What Is and Is Not a Sport?

Ok, so here’s a topic that has been the subject of conversations and debates at sports bars and water coolers for decades. It’s a departure from my usually more serious blog posts, so take this with a grain of salt. In other words, if you’re a participant in a competitive endeavor that I don’t classify as a sport, please don’t hunt me down and beat me up. I say that in all seriousness because one time I was discussing this with a group of friends at a wings restaurant in Tuscaloosa and the Georgia Bulldog gymnastics team (a.k.a. the Gym Dawgs) overheard the conversation and took issue with my comments. As they left the restaurant, they walked by our table and gave me evil looks. One gymnast confronted me and said, “So, gymnastics isn’t a sport, huh?” I looked at her stout muscular build, and that of her colleagues, and sizing up my companions realized I was dangerously outmatched. I was afraid those angry young women were going to take me out back and throttle me, which they could have done with ease. Which brings me to an important caveat – I’m classifying SPORTS, not athletes! I will concede that there are genuine athletes participating in all kinds of competitive endeavors that I do not classify as a sport. Not all athletes participate in a sport, but to be good at a true sport, you must be an athlete.

Here is my definition of a sport: a skilled athletic competition between human beings in which the outcome is determined by the physical abilities of the participants themselves.

The following activities are sports: baseball, basketball, football, soccer, hockey, softball, volleyball, track and field, speed skating, ultimate Frisbee, cycling, swimming, rowing, tennis, and probably a few others I can’t think of right now.

The following activities are NOT sports: gymnastics (it’s judged), diving (judged), boxing (judged), figure skating (judged), synchronized swimming (judged), most X-games events (judged), horse racing (non-human competitors), NASCAR and drag racing (outcome aided by motors), bowling and competitive eating events (if you can be extremely out of shape and be good at it, it’s not a sport), chess (for the same aforementioned reason), curling (because it’s just too goofy to be a sport), and probably a few others I can’t think of right now.

Let me explain. In judged events, the outcome isn’t determined by the participants themselves; judges basically decide who wins. That’s different from having officials or referees help to enforce the rules. When horses or cars are involved, the outcome is more about the power of the non-human participants. Cycling is different because bicycles are powered by humans not motors. Bowling, eating competitions, and chess are eliminated by the “out of shape” rule: if you can be extremely out of shape and be good at it, it’s not a sport. In other words, if your training diet consists of a tray of Lasagna and a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, you probably aren’t participating in a sport. And curing … well, the fat slob rule may apply, but I’d like to invoke another rule – the “goofy rule.” This rule is needed to keep things reasonable and to keep any random competitive enterprise from being classified as a sport and thrown into the next olympics.

Admittedly, there are some gray areas, and I’m looking at you golf (remember John Daily?). And what about competitive endeavors in which there’s a pretty good chance you could die (mixed martial arts) or events so extreme that virtually no one can do them (ultra-marathon running). I’ll let you all debate those particular cases. I do recommend doing so in private, however, so that you don’t run the risk of getting your face kicked in by someone who may be more of an athlete than you, but who doesn’t actually compete in a true sport.


What is Biblical Manhood?

“What man? Which man? Who’s the man?
When’s a man a man? What does it take to be a man?
Am I a man? Yes, technically I am.” – Flight of the Conchords

It has become trendy in some Christian circles to talk about biblical manhood. Here’s a confession. I am a man. I have been a Christian since 1982. I have read the Bible from cover to cover more than once. I am a trained scholar and theologian. I’ve heard dozens of sermons and read books and articles on the subject, and I still have absolutely no idea what sense to make of the term “biblical manhood.” Here’s why.


Many seem to intend biblical manhood to refer to people who (1) have a male anatomy, (2) behave in stereotypically male ways (leadership, chivalry, toughness, athleticism, assertiveness, etc.), (3) are also able to relate to others with appropriate sensitivity and gentleness when the situation requires it, and (4) read the Bible and try to follow its pattern for life. Here’s the problem with this description. With the exception of (1), most of these traits apply to my wife, and my daughter, and my female co-workers, and my mother, and Mother Theresa! Are these women behaving un-biblically if they behave in some stereotypically male ways? If not, then the only part of biblical manhood that is exclusively male, is having male anatomy!

