping God and learning more about who he is. Kids, please take the incredible leap of faith and tell your coaches that God is more important to you than your sport.

Churches, please preach about idolatry.

We need to talk about idolatry. We need to preach about idolatry. Our idols in America aren’t so much statues and carved images – they are more hidden and less obvious than that. They are sports, they are musicians, they are self-image, they are Netflix and movies, they are money and clothes, they are so many things – anything that we worship other than God. You don’t have to physically bow down to something and pray to it for it to be an idol. You need only declare with your heart, actions, time, and money that that thing is more important to you than God.

We must preach about idolatry. We must teach through the many Old Testament passages and we must preach through passages like 1 Corinthians 10. We must flee idolatry and teach our congregations and kids how to flee idolatry. Idolatry always has been and always will be something that poisons our spiritual lives. Churches, please preach about idolatry.

All, please understand the severity of idolatry and the reality that kids sports is an idol and can contribute to spiritual destruction.

You need only read through 1 Corinthians 10 to see a powerful picture of how severe the consequences of idolatry are. Paul says that we cannot love both God and idols. We cannot serve both God and sports. We must choose to love, adore, obey, and serve God alone. Our idols have no power to save us. The idolatry of youth sports is very real and so are the consequences. None of the physical or social benefits of team sports outweigh the spiritual benefits of church attendance. Sports, more than anything I have seen in my time as a student and as a student pastor, have contributed to the spiritual decline and destruction of the hearts of kids. And not only kids, but their parents. Be on your guard. Examine yourselves and your lives and be willing to make drastic changes in order to avoid the spiritual destruction that can arise from the idolatry of youth sports.

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When it comes down to it, this is something each family and each student must decide for themselves. You alone know your heart. You alone know your families and what is best for them. But please do not take lightly just how dangerous this idol can be in the lives of young kids, youth group age kids, and even adults. I have no vendetta against sports or families that partake in such events. But please take the time to examine your situation and your hearts. How many thousands of dollars did you spend on youth sports last year? How many thousands of dollars did you spend just so your kid could be on the team? How many Sunday worship services and bible studies did your kid miss because of sports? Has your kid’s relationship with God been enhanced or torn down by the demands of sports? Please ask yourselves these questions and do yourself the courtesy of giving yourself honest answers.

Youth sports can be such a blessing in so many ways. They can also very much be a mission field. But please don’t allow them to become an idol. Many of the idols we struggle with most deeply are good things that we have simply begun to love too much.

What thoughts do you have? What has been your experience with this topic? What advice would you give to parents or kids who struggle with the idol of youth sports?

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When Prayer Bothers Me

I believe that our prayers matter. I believe that God wants to hear even our silliest, most selfish requests, simply because he loves us. I believe we should pray as individuals and as a community of believers. But sometimes our prayers bother me. Sometimes our prayers are shallow. And sometimes they start out with good intentions but slowly descend into something that only resembles prayer, but really isn’t. We should guard against such things because of the dangers they present to our spiritual health.

Here are a few problems with the way we pray that I have both encountered and participated in (to my shame) that bother me:

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1. When prayer becomes gossip.

I have sat in many a circle where people use the facade of prayer requests to engage in a time of gossip about the latest goings on of people’s lives. Some even pride themselves in knowing more about what is happening and the latest news than everyone else does. So many people let their time that is supposed to be focused on interceding for people and praying for their struggles and illnesses be warped into gossip time that is more focused on hearing all the latest updates and being “in the know”. When you see people bouncing the latest news back and forth and talking about people’s lives but doing very little actual praying for them, you might be doing more gossip than prayer.

2. When prayer requests take more time than actually praying.

When we spend more time talking about prayer requests than we actually do praying, we have a problem. When we spend 20 minutes talking about people and their illnesses and struggles and spend 3 minutes actually interceding for them, we have a problem. More time should always be spent praying for people than was spent talking about prayer requests. There is a difference in asking for prayer and actually praying and we shouldn’t confuse the two. When in doubt, keep your requests brief and your prayers long.

3. When prayer time becomes self-pity time.

Of course we should speak openly and honestly about our struggles with God and with our church family, but we should not allow our prayer times to become pity parties. Don’t let prayer times collapse into whining and complaining about how tough your life is or how awful someone else has it. Prayer time should not drive us into self-pity but into reliance on God and trust in him. Again, let me be clear – God wants us to be open and honest and share our pain and hurt with him and with each other. But he wants the realization of that pain and hurt to drive us into dialogue with him, not into self-pity. Be careful that your prayer times and prayer requests don’t become focused on getting pity or attention from others.

4. When prayer is one dimensional.

Prayer has many aspects and many forms. It bothers me when prayers are perpetually and primarily one form of prayer. I have been in too many groups where “prayer” seems to only mean asking God to make sick people feel better. Though we should ask God for healing and we should pray for pain to be relieved, if our prayers are limited to only that, we are praying shallow prayers. Where is adoration? Where is praise? Where is confession? Where is repentance? Where is asking for forgiveness and reconciliation? Prayer so much bigger than we usually think. One dimensional prayer robs God of the praise he deserves and prevents us from engaging in a more full, complete, and healthy relationship with him. There are many forms of one dimensional prayer. Some people pray only for the sick. Some people pray only for themselves. Some people only confess but never repent. Some people only praise, but never petition or intercede. Try to expand your prayer life and don’t limit conversation with the Creator and Sustainer to one type of conversation.


 

Prayer is such a vital component to healthy relationship with God, and I believe healthy relationship with other people as well. Our prayers should not be mindless, hollow, one dimensional, self-focused, or shallow. Examine your prayer life and the prayer times with your brothers and sister in Christ and make sure that it is a time that brings glory and honor to God.

What else would you add? How can we protect ourselves from these hindrances to healthy prayer?

