5 Signs Sports Is Becoming an Idol in Your Family

Joel Ryan

Contributing Writer
Published Feb 16, 2024
5 Signs Sports Is Becoming an Idol in Your Family

Few activities or pastimes play as big a role in our society as sports. Just consider the cultural impact of such events as the Olympics, World Cup of Soccer, or NFL Super Bowl. Those are the big ones, the spectacles that stand on a global stage and capture the attention of millions of sports fans around the world. But what about sports on a more personal level? What role does sports play in the lives of families around the world? Of course, there are many wonderful things about sports that we can rightly celebrate and enjoy. From promoting exercise to fostering teamwork, goal setting, and the pursuit of excellence, sports has contributed to the health of societies and individuals for centuries.

The Bible even uses the occasional sports metaphor to describe the kind of spiritual discipline, perseverance, and motivation that Christians should develop in their own lives (1 Corinthians 9:24; 1 Timothy 4:7-8; Jeremiah 12:5; 2 Timothy 4:7-8; 1 Corinthians 9:26; Philippians 3:13-14). However, for many sports fans, Christians among them, passion for sports can often become an obsession, distraction, and, in some cases, even an idol if we are not careful. 

Now I know what you’re probably thinking. What does signing my kids up for gymnastics, cheering on our favorite baseball team, or hosting a Super Bowl party have to do with the kind of idolatry described in the Bible? We would be right to make some distinctions. Few Christians will ever be guilty of outright worshipping sports in the same way the Israelites bowed to man-made idols or created false representations of God in the Old Testament. That kind of idolatry God clearly denounces, and it is the same kind of worship practiced in some parts of the world today. And yet, we must always remember that in the first commandment, God said that we are to have no other gods before (or beside) Him (Exodus 20:3).

When God is pushed to the sidelines or knocked down in the depth chart of our devotion, something is clearly competing for our love and adoration. In many cases, it comes down to our hearts and the place of honor God occupies in our lives.

Here, then, are five signs that sports may be competing for your devotion or rising to the level of idolatry in your family:

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kids playing soccer on field in game match

1. Your Schedule Revolves around Sports

It is not radical to say that most of us live incredibly busy lives. The weekly calendars of most families are often so jam-packed with sporting events and activities outside of the home it is a wonder anyone ever has time to sleep, let alone sit down and enjoy a family meal together. Life on the go has become a common feature of the modern family as parents divide and conquer to rush their kids to the next practice, game, tournament, etc. Sports and extracurricular activities, however, are not always the problem. The issue is when a family’s schedule revolves around sports to the extent that family devotions, prayer, meals together, and even going to church are squeezed in only when sports permit. 

Unfortunately, our weekly schedule often affirms and communicates what we value most. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34). Christ instead encourages us to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) There is a time and a place for sports. I’m not saying families shouldn’t participate in or enjoy them. However, when sports begin to monopolize our day-to-day lives at the expense of disciplines God clearly teaches us to cultivate, families may need to take a break, only watch sports on scheduled nights, or enjoy sports in season rather than year-round. By making sure that God is at the center of every day and every week, families will learn to prioritize, set boundaries, and ensure that their weekly schedules are ordered and established by the Lord, not the sports calendar (Psalms 37:23-24). 

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man staring seriously at cell phone

2. You Look to Satisfy Your Soul with Sports Instead of Sitting in God’s Presence

We all know people who never seem to put their phones down. Annoying, isn’t it? However, this can be especially true of sports fans who are constantly checking the score, looking up stats, or updating their fantasy football profile. Again, there is a time and a place for doing this. Owning a smartphone or checking the score does not make anyone an idolater. However, if the first thing on your mind every morning, afternoon, and evening is sports, it is fair to question if something has become the real MVP of your life. 

In contrast, David wrote in the Psalms, “In the morning, O Lord, You will hear my voice; in the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch.” (Psalms 5:3)

Those who love the Lord with all their heart, mind, and soul often cannot wait to converse with Him. They do so in prayer. As the psalmist writes, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalms 42:1)

I will say it again, occasionally checking the score is not the issue. The question is, what (or who) do we look to when our soul is dry? Here’s a pro tip. Gatorade can only go so far to quench a thirsty soul. The same can be said of sports in general. Rather than checking our phones every thirty seconds for updates or obsessing over the latest sports headlines, the Bible encourages us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

Why? Because only God can satisfy what our soul craves, the “living water” that Jesus promised by regularly sitting in His presence (John 7:37-38). That happens in prayer.

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A man reading a Bible, man argues that protesting isn't going to change anything

3. You Study Sports More Than You Do the Word of God

My sister has been a physical therapist for over twenty years, which means, not surprisingly, she has an extensive knowledge of how the human body works. Likewise, one of my spiritual mentors is an avid surfer. Almost every morning for sixty years, he has gone surfing before work. Needless to say, he also knows a thing or two about the ocean and the waves. Whether it involves a profession or a hobby, we all have knowledge that exists beyond our study of the Word of God. That is not to be inherently condemned. Sports fans don’t need to apologize for knowing about sports any more than a carpenter should apologize for knowing about the tools of his trade. However, it is a concern when the believer no longer has any longing to sit and study the Word of God and apply it to their lives. Rather, they leave God’s Word in a dusty corner of their heart and home, giving other things their time, focus, and attention. 

