Muscular Christianity Turns Fields of Dreams Into Evangelism Forums : Religion: Public displays of faith on the sporting field are becoming increasingly common. Christian ministry organizations have developed to preach to athletes from the junior high school to pro levels.


The first thing the Chicago Bulls did after winning the NBA championship was not to pour champagne over each other's head, but to gather together to say The Lord's Prayer.

In baseball, superstar Darryl Strawberry undergoes a much-publicized conversion to born-again Christianity, and what football fan can forget the images of New York Giants players huddled together in prayer on successive weeks in 1991 as their Super Bowl fate was decided on game-ending field goal attempts.

Public displays of religious faith on the sporting field are becoming increasingly common as scores of Christian ministry organizations have developed to preach to athletes from the junior high school to professional levels.

The Colorado Springs-based International Bible Society plans to distribute hundreds of thousands of tracts on religion and sport to spectators and athletes at the Barcelona Olympics that began Saturday, and an alliance of athletic ministry organizations called Sports Outreach America is already making plans for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Evangelists say America's seeming insatiable appetite for sports provides them with a platform to urge consideration of a higher playing field, but some sociologists and critics say religion is being cynically manipulated by an industry that with its drug abuse, academic scandals, high injury rates and winning-at-all-costs-attitude betrays the values of the faith being exalted.

"The church's role in the relationship has been increasingly one of accommodation to big-time sport," said Shirl Hoffman, head of the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "It can't stand to risk changing or arguing for a change in big-time sports."

God was more important than king and country to the Scottish runner Eric Liddell portrayed in the movie "Chariots of Fire" when he refused to compete in the 1924 Olympics on the Sabbath. Hellfire evangelist Billy Sunday gave up his baseball career for an itinerant ministry.

But the modern movement of using athletics as a springboard for proselytization didn't begin until after the Second World War when miler Gil Dodds was used by evangelists, including an up-and-coming preacher named Billy Graham, to draw crowds to rallies, according to sociologist James Mathisen of Wheaton College.

By the mid-50s, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was born. Athletes in Action, part of Campus Crusade for Christ, developed in the mid-60s.

The latest developments in what Mathisen refers to as "muscular Christianity" have been the recruiting of pro athletes and the coordination of athletic evangelism through groups such as Sports Outreach America for major events such as the 1994 World Cup and the 1996 Olympics.

Mathisen said the field is so sophisticated today that there are separate ministries even for Christian fishermen and weightlifters.

The Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which holds regular prayer meetings and special events, is in about 4,000 schools, or an estimated 15% of the nation's junior highs, high schools and colleges.

"We would like to be in about 100% of the schools," said Don Hilkemeir, a vice president of the fellowship.

Hilkemeir said sports present a great opportunity for evangelism since 90% of the public is involved in them in some way, and people like to associate with winners.

He also said there are strong parallels between religion and sport in that Christianity emphasizes "victory over death" and the ideals of sport of running for the prize and pressing on toward a goal have scriptural bases.

A spontaneous demonstration of thanksgiving such as the Bulls displayed can be a healthy expression of the symbols and rituals that give meaning to the players' lives, according to Joseph Price, who teaches both the sociology of religion and the sociology of sport at Whittier College in California.

"Why should one take offense other than it might be different than ones own preferred sense of expression of meaning," he said.

But others raise critical questions of whether sports has come to transcend religion.

Hoffman, editor of an anthology on "Sport and Religion," questions how the Christian ethic is compatible with the violent way football is played in the modern era, or how athletes are manipulated into playing hurt even with a high risk of sustaining lifelong damage.

If the body is considered sacred--made in the image of God--"It's very difficult to justify Christians going into the game of football as it is played in our culture," he said.

Hilkemeir said a Christian athlete "is living by a different set of rules, not playing by a different set of rules."

For example, he said, Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary is mild-mannered in the pulpit.

"But he's broken 13 helmets on the playing field and he will tell you he plays football to the best of his ability because Christ wants him to," Hilkemeir said.

But hitting another person hard enough to break his helmet is not behavior others think the founder of Christianity would encourage.

"As a practicing Christian, maybe what offends me the most is . . . in some ways what they are doing is sprinkling holy water on cultural values. They never ask, 'Is this a biblical value? Is this a Christian value?"' Mathisen said. "In a sense, they are really sort of unofficial cheerleaders for corporate sport."

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