On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 4

I’ve given a few reasons why I do not think Christian athletes should use their well-knownness as a “platform” to speak about Christian faith.

I think that well-known athletes ought to embody Christian faithfulness by participating in their sport in redeemed ways.

First and foremost, they ought to be serious about having fun.  They should enjoy the games they play.  Sports should be considered Sabbath activities, God’s gift to humanity meant for our enjoyment and pleasure.  Sadly, people play sports for a variety of corrupted reasons: to dominate others, to establish value as individuals or prove their worth, or to somehow earn others’ approval.

Having fun in sports represents God’s reclamation of creation, including the redemption of sports as Sabbath activities.  It may sound mundane and unremarkable, but Christians should be serious about having fun when they play games.

Second, Christian athletes should be good teammates, provoking the best performances from others and playing in ways that make others better.  Biblical values of community can be actualized within games in an endless variety of ways, such as blocking for others, passing on a fast break, or playing to teammates’ strengths in other ways.

Sports are corrupted by the varieties of selfishness that destroy teams.  Being purposeful about being a good teammate, provoking others to greater joy and better performance manifests God’s reclamation of sport.

Rather than using sports as a “platform,” Christian athletes should focus primarily on honoring the games they play and embodying Christian faithfulness within the sport.  And because sports, according to creation, are Sabbath-oriented activities, Christian faithfulness is embodied by being serious about having fun.

Now, as I mentioned previously, I don’t think that Christians must be silent about their faith. 

They should, however, consider very carefully the dynamics of celebrity in contemporary American public life.

Fame, well-knownness, celebrity, or whatever we call it—and whatever “it” is—is unpredictable, fleeting, and subject to endless distortion.  The blindlingly fast paced flicker of images and micro-half-thoughts on TV and computer screens re-packages everything as superficial and banal by the time it ever reaches whatever counts for an “audience” these days.

Consider once again Tim Tebow.  I’ve been surprised at how reflective his comments have been about the relationship between his faith and his performance on the field.

But because it takes real work to find the transcripts, watch his complete press conferences, or find accurate reports, few others have caught his intended nuance. 

Talk show hosts need material so that they can just keep talking.  TV hosts need to fill time and make discussion topics as sensationalized as possible just to hold on to audiences.  And comedians will do whatever it takes to get laughs.

Far from accurately representing what Tebow has said, it is actually in their interest to distort his words.

Because of the corrupted and distorting dynamics of public discourse and the layers of media between athletes and audiences, I think that considering wisely how to act toward outsiders (Col. 4:5) may well mean that Christian athletes be far more reserved in speaking about Christian faith.

In a culture of noisy blah blah blah, we may do well to give renewed attention to Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11).

The corrupted character of audiences and the perverted cultural contexts we inhabit must shape the nature of our Christian witness.  In a subsequent post or two, I’ll elaborate on this from two narrative devices in the Gospels—Jesus’ “hour” in John and the “Messianic secret” in Mark.

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11 responses to “On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 4

  • Haddon Anderson

    Something that comes to my mind amidst these posts is how teams should function. For instance, on the b-ball team at Cedarville, we considered basketball our “ministry.” We didn’t have time for small groups, MIS trips, or involvement in local churches, so b-ball was what we did. In a sense, it was even our “platform.” Basketball opened doors for ministry that would’ve otherwise been unopened.

    What I wrestled with in this is how to pursue “ministry” as a team. What does this look like? Is asking a team to pray at halfcourt after we beat them by 30 a good idea?

    Over my time at the Ville, we definitely did worthwhile activities that we considered ministry, but it seemed like there were presuppositions infused by our culture about what ministry should look like as a team. For instance, I remember feeling burdened to evangelize when we would go on the road, like that was the most important thing. It was our ministry and basketball was our platform!

    But I’m beginning to wonder if such presuppositions are unnecessary and at times unhealthy. Perhaps culture is trying to pull us towards “climactic moments,” because having fun through sports and being a good teammate can seem rather mundane in the grand scheme of things. Yet I’m seeing how culture has made these things mundane. We feel like we should be doing MORE, but it seems evident that modern ideas of Christian witness have been wildly distorted.

    • timgombis

      I know it’s so assumed but I think that “using” sports for ministry or evangelism is one of the worst ways to exploit sport. It takes the fun out of it for those playing as there’s such anxiety to bring in decisions or have things go a certain ways.

      And it completely misunderstands the character of ministry in loads and loads of ways.

      It’s true that many of us feel that in order for something to be Christian (or for us to do something as Christians) there’s got to be value-added. It’s not enough to just have fun. You have to redeem it in some other way, by sharing the gospel, for example. But that’s a distortion of creation and new creation, and it makes God a harsh taskmaster, the very pattern of life for which God sent Israel into exile.

  • Ben Scheerschmidt

    As a performer who is contemplating the realities of fame [something about not necessarily my own fame], I loved reading through your thoughts on this!

