The Sporting Church

Churches often call them “Family Life Centers,” but they look an awful lot like gymnasiums up close.

Basketball goals, boundaries painted on the floor, portable volleyball nets off to the side – definitely a gymnasium. The designation, “Family Life Center,” is mostly an attempt at defining the expensive structure as somehow spiritual in spite of its obvious appeals to the flesh.

It is becoming increasingly uncommon to find a church that isn’t dabbling in sports and recreation. One offers Christian Karate – at an affordable weekly rate – while another leases space for softball instruction on the side. That church has its own skate park and another progressive local flock even boasts dodgeball and video games on Wednesday nights in place of “boring old Bible study.”

What probably began as an effort at building families and promoting “fellowship” has devolved into recreation for its own sake, except for the spiritual pandering to teens that it all represents. “We don’t believe you young people are capable of genuine spiritual impulses, so we’ll trick you into church with the promise of fun and games.”

There is much good that comes from youth sports, just as it does from other wholesome activities like marching band, scouting, etc. Through our involvement in softball and baseball, my family has been able to make dozens of contacts, inviting many young people to visit church along the way, and have influence over the ethics and morals of our neighbors. We have found opportunity to help special-needs children join the fun and we have been able to visit brethren in other churches in the course of our travels for tournaments. All those things are dear blessings. Our children are healthier and more sociable as a result. They have learned that church comes first – we leave the field when it is time for the saints to gather, sometimes abandoning the team at a crucial point, but making a strong point about our priorities and the depth of our commitment.

When the line blurs between these family activities and the work of the local church, however, the question of authority should arise. These days, it seldom does, but it should (see Matthew 28:18-20, James 4:12).

Where is the authority for the local church to become involved in promoting games and recreation, building structures to use for amusement rather than evangelism, and appealing to the fleshly side of young people in a humiliating attempt to entice them into the church?

The work of the church is spiritual in nature – evangelizing unbelievers, edifying all who are safe in Christ, extending benevolence to needy saints and deserving widows (Philippians 4:15, Ephesians 4:11-14, Acts 11:27-30, First Timothy 5:1-16). An objective examination of the New Testament will quickly reveal that, while benevolence naturally has a material component, the church’s evangelism and edification are spiritual pursuits, with emphasis upon teaching God’s word.

If the sporting church promotes its Family Life Center as an inducement to attract potential converts and members, it stumbles over the fact that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation,” rather than such carnal premiums and promises. The church is reduced to a glorified Cracker Jack box when it has to entice people with promises of toys and whistles (Second  Corinthians 2:17). The Family Life Center, when used as an inducement to membership, is a tacit admission that the gospel is not enough. The blood of Jesus is insufficient. The forgiveness of sins is too ethereal. The hope of Heaven is too distant and intangible. Build a gymnasium, stock it with basketballs and offer the occasional plate of cookies and bottle of soda, and then stand back and watch the Seekers throng about the door!

Jesus had his own confrontation with this mentality during his ministry. Having supplied his starving audience with fish and bread one day, they returned the next hoping for a reprise and a repast. He refused. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:26-27). 

The Lord, as an individual, was willing to feed the hungry, and as an example to his disciples, he showed compassion on the thousands who were genuinely desperate. Never, however, would he stoop to maintaining a following by answering the unspiritual call of the flesh (Romans 8:1-11).

Perhaps the Family Life Center would be justified as a central place where the redeemed can congregate and recreate under the wholesome banner of good, clean fun. Can even one New Testament example be cited as precedent for the church creeping into that realm? 

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (First Timothy 4:7-10).

The Holy Spirit focuses the work of the church upon indoctrination and spiritual fellowship in the teaching of Christ (First Corinthians 1:18, Second Timothy 4:2). Its social component consists of the association of Christians in mutual edification and friendship, but no evidence exists that first century congregations diverted funds from their treasuries to recreation and carnal membership lures (Hebrews 3:13). 

Either the good news is enough to attract and convert the lost and maintain the redeemed or it is not. Resorting to an endless buffet of food and frolic devalues the savior’s shed blood and distracts the church from its true, spiritual mission to draw souls – not just bodies – into the kingdom.