When the Olympics kicked off this year, the sight of many athletes from hundreds of countries across the world was an inspiring example of how far our country has come. We could see sports bringing people together again from all over the globe to compete for excellence and highlight their years of training.
Now that the Olympics have come to an end, it's time to reflect on what this grand event can teach Christians and church leaders about the importance of sports for our youth and culture.
When sports events happen, people tune in; the Olympics averaged around 15 million viewers during primetime, and even more people have been talking about the Olympics with their friends, family and peers. The many storylines have dominated our dinner tables and social gatherings, like Simone Biles forgoing some of the events, or Katie Ledecky’s amazing performance, or Tamyra Mensah-Stock’s amazing gold medal in women’s wrestling.
What lessons can we draw from Olympic sports, and what do the Olympics say about the power of sports ministry within our churches?
First, we should appreciate the power of sports to unite people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Sports are a place where people form relationships around a common goal and shared effort. It is a tool that can be utilized to speak into the lives of those on the playing field that might not be familiar with the church or our faith.
These formed relationships can become catalysts for significant change and spiritual growth. And this is not just for people who play sports. Participating in sports as a spectator, talking about sports with others or following sports with interest can also create these relationships. In ministry, you should always look for points of contact to build trust that will allow you to share the Gospel message; sports are a great way to break down barriers and build that trust.
Second, as a parachurch ministry leader, I am excited to think of the possible Gospel conversations happening between top athletes from around the world. There are a number of Christian athletes who competed in this year’s Olympics, from Kirani James of Grenada to Melissa Gomez from Columbia. Many of these Christian athletes, like sprinter Trayvon Bromell, credit their faith as the foundation of their athletic career.
We should applaud these Christian athletes for using their platform at the Olympics as a witness of the Gospel. These athletes portrayed to the world the true meaning of Christian joy, humility and perseverance. Their example becomes the launching pad of many conversations about the Bible and Jesus. For churches around the country, sports can create the opportunity for these same conversations for children and families.
Third, raising Olympic qualifiers is not the goal of any sports ministry. Connecting faith with people’s passion and their love for sports is. Sports ministers across the country can leverage our nation's interest with and enthusiasm for sports to bridge the gap and offer kids a Christ-centric way to play on the field or court. We have seen this firsthand as Upward Sports has more church partners offering sports leagues throughout the country this year, than we did two years ago. This shows the desire to intersect sports, faith and ministry.
In the earliest days of the church, Christians knew the importance of running their faith race with endurance and perseverance. When watching the Olympics, and seeing these amazing athletes that stood for Christ, we are reminded of Hebrews 12:1 that says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and so easily entangles us. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
As Christians, we are called to be the salt and light of the Earth and to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout the nations. The Olympics are a great reminder to all Christians that we should utilize sports to engage in the lives of those around us. Sports ministry might be overlooked by some, but it plays a crucial role, not just in living for Christ, but in fulfilling the Great Commission on this Earth.
Kevin Drake is the executive director of Upward Sports.