Ok, so maybe the previous paragraph was a touch cynical. Honestly, I understand why there has been a push over the past decade to discuss the subject. Many men, especially young men, have lost their way. They’ve grown up in a world where devoted fathers are increasingly rare and mothers anchor the home. They’ve learned that women can do most anything that men can do, and they’ve seen women surpass men in achievement in both educational and professional contexts. They’ve been told that there are almost no psychological or emotional differences between men and women, and that to attribute certain traits exclusively to men is stereotyping at best, or sexist at worst. In short, America is a low-context culture when it comes to gender roles, meaning that there are fewer and fewer cultural norms that help men learn what it means to be a man.

That being the case, some have sought to use the Bible to fill the void, interpreting the patriarchalism of ancient Israel and the Greco-Roman world as prescriptive and not merely descriptive. In other words, the role of men described in the Bible should be the role of men today, or so the argument goes. But one of the most basic principles of biblical interpretation is that you should not make the Bible say what the Bible doesn’t say, and the Bible just doesn’t say that men in every culture should behave as men did in the world of the Bible’s authors. The Bible does say that Eve was created as a helper for Adam (and vice versa), that sin resulted in a condition in which Adam would “rule over” Eve, that the husband is “head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church,” and that wives should “submit” and husbands should love. We could argue all day about what these verses mean, but at the end of the day, these passages are more about marriage than manhood. We could analyze Paul’s instructions about how men should behave in church, but again, these passages are more about leadership in a particular context. We could try to arrive at a view of manhood based on the instructions Paul gives to women about church behavior, which would be like learning to play basketball by watching soccer.

I realize that this is not a comprehensive discussion of the subject; I intend it as a conversation starter. In the final analysis, the Bible simply has much more to say about being Christlike than about being manly. I tend to think that when we men get Christlikeness correct, then manhood will take care of itself, and if we focus on manhood to the neglect of Christlikeness, we’re to likely to screw up both.


Preaching to College Students

Many campus ministers rely primarily on guests to preach to and teach their students. This was the strategy during my college years, and many still use that strategy. Not all campus ministers are great preachers, nor do they feel like they have the time or capacity to focus on that particular ministry task, and with good reason. Campus Ministers have to be good at many things, including counseling, administration, money management, personnel supervision, facilities operations, church relations, food preparation, travel arrangements, and the list goes on. I believe that is it a mistake, however, to outsource biblical teaching exclusively to those who do not know your students or their context as well as you do. Simply because you are not the world’s greatest preacher does not mean that you can’t be the world’s most effective preacher for your context. I work for a university where annually we have dozens of guest speakers, preachers, teachers, and lecturers visit campus each year. Dollar for dollar, I think that our faculty, staff, and campus ministers communicate more effectively to our students than even the most entertaining or impressive guests. In other words, if what you’re going for is entertainment, then a guest is best. If what you want is impact, guests often (usually?) fall short. In a world of limited resources, therefore, I say you get more bang for your buck by anchoring your teaching/preaching schedule with people on your campus or on your staff, people who know and love your students better than anyone.

With that in mind, here are a few brief ideas on preaching to college students in a campus ministry context:

  1. Preach as often as you can, or as often as it makes sense in your environment. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t great at it or don’t love it keep you from being effective at it.
  2. Pay attention in speech class and preaching class. The technical details about presentation style, stage presence, eye contact, diction, pace, pronunciation, visual aids, etc. – these details matter. This is especially true in a world where students spend more time fact-to-face with screens than with live people.
  3. Know your audience. Know their life stage, social tendencies, emotional burdens, and intellectual curiosities. Know their language, their intelligence level, their average GPA and ACT scores, their music, their culture.
  4. Don’t assume that students have any degree of biblical literacy. Most do not. At the same time, don’t “dumb down” your content. Explain concepts confusing to someone who didn’t grow up in church, but don’t be pedantic.
  5. Challenge students. They expect to and want to learn. They don’t necessarily need to or expect to “feel better” after a message. Hit them between the eyes; say it like it is; throw down when necessary. Do this with humor and grace, the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.
  6. Be personal and missional. Let them learn a little about you and your struggles, without emotionally streaking. But stay focused on the mission, the Gospel message and its proclamation, what theologians call “Christo-centric” preaching.
  7. The sermon should be part of a process, not an isolated event. Invite others into the planning process. Give clear next steps. Use the sermon to lead an organization, to expose its flaws and your own. Use the momentum created by a challenging message to accomplish things far more important than the sermon itself. At the end of the day, the sermon is a means, not an end.