    When I started CU, Dr. Mortensen advised that I not seek fame for the furtherance of the gospel. The whole Constantinople situation is not what we really want from converts. Additionally, I have realized that I have no real opportunity to influence my audience (or spectators, if we’re staying with sports). The people I have a chance to influence are those I work with. I cannot enter wearing Christ on my sleeve as a piece of jewelry to fish for questions about the me-Him that I have contrived for others that I might look better (wow, I hope that made sense).

    Rather, I enter quietly*. Doing my job, doing it well, being excellent because that is the end to which we were called. Having fun with my craft and instilling joy in those around me, that I might serve God in my art. If others are drawn to Him because of me, so be it. But I must not work to that end. I must not love people to Christ, but love them BECAUSE of Christ, whose image is the source of their existence.

    *Quietly here is in reference to my exclamation of Christ. As you stated in an earlier post, it is not that the world is against the Gospel, but it resists the perceived evangelical activities (which tradition has taught many are the only way to appropriately be an advocate of Christ).

    Again, thank you for this!

    • timgombis

      Well-stated, Ben! Indeed, people who see your life up-close day in and day out are those with whom you have credibility. Other sorts of (non)relationships (audiences, spectators, etc.) have no reason to take what you have to say. And they’re there to see a performance, so enter into it fully and enjoy it — THAT’S redemption, and that’s redeeming the craft.

      Hope you’re well! Maddie has such fond memories of ‘Euridice’ and is looking for theater programs as she considers college.

  • Debra VanSandt

    I agree with you here. Yes, it’s very tempting for the famous to expound upon their religion, no matter what religion it is, but they inevitably do more harm than good. Even if the media didn’t distort their words, the old game of ‘secret,’ should make it clear that no message will transmit intact and accurately.

    I honestly don’t care whether a game is a Sabbath activity. As I’ve said in other comments, for me it is the actions which speak, not the words. Words are easy; actions are hard. If a player plays well, is a team player, brings out the best in his or her teammates, and honestly enjoys what they are doing, then that is a better witness to their faith than any words they may speak.

    If anything, celebrities should avoid conversations about their faith in any media setting. My suggestion for a ‘required’ comment: “My faith helps keep me grounded and focused.” Any other media questions designed to ellicite religious comments should be politely ignored and the topic changed. Otherwise, as you say, they provide fodder for the faithless. The media is essentially disrespectful of the celebrities they create. So, the less those celebrities give them, the better off they (and their religion!) are.

    • timgombis

      I largely agree, Debra, and it’s actions over a long perdiod of time that are significant. A magnetic sort of life is not one that is preachy, but one that is quiet, joyful, servant-oriented, and doesn’t take itself so seriously. Even if no one is convinced by such a person, that person isn’t a denigration to the faith and those closest to her/him will regard her/him as a credible testimony.

  • Debra VanSandt

    Haddon, after reading your comments, can I just say that I believe that you’re on the right track? Having your team publicly pray gets too close to the Biblical stories about Jesus’s contempt for the Scribes and Pharisees’s public displays. Those were supposed to show their ‘faithfulness,’ but really had nothing to do with their faith at all. Rather, it was a dislpay of their pride and arrogance and supposed superiority. Jesus definitively called them on such behavior. That should be a huge lesson for us all.

    If I were on the opposing team or in the game’s crowd, I would feel the same way about any team who made such a display of their religion. ‘In your face’ relgious practices turn me away quickly and decisively. As a Christian, I want nothing to do with such behavior. Even if it is a Christian league, praying should include all spectators, teams, and officials and be lead by a neutral clergyman. This makes it a ‘faith act’ instead of a ‘faith show.’

  • Stephanie

    Ya seriously….Somehow even after reading these posts and knowing how we are supposed to enjoy sports for what they were created to be, I still get confused. Thanks for these reminders. One of my favorite athletes who used his God given talent to run is Eric Liddel. In Chariots of Fire there is a part when his sister is upset with Eric for putting his mission work in China on hold for running. He says to her, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” These past posts have made me think of that movie and how Liddel honored God in the way he ran.

  • Count Your Blessings, If You Can…shh… | Prayers and Musings

    [...] I feel like that answer is perhaps easier within the church context, so that does not concern me as much, but within a secular or public space, it becomes more challenging.  Back when Tim Tebow was big, I was intrigued by Tim Gombis’ series about why Christian athletes should NOT use their fame as a platform for witnessing.  He offers several reasons like: athletics as Kingdom Sabbath, the advertising misdirection, the culture war inevitability, and the distortion/over-simplification of popular media. [...]

  • Count Your Blessings, If You Can… Shh… « beautiful theology.

    [...] I feel like that answer is perhaps easier within the church context, so that does not concern me as much, but within a secular or public space, it becomes more challenging.  Back when Tim Tebow was big, I was intrigued by Tim Gombis’ series about why Christian athletes should NOT use their fame as a platform for witnessing.  He offers several reasons like: athletics as Kingdom Sabbath, the advertising misdirection, the culture war inevitability, and the distortion/over-simplification of popular media. [...]

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