Our culture—frequently even the Christian communities within this culture—separates God and sport as though they are completely incompatible and unrelated categories.
What if we equipped ourselves to engage sport differently by being properly conscious of the God who oversees all things? What if simply by turning our attention to God in prayer before the Final Four sports “holiday” takes place—or even during—we could influence not only the immediate lives of those participating but even eternity long after the games end?
As you watch the Final Four, we want to draw your attention to a few elements of the games so that when you see them, you are triggered to think of and pray to God. This is a major perspective shift that becomes possible with a few minor adjustments.
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Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball. He famously said, “The invention of basketball was not an accident. It was developed to meet a need. Those boys simply would not play Drop the Handkerchief.”
Mark Householder, President of Athletes in Action, recently spent time with Dr. Naismith’s grandson, Jim, who shed light on the circumstances surrounding the creation of the game.
Householder explains what he learned from Jim: “I was drawn to the story Jim recalled about the circumstances around his grandfather inventing the sport. Suffice it to say, James (Naismith)had a bit of a troubled life as a young man, found direction in a relationship with God in his early 20's and out of gratitude for his life change wanted to give back and make a difference in the lives of other young people. Hence, basketball was invented as a game with a spiritual purpose. Naismith saw basketball as a tool with a purpose "to help lead young people to the Master.”
Action Point: Knowing that basketball was invented “to help lead your people to the Master” can shape how we pray during the Final Four. As you watch the games, remember we are not watching avatars—these are 18-21 year old men who are developing an identity and using sport as the primary vehicle to do so.
Pray that their experience in the Final Four would lead them to desire an identity based on what God says is true of them and not media, fans, coaches, parents, administration!
Athletes in Action hosts the Legends of the Hardwood breakfast in the city where the Final Four takes place. Now in its 21st year, the breakfast stands as one of the premier events during the NCAA Final Four weekend.
Jerry Colangelo, Chairman and USA Basketball says "This is one of the best events I have attended where character is so strongly emphasized. The challenge for executives to look at their lives—significance vs. success—is dynamic."
At the event, the John Wooden “Keys to Life” Award is presented annually to a member of the college or professional basketball community who lives out qualities exemplified by Coach Wooden: outstanding character, integrity, and leadership on the court, in the workplace, in the home, and in the community.
This year’s award will be given to two individuals: Paul Westphal, a former NBA player and coach of the Phoenix Suns and Gary Cunningham, a former assistant (to John Wooden) and head coach for the UCLA Bruins.
Action Point: Over 1,200 are expected to attend this breakfast. All of the presenters and Russell himself are Christian men who will not be shy about sharing the gospel clearly with those in attendance.
Pray for the hearts and minds of the hearers, that they would be open to receiving Christ or rededicating their life to walking with God in their community after the event. Pray that Houston would be changed by the gospel going forth.
Unfortunately, you will not have an impact on who wins or loses in the Final Four. You can, however, have an impact on the players' lives through prayer.
Action Point: Click on the team roster and choose a few guys to pray for. Know that many of these men on both teams are already actively involved in attending chapel and discipleship with Athletes in Action and meeting with staff from other ministries.
Do you know how many rules an official needs to know? Check out the rulebook.
On top of knowing these rules, they also have to make multiple decisions every single play on whether to blow the whistle or swallow it. And they do all of this with millions of people watching!
As Christians, we need to consciously give them grace, in spite of the emotions that come with watching.
Action Point: When the ref inevitably makes a bad call, relax. Your friends notice your actions when things don’t go your way. Your your kids notice too. Be a model of grace for those around you and cut the refs some slack.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:16, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus commands us to do good works, but also, when we see good works, to glorify God. As a fan, your biblical mandate when you see someone act admirably on the court is to give glory to God! Let’s make this really practical.
One attribute that is so prevalent in sports culture is pride. Pride is essentially self-worship. Pride is refusing to believe and act in a way that shows God is the provider and sustainer of everything in your life.
“What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). That is why we give God the glory—He alone deserves it.
The key word to focus in on for the Final Four is humility. Humility acts as a counter to pride.
Action Point: Whenever you see someone display an act of humility, give glory to God. Here are some actions to look for:
- Helping an opponent get up from the ground
- Tossing the ball to the ref
- Giving credit to a teammate after a successful play
- Not yelling at the ref after a questionable call (or no call)
- Not drawing attention to oneself after a big play is made
- Rallying around a teammate after he makes a mistake
Using situations like those listed above should trigger your heart to give glory to God.
- “God, thank you that the world just saw what humility can look like.”
- “God, your ways are better than the world’s.”
- “God, thank you that Jesus was the ultimate example of humility.”
The TV Event
The 2015 season finale of "The Walking Dead" saw 15.7 million viewers, making it the most watched episode of a television show ever.
Last year, the championship game between Villanova and UNC drew 17.8 million viewers—the second highest viewed college basketball game ever.
Sport is a universal language unlike any other. As you are watching the Final Four, there will be millions of people watching it with you.
Action Point: As a Christian, we can actively pray that God uses the games to reveal a glimpse of Himself through the games and their theatrics. For instance, if there is an unusual act of sportsmanship that causes you to think, “Why would they have done that?” a portion of those millions will be asking the same question.
In that moment and others like it, pray that curious people would have an opportunity to meet a Christ-follower who can explain God’s transforming grace clearly and succinctly. Like the players, pray that a longing gets created in people post-event for something more substantive, for an answer to the question, “Is that all there is?”
The NCAA Trophy
Our society celebrates the championship as the finish line.
When the game ends and the trophy gets handed to the winning team, know as a fan that the experience of joy that players feel will not last long. At some point they will ask the question: “What next?”
Tom Brady famously said in a CBS interview a few years back: “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there's something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, "Hey man, this is what is." I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think: God, it's gotta be more than this. I mean this can't be what it's all cracked up to be.”
Action Point: Pray for the winners of the NCAA Championship. The joy will not last long and when it wears off, they are going to wonder why it did not satisfy. This is prime time for God to enter in as the ultimate satisfier of our souls.
Pray that the discontentedness that inevitably follows reaching a goal would spur a desire to resolve “something missing in my life” and that God would make Himself known at the opportune time. Winning is fun. Spending eternity with God is better.
Pray for the losers of the game as well, who may be more open to spiritual conversation in the midst of their disappointment.
Pray for the Seniors on the team, many of whom will have just played the last basketball game of their career. They are beginning a transition that will not be easy as a significant part of their life for the last decade will no longer exist.