One of the common frustrations I hear from Christians is often tied to a misunderstanding of what discipleship is. For many discipleship is some mystical journey that entails deprivation and discipline in order to reach a stage of enlightenment that few share. For others discipleship involves deep academic study, the mastery of ancient languages, and usually a few diplomas to hang on their walls. Some have made discipleship an add-on option to Christianity, like a sunroof on a new car. I suspect much of what underlies all this confusion is that we’ve twisted the concept of discipleship into something we wouldn’t recognize in ordinary daily life. We wouldn’t know what discipleship was if it stared us right in the face. And yet, we do know what discipleship is. We might not know how to label or categorize it, but discipleship is intrinsically seen in our passions for sports. Furthermore, the multi-billion dollar sports industry shows us just how good at making disciples we really are. The trouble for many of us is that we fail to translate what is common and ordinary for our daily lives into an understanding of what Christianity really looks like. We’ve deeply separated the concepts of sacred and secular. We won’t allow ourselves to see how discipleship happens in everyday life.
Discipleship is always happening. It might not be Christian discipleship, but we are always being and making disciples of something. The question remains how can the sporting-life help us see what Christian discipleship is?
In his book, Disciple, Bill Clem identifies four strands of discipleship DNA. These traits show-up in the sporting-life on a daily basis. In fact, these four strands of discipleship DNA are lived out almost subconsciously by fans of particular teams or sports. By comparison, they show us what a life of Christian discipleship can really look like. Simply put, a life of discipleship gives us an identity, directs us in worship, gathers us into community, and sends us on mission.
I like to listen to sports radio. From time-to-time I will laugh about the way fans talk about sports and the teams they like. Inevitably they speak in the first person: “If we would have started a different quarterback, we would have won.”
My favorite is the off-season talk, “We just need to draft that great running back and acquire another hot free agent, and I am sure we will win the championship!”-as if the person talking has any influence in the front-office at all.
Why do they talk that way? It's because sporting-life can give us an identity - so much so that we include our lives as part of the life of the team. Their victories are our victories. Their losses our losses.
As Christians our discipleship is about an identity as well. We were once defined as “no people” and ” and “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-3). But because of the grace of God and the work of Jesus we are given a new identity. Peter declares that who we are before God is now defined as a “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). The Scriptures tell us that we are now loved, alive, raised up, God’s workmanship, sons and daughters, and so on (Ephesians 2:4-10).
We have a new identity in Jesus. Just as the sporting-life gives us an identity around a particular team or club, Christian discipleship redefines our identity from sinner to saint. When we think about Christian discipleship, we are calling people to live in this new identity and reality. We are calling them to “put on Christ,” to receive his grace and turn from lost, dead and doomed to loved, redeemed and reconciled. Discipleship begins with identity.
Worship? At a football game? Seriously?! Yes, absolutely. Think about it. Where in culture do thousands gather weekly and cheer, sing, cry, celebrate, and lift up the fame of another? It happens in sporting events all over the globe. Discipleship is about the object of our worship and the sporting-life provides an example of an object of worship.
We will talk about our teams during the week and how great they are. We decorate our homes, vehicles, faces, and kids with colors and logos. We want others in our neighborhood to know exactly who we think is the best and spend our team cheering for them. We cry when our team disappoints us, rejoice when they win, and every off-season deeply hope our team fulfills our wishes and expectations. Worship is a major aspect of discipleship.
So how is worship for the Christian disciple to be any different? We have a greater and better object to celebrate, sing over, rejoice in, declare, and exalt (Revelation 5:9-10). Jesus and his work on our behalf is worthy of much greater song, affection, devotion, and praise than any other object. One reason our worship of God is so anemic is because we don’t see and feel just how awesome and worthy he is. Discipleship gives us an object of worship. Christian discipleship gives us the Greatest One to worship.
Sports fans are notorious for the communities they form around their teams and sports. It is estimated that American’s spent eleven billion dollars on Super Bowl parties this year.
We gather in homes, bars, stadiums, or anywhere with a TV so we can see the game. Rarely, do we do it alone. And for the occasional individual who travels to these gathering sites alone it won’t be long before they're surrounded by others cheering on the same team. The sporting-life brings us into community with others.
Christian discipleship is no different. We are not saved into individuality but into community. Our identities are marked as “a chosen race” and a “people for God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:9). These are plural identities. When we live as disciples of Jesus, we are gathering into community because of his saving work. We identify with others because of the shared life of the gospel. We serve, love, forgive, confess, encourage one another because of the community God has formed by the gospel.
Discipleship is living together as a community in, around, and for the gospel.
It has always amazed me how sport franchises can have such a global following. Why do people in New Mexico care anything about the Premier Football (Soccer) League in Europe? It has to be because someone made them a disciple of a team. Someone went on mission and told them about the team, showed them some highlights, sat down and watched a game with them.
