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"Did you see the game last night?"
No matter who you are, where you are, or even when you are... that simple question can spark more conversations in your life than just about any other. It's a testament to the unique (and something overreaching) place that sports have in our everyday lives.
And this isn't an American (or even Western) thing either. I've talked about basketball with Filipinos, watched baseball in a South Korean airport, and asked questions about an Indian cricket match in a Thai restaurant. (For the life of me, I will never understand cricket. Props to them for answering my questions though.)
The most recent example? Last night's Euro 2020 final between England and Italy. An average of nearly 30 million people watched the entire match. That doesn't take into account the millions who packed pubs, restaurants, and outdoor venues across Europe. For comparison's sake, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's statement announcing strict new coronavirus restrictions in March last year was watched by more than 27 million viewers.
It's strange then that so few of us Christians use sports as the powerhouse evangelical opportunity it shows itself to be. All too often, I find that your average Christian takes one of two extremes—either dismissing sports as a meaningless game or lifting sports (and athletes) to some near-deity status.
(Admittedly, I'm more likely to stray into the second camp. But that's a blog for another day...)
But there are deep truths that can be gained from watching sports. And there are tools these games give us to spread the Gospel like wildfire.
Let's leave soccer for a moment and talk about basketball, specifically Michael Jordan. Did you know that fewer than 0.0004% of the world's population is as tall as him? And that only a fraction of that fraction has both the genetic makeup to fill out their frame with the proper muscle mass. And a fraction of that even more tiny fraction has a healthy enough heart, circulatory system, and pair of lungs to play a sport that is as physically demanding as basketball.
And yet, here Jordan was for nearly two decades—dominating in a sport that literally billions of people aren't even tall enough to legitimately compete in.
What if we used examples like Jordan's God-gifted body (or Tom Brady's arm, or Usain Bolt's speed) to pepper our conversations about sports with the Gospel... and the truth that these athletes work hard, but they don't have a starting place without God.
There's a popular website called I Am Second that allows people (mostly athletes) to tell their story with the framework that they are second to God. This message is helpful because I think we can all (myself included!) idolize players from time to time.
But I'd like to take that a step further. Sports are most compelling (and teams most often win) when these athletes realize (and play) like they're... Third.
Just like in the I Am Second spirit, God is first. But there's something between the individual athlete and God: Teammates.
Sure, LeBron James can take a rebound the length of the court and score on his own. Wayne Gretzky can do the same. (Except his is on ice.) And so could Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. But the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Stanley Cup don't settle the bet of who has the most impressive individual accolades. It shows who was the better team. Most often, those championship teams have some of the best (if not the best) players.
I'll give you an example... every year, the NFL votes for its MVP. Did you know that the MVP of any given year hasn't won the Super Bowl since 1999? And that only five—Kurt Warner (1999), Terrell Davis (1998), Brett Favre (1996), Steve Young (1994), and Emmitt Smith (1993)—have done it in the last 30 years?
This is probably the most important point. Imagine having a tool in your back pocket that allows you to start up conversations with nearly anyone and everyone and all you have to do is... watch a game.
It's astounding the number of times I've been able to start talking to a complete stranger simply because we were both in the same place at the same time and one of us just asked the other:
"Did you see the game last night?"
So next time you're in line at the grocery store, or at a restaurant, or waiting for a bus... try it out. See how it goes. And if you feel like the conversation could naturally flow towards God, be bold and go for it.
The worst thing that happens is two people have a pleasant conversation about sports for a few minutes.