“Therefore, since we also have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let’s rid ourselves of every obstacle and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1 NASB
This biblical reference to athletic competitions is a rare moment where the ancient culture of the Apostle Paul’s day collides with our modern lifestyle – sporting events are still a pillar of the culture and provide great opportunities to leverage common understanding of sports to apply spiritual lessons.
In our day, sports encourage young people to be active, build confidence in their own abilities, and learn life skills in a fun environment. They learn the value of teamwork, diligence, concentration, hard work, managing their emotions, quick problem solving… the building blocks to a healthy emotional and spiritual life.
“In our tech society, there are so few opportunities for kids to develop character, and this is absolutely critical,” says Dave Kubal, a member of the board of directors for the NDP Task Force and president of Intercessors for America. “Sports build character and faith.”
Kubal spent almost two decades at Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an organization with over 2,000 full-time missionaries who reach hundreds of thousands of coaches and athletes for the Gospel each year. FCA’s mission is undergirded with the knowledge that a winning sports team can captivate a school with their success in the arena of competition, and this same influence can be used to glorify God and shift an entire community when the team is on fire for Christ.
“Athletes are typically the most influential groups on campuses, whether junior high, high school or college, Kubal says. “It is key to have the influencers, being coaches, impacting the most influential groups, the athletes.”
We can pray for coaches to be receptive to godly influences like FCA missionaries, or fellow Christians. When coaches are grounded in Christ, they can be incredible influences over their athletes and campuses. They interact with athletes in much smaller groups than a classroom, sometimes for hours upon end, pushing these young people to grow, refine their athletic skills and build character.
“There’s this great quote, ‘the most influential person in our culture today is the athletic coach’ and I would add on, sometimes even more influential than parents,” Kubal says.
We can also pray for parents, teachers, and coaches to be unified in collaboration, rather than competition, in the raising up of children grounded in faith and brought up with unshakable character.
When sports are a positive outlet during adolescence, young people begin to grasp that the Lord establishes them in every area of their life—family, school, church, and sports—and their character should be the same in each setting. They cannot honor God and act one way at home and another way at sports practice.
Coaches are key to modeling what it looks like to live out God-honoring values in every situation and setting, in wins and losses, in frustration and joy.
As a young junior high athlete, I was profoundly impacted by a Christian coach in my public school.
After basketball practices, my coach stayed late to host a short devotional and prayer time. It was completely optional, with was no retribution for those who didn’t attend, and no special treatment for those who did. On game days, we saw her draw away, whether on the bench or the baseline of the basketball court, with her head bowed in prayer before the game.
For me, the power of her testimony was her dedication to the Lord in the easy moments, and the evidence of God at work in the challenges. When opposing coaches yelled a string of obscenities at a referee after a bad call, the Spirit moved her to rebuke the same temptation and remain God-honoring in her speech. I know her prayers before the game were for peace, asking the Lord to cool any anger that arose, and give her clarity and wisdom to honor her players and her Lord.
She was the same honest, respectful, and grace-filled woman whether she was leading physical education class at school, teaching my small group at church, or coaching a tied basketball game with 45 seconds left on the clock. She bore the fruit of integrity that flowed from her roots in Christ.
The Lord’s work in her life was a testimony to me as a young Christian, that the Lord’s promises are true, and my witness as a Christian had just as much of a place in the locker room as it did in the youth group at church.
This summer, the Supreme Court decided a case that dealt with a coach’s legal right to pray at school in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case. Coach Joe Kennedy sued the school district after being fired from his high school coaching position for continuing to pray on the 50-yard line following football games and being instructed to move his prayer location to a more private space. The Court’s ruled in favor of Kennedy and affirmed his freedom to express his religious beliefs in a school setting.
“Coach Kennedy did it by himself, didn’t recruit others, and did it on his own time,” says Kubal. “This ruling is critical, and it has ramifications among not only coaches, but all government workers.”
The Court’s decision clarified questions surrounding prayer in public places and positions. Just because a person’s speech appears religious in nature, that doesn’t eliminate the speech or gesture from being a protected freedom, so long as it is separate from their official duties and is not coercive to others. Meaning, a postal worker can read their Bible on their lunch break, a teacher can talk about volunteering at their church, and a coach can kneel in prayer after a game, all without fear of retribution.
Will you join me in prayer for these influencers?
Lord, You are the greatest prize—Your presence is everything we ever need, and Your glory outweighs any earthly achievement. As the school year begins, move in the hearts of coaches to always look beyond a win/loss record, and see the precious young souls they are cultivating through sports. Give them the right words to say to encourage their athletes and use the big wins and hard losses of competition to give young people confidence and clarity to see all You have made them to be and accomplish for Your glory.
In light of the Kennedy case, I lift up Christian teachers and coaches who will wield their freedom with wisdom. Lord, guide their prayers to be a balm in a chaotic school day or a tough loss in athletic competition. May their prayers and actions to be a powerful testimony to their students, co-workers and school administrators. Open opportunities for questions and a humble witness with those who don’t yet know You as Lord and Savior.
In Jesus name, amen.
Peace and blessings,
Communications Coordinator, National Day of Prayer Task Force