One person told another and showed them just how great Manchester United is. And the person being discipled believed it. The next thing you know they bought a kit and made the wallpaper on their laptop screen a team logo. They started going to the local sports bars and watching games and discovered there were other fans of the team and started hanging out and talking with them. Shortly thereafter the converted fan was telling his neighbor about the team and inviting the neighbor to watch the game. The next week the neighbor was seen applying a team decal to the tailgate of his pick-up truck. Disciples make disciples who make disciples.
Christian discipleship is the same. We tell people and show people the greatness and goodness of God (Romans 10:17). We live lives of compelling love and speak words of compelling grace to the lost (1 Peter 2:12). We invite them into our lives and our homes and into our communities and show them all that Jesus has done for us and in us and through us (John 13:34-35). We let them see us worshipping Jesus and declaring our affections and devotion to him. As this happens we pray that God would open their eyes to the beauty and grace of Jesus and that He would replace their identity as sinners with a new identity of grace. As that happens the cycle begins again. Disciples make disciples who make disciples.
Discipleship always demonstrates itself in mission. Whether it technological discipleship, celebrity discipleship, athletic discipleship, or Christian discipleship, disciples of something always find themselves on a mission to make more disciples.
Discipleship in the Sporting-life
A question remains though: how do we move and make disciples in a context where sports are the gods that are worshipped? How do we see lives transformed when folks are so captivated by the glory of youth and athletics that the glory of God can hardly be comprehended? A few brief practices are beneficial for walking into the sporting-life on mission for Jesus.
- Inhabit sporting spaces and places - We must be present in the lives of those being discipled by sports. We will never gain traction to earn respect and speak the gospel into the lives of those we never inhabit space and place with. Frequent a sports bar. Coach kids sports leagues. Be present in the lives and rhythms of a sporting community. I coached an under-nine soccer team and was able to get to know the parents. I didn’t know anything about soccer really. I just wanted to have fun with these kids and get to know their parents. As the season passed, I was able to develop these relationships and see them become a platform for sharing the gospel.
- Invest in those consumed by the sporting-life - I speak of investment on several fronts here. Being involved in the life of another for the sake of the gospel will cost you something. However your investment will demonstrate the seriousness of the gospel. Buy tickets and go to games with lost friends. Spend time with them on their turf watching sports. Sign up to play in the city sports leagues. Wichita Parks and Recreation, for instance, offers all sorts of adult sports opportunities from basketball and volleyball to a wiffleball league. Even if you are not a very good athlete, the goal is to be investing in the lives of others. Humble yourself and go as a missionary into these cultures. The key here is high relational contact. Be in their world.
- Be attentive to their lives beyond sports - It’s nearly impossible to share the gospel with someone while you are watching the Super Bowl. But the relational traction that you have developed with someone else while inhabiting and investing in them will lead to other opportunities beyond the game to share Jesus. Look for these areas. Don’t merely associate with lost people around sports. Listen to their stories, discover their life rhythms, include them in your everyday life. Invite them into your story, and more importantly invite them, as your lives connect, into the story of Jesus. Show them a better identity, a more glorious one to worship, a more faithful community and a greater and more valuable mission for life.
- Be patient, take your time - This is by no means an overnight process or event. It takes patience and endurance. It was two years before a friend that I was investing in through the tools of the sporting-life opened the door for me to talk about Christ with him. We can’t give up after a few weeks or the end of the season. Disciple-making is a long-term, low-key, intentional activity. Stick with it. Continue to inhabit their lives. Continue to invest in them. Pray for them and the opportunity to share the gospel all the while living out the implications of the gospel before them. Let your urgency be in prayer and before God and your endurance be toward your lost friends.
I’m convinced that we have muddled the concept of discipleship. We’ve made it sound like college calculus more than everyday life and have forgotten what ordinary everyday discipleship is. The reality is every human being knows a lot more about discipleship than they think they do. Sometimes is merely takes seeing how discipleship plays out in another context to make it more clear for our own. Jesus didn’t tell Peter he would never fish again. He told him that he would fish for a different catch (Matthew 4:19). In the same way, Christ hasn’t called us to reinvent the wheel when it comes to discipleship, he’s just called us to make disciples of a different nature (Matthew 28:19-20). Let’s use the practices and paradigms of sporting-life discipleship to engage in eternal, Christian discipleship. Let’s be disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus.
Jeremy Writebol is Christian who really enjoys sports. He is the husband of Stephanie, daddy of Allison and Ethan, and lives and works in Wichita, KS as the Community Pastor at Journey the Way. He is the director of Porterbrook Kansas and writes at jwritebol.net.
For more resources on how to share the gospel authentically, check out Unbelievable Gospel by Jonathan Dodson.
For more free articles on making the gospel part of your everyday life, read: The Neighborhood Missions Startup by Seth McBee, Messy Discipleship by Jake Chambers, and Plant the Gospel, Plant Churches by Tony Merida.