So You Wanna Be a “Christian” Athlete?

By Bob Hiller

In a few weeks, I’ve been invited to speak at the National Youth Gathering of the good ol’ Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Because of the nature of my little blog here, I’ve been tasked with chatting up the youth on what it means to be a Christian athlete. To be honest, I feel a bit like CS Lewis (well, except for the whole being smart thing) when he was asked to talk to a religious society at Oxford about writing Christian literature. He compares the idea of writing Christian literature with writing a Christian cook book. Though the dishes may have something Biblical about them, there is nothing particularly “Christian” about how one is to actually make the dishes. Lewis quips, “Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan.”

It is kind of the same when it comes to Christian athletes. There is nothing particularly Christian about becoming, say, a great basketball player. The skill set and the sort of work that go into making one a great ball player are the same regardless of which god or gods you pray to. I am becoming more hesitant to use the word “Christian” as an adjective. When used properly, Christian is a noun. We’ve gone so far as to use it as a marketing tool to sell products (there are Christian diet programs, for Pete’s sake!). But if we must discuss what makes one a “Christian” athlete, I guess it would be best to say he/she is an athlete who has been crucified with Christ and raised to a new life. Skill, dedication, and hard work make one a great athlete, but that is true of the Christian and the Pagan athlete. So, despite much of the rhetoric we hear from athletes who are baptized, their faith has little to do with what makes them a great athlete.

Or does it?

In preparation for my presentation, I’ve been looking at the Christian athlete de jour, Stephan Curry. In an article on Curry from Billy Graham’s team, he said,” I know why I play the game, and it’s not to score 30 points a night, but it’s to use the stage I’m on. I’ve been put here for a specific purpose: to be a witness and to share my testimony as I go through it.” Now as a good, fine-tooth-combing Lutheran, I read this and immediately recognized a misunderstanding of vocation. As a professional basketball player, in fact, Curry has been put on the court to score 30 points a night. Or, perhaps more generally, he’s been put there to do everything necessary to help his team win. Every vocation calls us to love our neighbor, and in this case of the professional athlete, the neighbor takes the form of a teammate. You love your teammates by finding every way possible to help them win. Certainly other neighbors such as coaches, referees, opponents, and fans are to be served as well. But you are there primarily to help your team win. Curry does this by ridiculous scoring feats.

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Curry and all athletes have the God-given vocation of helping their team win. Curry has not been called to the ministry to be a pastor or a missionary. And if you see his and every other athlete’s use of Philippians 4:13, you’ll know he’s no exegete, either. I mean, being able to do all things through Christ who strengthens you apparently doesn’t include maintaining a 3-1 lead against that blasphemous LeBron James in the NBA Finals. What kind of chutzpa does it take for a guy like LeBron to be glossed the savior and king of Cleveland sports and then upon winning, quite messianically cried out, “Cleveland! This is for you!” Sheesh. Take and eat, Cleveland! The Gospel of LeBron…but I digress…

And yet, it is true that our faith does touch every aspect of our lives. Though Curry’s vocation is that of professional basketball player and though his use of Bible verses is far less accurate than his three-point shot, but he is also a Christian who is an athlete. He has been given the opportunity to testify to the hope that is within him. He does what all of us ought to do in our vocations; he takes every opportunity he’s given to point people to Jesus. The article continues: ”In a column last year for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes website, Steph wrote that he loves to point people toward ‘the Man who died for our sins on the cross. I know I have a place in Heaven waiting for me because of Him, and that’s something no earthly prize or trophy could ever top.’” Hey now, that is something quite…well… Christian. Given the chance, this guy points people to the cross. He speaks those who are listening towards the crucified Lord!

Would all of us Christians, regardless of our vocation, recognize the opportunities we have to hand over the goods of Christ’s Gospel? We pastors better be doing it every Sunday, as we are bound to preach Jesus to you. Woe to us if we don’t. But the Word of Christ is not bound to us preachers. No matter what vocation you may have, be it professional athlete or towel boy, the Gospel that has been given to you on the lips of another can also be found on your lips to set the bound free. In all of your vocations, you are a Christian! So, in all your vocations, when the opportunity arises (or even if it is a bit forced), give them Jesus!

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5 comments

    1. An excellent read on what makes one a great athlete, Christian and non-Christian alike, is a short book I was introduced to a couple of years ago- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Written from the standpoint of neuroscience. Bet you’d enjoy it.

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  1. I think you might be reading too much into what Curry said. What if he means his identity isn’t in scoring 30 points a night, but in the way he goes about doing that? In other words, if he goes about it in a selfish way, it doesn’t matter if he scores 30 or not. he wouldn’t be witnessing to the new identity he has in Christ, and that is more important than how many points he scores.

    I could be wrong, you know it has happened before 😉 But that is how I understood his quote.

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