Cult of Athleticism and Christian Education

CSLewis1“Above all, the Bloods, the adored athletes and prefects, were an embodiment of all worldly pomp, power, and glory. . . The whole school was a great temple for the worship of these mortal gods; and no boy ever went there more prepared to worship them than I.” Surprised by Joy, 83.

Those are Lewis’ own words regarding his experience in school. I was knocked to the floor when I read his words. I don’t think there could be any better description of the way our schools, all the way down to the elementary and middle school levels, elevate athletes above other students.

Sadly, this is not much different at Christian schools. Even at Christian schools, parents and students seemingly bow knee at the altar of athletics. Large amounts of money is funneled into athletic budgets with the singular intention of winning, even if they say winning is not the primary goal. We must carefully scrutinize our actions as they reflect our hearts.

Many people may talk about the positive role sports play in developing young people. I am one of those. My coaches were hugely important in my life, especially since I was left without parents, particularly a father, during formative years where a young man needs a father. I found great examples in my coaches. People also suggest how sports creates special bonds between players and coaches allowing for greater depth in relationships. I’ve noticed that in my own life. I even had the privilege in participating in the wedding of a former player/student. What an honor! However, if we are not careful, the lines between those primary goals (salvation, discipleship, maturity, etc.) and secondary goals (winning) are not just easily blurred, but all-together erased.

It is imperative we Christian schools use athletics as a means to an end, not an end. No one plays a sport forever. The end of careers in athletics is as certain as death. Are we preparing our students for life beyond athletics? I hope so. Christian education is uniquely able, in my opinion, to truly prepare people for a holistic life. We must proclaim excellence in every area of life, not merely the area in which the student naturally excels. This is the hard work discipleship in which we enter our students worlds and seek to show them by God’s grace the better way in all of life.

When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he gave the command to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” (Mt. 6:33) To act in obedience does not necessarily mean Christian schools eliminate any means that may detract from the kingdom. God works through our passions to build the kingdom. As the body has many different parts and functions, people have many different gifts and passions. These passions, including athletics, are God’s gift to his children. So then, we are called to teach our students how to be kingdom-centered in every endeavor. For educators, coaches, and athletes who claim to follow Christ, faithfulness means demonstrably seeking Jesus’ kingdom above our own through every means.  If our athletics are not seeking first Jesus’ kingdom in real ways, not mere talk, then Lewis is right, and our schools become temples of false gods.

Lord, open our eyes that we might really see which kingdom we are building.

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