March 21, 2013. According to my calendar, today is the beginning of March Madness, and I confess that I’m excited. Although college football is probably my favorite sport to watch, there is nothing that can compare to the craziness of the first weekend of the NCAA Division 1 Basketball Championship. Often times it seems like there is one buzzer beater after another, and usually plenty of upsets, as well. What’s not to like?

I guess I have had somewhat of a love affair with sports for most of my life. Basketball, in particular, has been a passion of mine, and I have been fortunate enough to get to play, coach, and officiate the game at various times through the years. My knees aren’t delighted about that, but I truly enjoyed the competition, the camaraderie, and the exercise that basketball provided.

So it is as a participant and fan of athletics that I issue the following statement: I truly believe that sports in the United States have become an idol to many, and is causing great harm to the church of Jesus Christ. Back in December, in his initial entry for this blog, Drew quoted Tim Keller, who defines an idol as, “…anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

Using that definition, it’s not hard to see how easily sports and recreation can become an idol for you and me. When it becomes our obsession, consuming our time, our money, and our thoughts, then it has gone too far. And, when it keeps us from faithfully gathering for corporate worship of the Lord, I believe that sports has crossed a dangerous line. Ancient Israel’s fascination with Baal has nothing on America’s present obsession with bouncing balls and speeding cars, to say nothing of personal fitness, hunting, fishing, and other sports and leisure activities. In 2 Timothy 3:4, Paul described people in the last days as being, “treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (emphasis mine) I think most of us would agree that a majority of Americans fit that description.

Of particular concern to me are parents who seem recklessly determined to make superstar athletes out of their children no matter the cost. Over the past 20 years or so I have observed the stunning rise of AAU and travel teams, witnessing firsthand how family life can revolve around a game. I can’t tell you how many good people I have watched get sucked up into this never ending cycle, and have seen their spiritual life crash on the rocks because of it. A few years ago sports columnist Rick Reilly penned an article entitled Let us Play, in which he had a line through the word “pray” replacing it with “play.” He is a journalist, not a preacher, and I’m not even sure he is a believer, but Reilly couldn’t help commenting on how absurd our obsession with sports has become. Let me share an excerpt with you: Sports has nearly swallowed Sunday whole. Every pro sport plays on Sunday. The big day in pro golf and tennis is Sunday. College football started playing bowl games on Sunday. Here’s March Madness: 10 NCAA tournament games were played on Sunday. Now more and more youth sports teams are playing on Sunday, when the fields are easier to get and parents are available to drive…

I’ll tell you exactly what’s going on here: the upping of American youth sports. For some reason over caffeinated parents feel they have to keep up with the Joneses. They used to do it with their cars. Now they do it with their kids. Upping means putting little Justin into not one soccer league but three, not one soccer camp but four.

Upping also means playing up, forcing a kid to play one or even two levels above his age group, so that little Benjamin, age eight, can sit on the 10-year-olds’ bench, play three minutes a game and whiff in his only at bat.

But, hey, he is playing up!

And upping means moving up. The local team isn’t high-profile, so little Amber has to switch to an elite team, usually in another town. That means extended drives to and from practice plus traveling three or four or six hours to play in invitational tournaments on weekends. This way parents from far-flung towns can flaunt the status symbol of spending beautiful warm weekends in a freezing ice rink watching 14 mind-and butt-numbing hockey games.

“I admit, we’re guilty from time to time,” John Burrill, head of the Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association, says of playing on Sundays. “We don’t feel particularly good about it, but with today’s busy schedules Sunday is the only time some of us have to do these things. And if you’re going to travel two states away, it doesn’t make sense to not play Sunday, too.”

So what’s the solution? Reilly says, “What has to happen is the parents have to start saying no. Not to their kids—to their kids’ coaches. ‘I told my boy’s coach he wouldn’t be playing on Sundays,’ says (one parent), ‘and he looked shocked.’ I said, ‘You act like nobody’s ever said that to you before.’ And he said, ‘Honestly? They haven’t.’ “

What a shame. Sports can be wonderful when they build up our bodies and teach us teamwork, but how quickly they can become an unhealthy obsession. And it’s not just the participation in athletics that’s out of control (I can almost hear an amen from a few golf widows), but it is also the watching of sports and the plunking down of hundreds of dollars for tickets, so we can scream and boo and get out all our frustration.

Not many of our children will ever become Division 1 college atheltes. Even fewer will compete in the Olympics or go professional in their sport. But all of them will learn from our actions and the priorities that we instill in them. And while athletic competition lasts a few years, at best, spirituality is for eternity. Paul said (1 Timothy 4:8): “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”

Obviously, smashing this idol does not mean turning our back on sports and recreation, but making sure they are kept in their proper place. Honestly, we all need to examine our calendars and our bank statements. What do they say about our allegiance and what is most important to us? How often do we spend hundreds of dollars to attend a ballgame or concert, and then grudgingly place $20 in the offering plate? How often do we complain that we don’t have time to read, study, pray or serve, yet always seem to have time for the other types of leisure activities and sporting events. And how frequently do we fail to gather with God’s people to worship the Lord and gather around His table because we are attending a sporting event, out on the lake or golf course, or in bed worn out from all our travel? That’s a life out of balance, in desperate need of some spiritual equilibrium.

Can I be transparent? Although I have never allowed sports to keep me from gathering for worship on Sunday, I have wasted time and money that could have been used for kingdom causes. And, I’ve lost my cool and acted like an idiot while cheering for one of my favorite teams. For what? A game. Something that is a minor blip on the radar screen of life. I pray we can all keep that in mind, developing a healthy perspective on sports, simply saying “no” to this potential modern idol.

Now, let’s just hope my wife doesn’t read this before the next big Buckeye game!

Blessings, Dave

-Dave Thurman is the one  of the ministers  of the Mt Gilead Christian Church in Mooresville, IN