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Sports may be the missing link in your child’s spiritual growth

Unsplash/david clarke
Unsplash/david clarke

Nearly 70% of kids in America play sports. But why? Is it just to have fun?

In addition to the excitement of playing a game, kids learn invaluable lessons while playing sports. They learn self-discipline and responsibility as they train and practice. They learn how to strategize and master skills, developing their minds as well as their bodies. They learn how to make and maintain friendships. They learn how to support one another through victory and defeat.

I have learned many of these lessons. My dad played in the NFL, and I was blessed with the opportunity to play professional baseball. But I also learned early on through my childhood involvement in an Upward Sports league with my local church that sports offer not just general life lessons but transformative spiritual lessons as well.

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There’s a reason that Paul uses metaphors of races and running throughout the New Testament. The challenges faced by athletes are similar to those faced by Christians in their walk with God. In both instances, we must learn to push through weariness and adversity to reach a goal. Both sports and faith demand sacrifices and both promise joy.

Scripture commands us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37). Far too often, however, we compartmentalize our lives: sports for the body, school for the mind and church for the soul. It’s an understandable approach, but it means the church implicitly teaches kids that Christ belongs in only one part of their lives rather than at the center of it all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m a father now, and I know that by bringing God into sports, we can teach our kids to pursue Christ with their whole selves. Whether it’s teaching them how to lose graciously or how to help a struggling teammate, churches can use sports to help children come to know God more intimately and develop character and relationships that reflect His love.

I have seen time and time again how this integrative approach transforms lives. By developing Christ-centered sports programming, many kids who didn’t know the Gospel have come to trust Jesus as their Savior through the joys and challenges of sports. And those who already had faith came to know Him even better.

In the winter of 2015, a boy named Sam experienced the worst day of his life. Living in a low-income area in the upstate of South Carolina, he came home to a pile of ashes, formerly his home, wondering where he was going to go, what food he would eat, and what clothes he would wear. His teammates and coaches from his Upward Basketball team stepped in. They provided money and gift cards for Sam to replace some of his clothes and other things lost in the fire. This was a great opportunity for the devotions that the kids had been hearing throughout the season about the characteristics of Christ to be put into action. One of the best ways to show the Gospel to young people is simply by showing them the full extent of God's love, especially in a time of crisis.

It’s easy as Christians to compartmentalize our spiritual lives and to inadvertently teach our children to as well. While we often seek spiritual growth at church, parents can also encourage their children to seek total transformation of their whole selves, both inside of church and beyond it. In Romans, Paul urges believers not merely to “be transformed by the renewing of [their] mind[s],” but “to present [their] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1-2). He calls this sacrifice a “spiritual act of worship.” It’s only when we give God the entire package – body, soul, mind, and spirit – that we can begin to fathom how deep His grace and love truly are. God wants all of us and all of our lives – not just a few hours on Sunday or a small component of our identity.

Every Christian parent wants their child to experience God’s love in every aspect of their lives. Church sports programming offers a unique way for parents to give this gift to their kids. My prayer is that more parents will encourage their kids to become athletes who rely on God in every area of their lives. And as these children become young men and women, they’ll find the joy that comes in loving God with every part of who they are, on and off the court.

Drew Provence serves as partner engagement manager at Upward Sports.

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