Once again, we must look to the passion of the psalmists for a proper perspective on the Word of God. They write: “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.” (Psalms 119:97) “How sweet are Your words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalms 119:103) “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalms 119:105) “I have inherited Your testimonies forever, for they are the joy of my heart.” (Psalms 119:11)

Far too many Christians have never tasted the sweetness of God’s Word to utter such words. A true sports fan, on the other hand, will know everything there is to know about their favorite team and its players, as well as the mechanics of the sport they love and the history of the game. They won’t be ashamed to celebrate a win for their team, either. Are God’s people as knowledgeable and passionate about His playbook as they are their favorite team? Are they as unashamed to celebrate and proclaim the victories of Christ as they are a win by their favorite team? If not, why not? Who’s really driving the play, and who’s been relegated to the sidelines of your life? 

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4. You Cannot Wait to Get Out of Church to Get Home for the Big Game

Like many Christians, I am a member of a local church filled with many passionate sports fans. Unfortunately, one of the undeniable issues we face as a congregation is the early exodus of many attendees before the end of service each Sunday. Ironically, it is often the ones wearing NFL-branded hats and jerseys who tend to skip out on closing worship, the pastor’s benediction, and sometimes even communion to get home for the big game. I’m going to go ahead and call a flag on that play.

The gathering of Christ’s elect, often on Sunday mornings, is a time set aside to give God the glory, honor, and praise He deserves (Psalms 145:3). And yet, for some, the real joy of their weekend is found beyond the walls of the sanctuary. To the one who has made sports an idol, it is plain to see that the Sabbath belongs to the gods of football, not the Lord. Of course, we must always guard our hearts against legalism or turning the Sabbath into something God never intended it to be (Mark 7:6-7; Isaiah 29:13).

I am not here to condemn fellow Christians for watching sports on Sunday afternoons. I do worry, however, whenever our worship is cut short, cut out, or seen as an obstacle to what we’d rather be doing. Again, it comes down to the heart. But here the words of Christ, quoting the prophet Isaiah, sound like a warning siren to the church: “this people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (Mark 7:6-7)

Who cares what others think? The question we should always be asking ourselves is, is the Lord pleased with our worship? Do we worship the Lord in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), or do we regularly give Him secondary adoration that ultimately belongs to something else?

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Football Fans

5. You Favor the Company of Fellow Sports Fans Over Fellow Christians

There is something special about training with fellow athletes or cheering for our favorite sports team with fans who are just as passionate as we are. Whether individual members of a team are challenged to put aside their differences to compete as one or random strangers in an arena cheer on their favorite team, sports have always succeeded in bringing people together. In fact, opening your home for the big game can be one of the best and easiest ways to foster fellowship and show hospitality to our friends and neighbors. 

We are called to love and serve more than our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Some of the greatest ministry opportunities can happen on the fields, sidelines, and stands of sporting events. So, what’s the issue? Sadly, I know many Christians who would much rather spend time with fellow sports fans than fellow Christians. There could be many reasons for this. However, if our identity as athletes or sports fans means more to us than our shared eternal destiny as children and heirs of God (John 1:12), it is possible that our devotion to sports defines us more than being a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Romans 12:4-5).

If we believe that we have more in common with someone who cheers for the same team than those who have also been justified, forgiven, and redeemed by the Son of God, our true loyalties have ultimately been revealed. I’ll ask you this: which team do you take pride in playing for more? Who do you cheer for the most? The body of Christ or your favorite sports team? If your love for the church has grown cold, that may be a sign that another team is vying for or has already stolen your affections. 

Christians can certainly enjoy sports and enjoy associating with other sports enthusiasts. However, when we begin to break fellowship with the body of Christ, neglect important spiritual disciplines and biblical ordinances, or regularly push God to the sidelines of our lives, something is clearly competing for our affection. Rather, those of us who are Christians are called to “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3:1-3) and be “clothed in Christ.” (Galatians 3:27).

Of course, that does not mean we must walk around with Bible verses and Christian sayings stamped all over our cars and clothing. However, in our thoughts, actions, words, and goals, Christ alone should be glorified (Exodus 20:3-4). When the world looks at us, what does it see? If the first and only thing others know about us is sports, perhaps it is time to punt that idol a little further downfield (Isaiah 2:17-18). 

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Joel Ryan is an author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Salem Web Network and Lifeway. When he’s not writing stories and defending biblical truth, Joel is committed to helping young men find purpose in Christ and become fearless disciples and bold leaders in their homes, in the church, and in the world.

Originally published Sunday, 18 February 2024.