Football-stadiumThere is a new religion that has been growing rapidly in America and many people haven’t noticed what is happening. Each Sunday morning (and other days too) hundreds and thousands gather in large auditoriums and outdoor stadiums to share in this new American religion. What is it you ask? The answer ‘Sports!’

Before I talk about this new religion, I have to disclose that I am a sports fan. I grew up loving sport and have always done so. I have always enjoyed watching sport and it is one of the ways that I relax. When I moved from Australia, I had to exchange cricket for baseball and rugby league for American football. When I was pastoring Antioch Christian Fellowship, we had a number of professional athletes come to our church, including Gary Gaetti, the All Star Twins 3rd baseman of the 1987 World Series came. (He also attended other churches in the Twin Cities.) I had lunch with him the week before he left to go to the Anaheim Angels in California. Vikings wide receiver Quadray Ismael and his lovely wife Holly were regulars at church. He arranged for me to get tickets to Vikings games and also to speak at one of the Vikings chapel services. So, you can see, I really like sport and it pains me to write this Langstaff Letter.

There are lots of positive aspects to sports. It teaches young people to work hard and develop skills, to both set and achieve goals. It emphasizes the importance of teamwork, striving together to achieve a common end. It also helps to develop discipline in young people’s lives.

In addition, there are many examples of Christian athletes who inspire young people with their faith. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, possibly the best basketball player in the world at this moment, is a committed Christian and almost all of the team attend weekly chapel services.

There are many things to consider here. For example, have many sports become the modern day equivalent of ancient gladiatorial battles of long ago. i.e. watching warrior like athletes battling each other, often to the end. The effect of this conflict in sport is only now being recognized with the increasing medical study of concussions and the long term effect of intense physical battering has on the body. Even in a sport like golf, the drive to win has wrecked havoc on Tiger Wood’s body, resulting in multiple operations on his back.

But it is more than that. . . .

This is the title of an article by Albert Mohler (Feb 4, 2016 and it hits at a very real trend in American society today; a trend that I have observed myself.

Recently, I was in a Pastor’s Meeting in our area where we were discussing matters relating to our community and the church. I was sitting next to a Catholic priest who voiced his concern about how organized sport was taking young people away from the church on a Sunday morning. This is nothing new, as Albert Mohler notes, “The relationship between sports and religion in America has always been close, and it has often been awkward. The ‘muscular Christianity’ of a century ago has given way to a more recent phenomenon: the massive growth of involvement in sports at the expense of church activities and involvements.

“About fifteen years ago, the late John Cardinal O’Connor, then the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, lamented the fact that Little League Baseball was taking his altar boys away on Sundays. ‘Why is it religion that must always accommodate?’ asked the Archbishop. ‘Why must Little League and soccer league games be scheduled on Sunday mornings? Why create that conflict for kids or for their parents? Sports are generally considered good for kids. Church is good for kids.’

“The Archbishop blamed secularization for this invasion of Sunday: ‘This is the constant erosion, the constant secularization of our culture, that I strongly believe to be a serious mistake.’

“So the cardinal took on Little League and the youth soccer league in New York City. And he lost. Nevertheless, he was right about the problem. The massive rise of sports within the culture is a sign and symptom of the secularization of the larger society.”

Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard, in an essay in the Washington Post note, “American sports fans have forged imperishable bonds with the people, places and moments that define their teams. You might even call this attachment religious. But that would be unfair-to sports . . . In other words, the attachment many Americans now have to sports teams far exceeds attachment to religious faith — any religious faith.”

As Arthur Molher observes, “The two academics then make their central case: ‘While teams and fans are building powerful, cohesive communities – think Red Sox Nation or the legions of University of Alabama faithful who greet one another with ‘Roll Tide’- churches are losing followers. According to a 2012 survey by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Duke University, 20 percent of Americans ‘claimed they had no religious preference,’ compared with an unaffiliated population of 8 percent in 1990. Roughly two out of three Americans, a 2012 Pew report noted, are under the impression that religion is losing influence in the country.’

Albert Mohler comments on this, “Interestingly, Beneke, who teaches history at Bentley University, and Remillard, who teaches religious studies at St. Francis University, document the dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves to be sports fans. Just a half-century ago, only three in ten Americans identified themselves as sports fans. Fast forward to 2012 and the percentage is greater than 60 percent. At the same time, church attendance and other marks of religious activity (especially the number of hours each week devoted to church activities) have fallen sharply.

“Beneke and Remillard describe the current picture in vivid terms: ‘Modern sports stadiums function much like great cathedrals once did, bringing communities together and focusing their collective energy.'”

“Beneke and Remillard conclude by asserting that ‘when it comes to the passionate attachments that sustain interest and devotion, it’s time to acknowledge that sports have gained the edge. And they show no sign of relinquishing the lead.’

Again, as Arthur Mohler points out,“In the larger society, this is most certainly the case. This dramatic shift could only come to pass if the larger culture has been largely secularized. In this case, secularization does not necessarily mean the disappearance of religious faith, but merely the demotion of religious involvement and identification to a level lower than those granted to sports. Americans may not know who their god is, but you can be sure most know who their team is.”

Quite honestly, I am perplexed by all of this, since I am both a sports fan and a Christian believer who is committed to the church, including the local church.

How should Christians respond to the challenges that ‘Sports,’ the new American religion, brings to the church today?

I would be interested to receive your responses.