Scholars and practitioners taking new interest in religion-sports connection

The interest of scholars in the relation of sports and religion is catching up to the level of attention that religious groups have given to athletes and sporting events in recent years, writes Nick J. Watson in the journal Theology (vol. 121, no. 4). In recent years, there have been major academic conferences on religion, theology and sports, as well as the establishment of several centers studying the sports-religion connection, such as Baylor University’s Youth, Spirituality and Sports Institute and the Center for the Study of Sport and Religion at the University of Tennessee. The 2019 Global Congress on Sports and Christianity (meeting at Calvin College) could act as a meeting point for leading scholars, politicians, clergy, and sports-faith practitioners to create a scholarly association devoted to the subject with its own journal. Watson writes that Pope John Paul II started much of the momentum of the religious interest in sports, but Pope Francis has followed in his footsteps by stressing the role of sports as a vehicle for the common good and social justice. In 2014, a group of theologians, social scientists, clergy, and sports practitioners drew up the “Declaration on Sport and Christian Life.” The growth of initiatives on sports can also be seen in the Church of England. [See June 2018 RW for a report on how the Russian Orthodox Church has engaged sports in recent years.]

In the UK, there have been several ecumenical efforts directed at Olympic and Paralympic games. This “mission-service-hospitality” model was found in a recent study to be “an effective way to do mission within complex relational sporting subcultures,” Watson writes. Most observers agree that it was Billy Graham’s use of sports stars in his crusades that led to the formation of parachurch groups, such as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and Baseball Chapel. There has been a divide between the more “evangelical approach” of American-based sports ministries and the more “pastoral mission focus” of ministries in the UK. “One clear trend, however, within the last decade is a reduction in the focus on ‘overt’ evangelism (especially the use of professional athletes in ‘platform ministry’) and a realignment of strategy in which practitioners address the pastoral and holistic needs of athletes,” Watson adds. Critics have charged that sports ministry parachurch organizations have adopted a “utilitarian” approach to sports. Emerging issues that sports ministries and scholars in this field are starting to address include mental health in sports, concussion and other traumatic injuries from sports, and e-sports.