Struggling With God’s Timing

 

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Deep down, most of us probably would say we trust God and his plan. We’d probably say that we have faith that whatever happens was God’s will and that he knows best. But lets be honest, we have all had times where we fall to our knees in frustration, perhaps even anger at God because he just seems so far away. He just seems so silent. He just seems so absent. We have all had times where we feel like God isn’t home. Like he isn’t answering our calls. Like he has abandoned us or is just straight up ignoring us.

God’s timing is something that we will never be able to fully wrap our minds around in this life in the same way that a 2 year old cannot possibly understand the purposes or the reasons why their father does things a certain way or at a certain time for a certain reason. Our understanding of God’s timing will always be limited, but that doesn’t mean The Bible doesn’t help us out.

Scripture shows us that many of the greatest characters of the Bible struggled with God’s timing too. Isaiah cried out, “You have hidden your face from us.” The Psalmist says, “We are given no signs from God; no prophets are left, and none of us knows how long this will be.” Gideon said, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” David had to wait decades, fleeing for his life in the wilderness before he became king. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and waited years in a prison cell for God to show up. Even Paul had to wait 17 years after his Damascus road experience until he was officially commissioned as a missionary. And perhaps most famously, Jesus himself on the cross cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Just like these great men of the Bible, we too struggle with God’s timing. If you are struggling with God’s timing, read through Mark 5:21-43 and John 11:1-44. In the first account, Jairus comes to Jesus asking for his daughter to be healed. Jesus stops along the way and in the meantime, Jairus’ daughter dies. In the second account, Jesus purposefully delays his arrival at Bethany where his dear friend Lazarus is dying. As he delays, Lazarus dies. Imagine the frustration and grief and struggle with God’s timing that Jairus, Mary, Martha, and the disciples experienced. As we read these stories, I believe we find some profound Biblical truths that will help us in our struggle with God’s timing.

1. God does respond to our pleas, even if not how we expect

He responded to pleas about Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, he just didn’t respond how those people expected in the way that they expected. Sometimes God’s response is a simple “No”. Sometimes it’s “Not now.” And most of the time it’s “Not like that.” Our God is a good Father and he responds to our prayers, he just rarely does so in the way that we expect him to.

2. God works in his own better timing

God’s timing is always better. In Mark 5 and John 11, Jesus knew better. He had a plan the whole time that only he could see. In John 11:5-6 we see that Jesus delayed because he loved them. God’s timing is not only better, but it is more loving. Sometimes he makes us wait because he loves us. And often, God uses the time of our waiting to prepare us to receive the better thing that he has planned. God’s timing is always better. Always.

3. In God’s timing, we receive more/better than we asked for

In both accounts, if Jesus had worked in their timing, there would have been healing. but in Jesus own timing, there were resurrections. Both Jairus and Mary and Martha got more and better than they asked for. He gives us what we need when we need it instead of what we want when we want it. Too many of us are begging God for things that are smaller and lesser than what he has planned for us and we throw a fit or sink into anger or grief when we don’t get things the way we think is best. But God’s timing is better and if we are patient and wait on him, we will receive more and better than we asked for.

4. God wants our belief to be strengthened through waiting. 

In John 11:14 Jesus says that it was for their sake that he delayed so that their belief might be strengthened. In our immaturity, most of us allow our frustrations with God’s timing to drive us further away from God and from belief. But Jesus sometimes makes us wait so that our faith will be strengthened and so that our relationship with God will be strengthened. As we struggle with God’s timing, it is His desire that our belief in him be strengthened because of the waiting.

5. God weeps with us as we struggle with his timing

In the story of Lazarus, we see in John 11:33-35 how deeply moved Jesus was by the struggles of his friends. Jesus knew he was going to resurrect Lazarus. He knew that he would see Lazarus again and that all his friends who were currently weeping would soon be rejoicing. But he didn’t condemn them and say, “Ha, just wait. Stop your crying, watch this!” He wept with them. He understood the pain they felt because, out of love for them, he felt that pain too. He lovingly empathized with the pain and struggle that comes from waiting for his timing. As we struggle with God’s timing and his plan, he is not a distant, uncaring God. He is a close, personal, loving God that weeps with us in our struggle. And not only that, but he also promises something better. Jesus not only weeps with us, but provides a promise that our weeping is only temporary.


 

Practically speaking, if you are in the midst of this struggle right now, here are a few basic tips to help you in struggle.

  1. Examine yourself. Unrepentant sin damages our relationship with God and can be the source of feeling like God is distant or absent. Confess, repent, and turn to God.
  2. Remind yourself of who God is. As we examine Bible truths about who God is, our fears and worries tend to fade away. Remind yourself that He is the Good Shepherd. He is everlasting. He is mighty. He is perfect. He is loving. He is the great physician. He is the great provider. He is creator. He is Lord. He is King. He is sovereign.
  3. Remind yourself of God’s promises. God is faithful and keeps his promises. Examine the Bible for the promises God has made to his people and have faith that he will keep the promises He’s made to you.
  4. Wait patiently on God. JI Packer said it all: “’Wait on the Lord’ is a constant refrain in the Psalms, and it is a necessary word, for God often keeps us waiting. He is not in such a hurry as we are, and it is not his way to give more light on the future than we need for action in the present, or to guide us more than one step at a time. When in doubt, do nothing, but continue to wait on God. When action is needed, light will come.”
  5. Keep dialoguing with God. Keep praying. Keep reading Scripture. It is a lot harder to feel like God is distant or absent if you are in constant communication with him, which you can do through prayer and Scripture reading. There is nothing more important in a healthy relationship with God than constant communication with him. Even if you feel like he is far off, keep talking to him, and keep listening to his Word.

 

What else would you add? Please share your thoughts and comments below.