Must Famous Athletes Preach?

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 16: Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks leads a prayer meeting after their NFL game against the Buffalo Bills at Rogers Centre on December 16, 2012 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Russell Wilson

By Bob Hiller

Last summer, as the Major League Baseball season approached the playoffs, the YouVersion Bible app on my smartphone capitalized by offering a devotional for athletes written by professional ball players. I guess the way it worked was each player was either given or chose a particular verse of Scripture and wrote a devotion based on the text. I figured I ought to take a gander as I do write about the intersection of sports and theology. I was prepared for the worst. Much to my delight, however, some of the devotions weren’t half bad! In fact, more than one centered on the bloody cross and free forgiveness of Christ Jesus! Others were a bit more predictable. You know the ones where Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” is applied to making the JV volleyball squad or overcoming an injury. (Can you imagine Paul sitting in his cell thinking to himself, “How will I inspire that poor 13-year-old kid who can’t hit a free throw to save his life? Ah, I know! Philippians 4:13!”) To use a delightful sports metaphor, these devotions were really hit or miss!

But it got me thinking: Why do we need famous athletes writing devotions? Must Christians who play professional sports use their platform to preach? Should we as the Church demand that of them? Ought we hold these athletes up as Christian examples and encourage our kids to be like them? Is Tim Tebow a saint we are to emulate?

Part of me is quite wary of our tendency to turn celebrity athletes (or all Christian celebrities for that matter) into preachers. The addiction to celebrity in our culture has given the famous a certain authority, undeserved as it may be. When we or our youth hear someone famous speak, we listen. We want to be famous so we pay attention to the famous. They’re our priests. If a celebrity endorses it, we’ll buy it! This, of course, is quite dangerous. Especially for a Church that is just as addicted to “celebrity” as the culture!

Nonetheless, the thinking goes: If we could just get a famous athlete to proclaim Christ, just think how many would be influenced for Jesus! I get this way of thinking. I’m even a bit susceptible to it. However, we must keep in mind, professional athletes are not called to be pastors, regardless of the platform they’ve been given. Their vocation is to play hard for their team, their coach, their city, and against their opponents. Their realm of responsibility is with their neighbors on the court. Certainly, their faith should guide the way they play and inform their actions towards their neighbors (teammates, coaches, referees, opponents, etc.). But there is no mandate that their platform should become a pulpit.

When I was in high school, the great Reggie White came to Denver to preach at a local congregation. We Coloradans bleed blue and orange for our Broncos, but we love football, so we were quite excited when our youth director said we were going to see White preach. However, when we got to the church, the sermon was simply about how, since God had told White to raise money to open a Bible-based theme park, perhaps God was calling us to open our pocket-books to make that happen. No Jesus, no cross or empty tomb, no forgiveness, not even any sort of real Law. Just healthy, wealthy fundraising. White couldn’t tell the difference between his platform and God’s pulpit. The nicknamed “Minster of Defense,” at least that Sunday, was not a minister of the Word. He should not have used his celebrity to fundraise and then called it preaching.

I know what you are thinking. “Wait a second there, tiger! Aren’t all Christians supposed to proclaim the Word? Are you saying only pastors should deliver the good news of Jesus Christ? Do you think it’s a sin for famous people to use their platform to share their faith? Where do you get off, you proud, self-righteous pastor?” (OK, maybe you weren’t thinking the last part. But you are well within your rights if you did!) Of course I believe every Christian should take the opportunities given them to proclaim Jesus. This world is so full of fear-filled noise that it is beautiful to hear and proclaim the Gospel any chance we get. But what I think we need to be careful of is expecting celebrities of any sort to proclaim their faith just because they have the platform. What if they aren’t ready? What if they aren’t comfortable with it? What if they have faith but just don’t know how to proclaim it very well? We should not demand preaching out of our Christian athletes when it is not their vocation.

However, I would make this plea to any Christian athlete who might be reading this not-so-humble little blog of mine (Peyton Manning, I know you’re there!): If you are going to use your platform, be faithful. Know your stuff. Don’t misuse Bible verses like they are pep talks from your Heavenly coach. Preach the cross. Remind us of forgiveness in Christ. Make sure what you say is what the Bible says and not what you are merely “taking out of it.”

 I remember reading an interview with Stephan Curry where he spoke about his faith. But he spoke more about Jesus, forgiveness, a bloody cross and empty tomb than he did about “doing all things” on the basketball court. It was breathtaking, actually. If celebrities are going to preach, then preach Jesus, for heaven’s sake! But Church, let’s not forget that, as exciting as it is to have Christians in the public square, they are not your spiritual authorities. Their devotional thoughts and magazine testimonies should not replace the diet of God’s Word and Sacrament delivered into our ears by men who stand in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus. Nonetheless, let us thank God for the saints in the spotlight and pray for their faithfulness.