What Do College Students Care Most About? Friends!

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I was reminded in a recent blog post by my son (read it here) that for students, college is about friendships. Professors want students to think high-minded thoughts, to probe the depths of intellectual inquiry, to increase in knowledge. Campus ministers want students to deepen their faith and their commitments to Christ and the Church. Parents want students to make good grades, gain a marketable set of skills, and get a job after they graduate. All good things, but students mostly want friends, at least at first. After they find good friends, then maybe they’ll want some of that other stuff too, especially if their friends want it. This means that for most students, friends can make or break the college experience. With this in mind, here are a few thoughts on college friendships for each of the players involved:

Parents – Talk to your students about finding the right friends. Consider Greek Life carefully and prayerfully, knowing that the choice to pledge could be the most significant decision your son or daughter makes. Think not just about the academic programs and job prospects that a university provides, but think about its campus culture as well. Get to know your student’s friends. Have them over, feed them, help do their laundry. You can learn volumes about your student’s college experience from his/her friends.

Professors – Your students care more about their friends than they do you or your class. They’re probably taking your class because a friend told them it was good. They’ll skip your class to spend time with a friend in a crisis, and they’ll be confused to learn this isn’t an excused absence. They will skip studying for a late night pizza, coffee, or Sonic run. Nothing you say in class will change this. Students who don’t find good friends tend to transfer to another school. And you were probably the same way when you were a student.

Campus Minister – Your events, programs, and activities should capitalize on students’ perceived need for friends. This isn’t pandering, it’s understanding and adapting to a culture, as you would in a missions setting with an unreached people group. Students will follow their friends to a party or to church, to a summer camp job or a summer missions experience, to a campus lecture or a campus ministry. To call this a “herd mentality” is to degrade this stage in a student’s life.

Students – If you leave home for school, and even if you commute to a campus near your home, your life is uprooted, upended, and upheaval is the result. You need friends, good friends, and quickly. Go out and find them, don’t wait for them to come to you. This will sometimes be uncomfortable and occasionally awkward, especially if you tend toward the shy side. Embrace the awkward – all new students feel it, and most older students too. Friend groups morph from semester to semester, so everyone is always making new friends. And most importantly, find the RIGHT friends who share your faith and your values, who want truly good things for you, who will challenge you, confront you, disagree with you, sharpen you, hold you accountable, and keep you from thinking that college is all about you.


Sermon Preparation

Finishing sermon preparation this morning has me thinking about the process from start to finish. If time is no issue (and it almost always is), here is the full process I follow, with very little commentary, when preparing a sermon:

  1. Select the text – or better yet, have someone, or a team, or a sermon series, or the lectionary select it for you. A text of between 15-20 verses is about all most people can handle in a single sermon.
  2. Read the text several times, thinking primarily about its application to you, the preacher/teacher. Here’s where prayer is most important, although it should take place at every step.
  3. Think about the audience, their place in life, their needs, where the text will bump up against them.
  4. Outline the text – A, B, C, i, ii, iii. Often you’ll get your main points from this step.
  5. Diagram complex sentences, research unclear meanings, consulting commentaries, cross-referencing other biblical texts.
  6. Construct a thesis statement – the main idea or argument of your message. This should generally be a simple sentence.
  7. Select 3-5 main points, then consolidate them to 2-3.
  8. Fill out each point for clarity, listenability, understandability. Here I sometimes ask my wife, kids, or colleagues if I’m making sense.
  9. Tweak for “fix and flow,” in other words, the fixed points that the listener needs to follow, and transitions between those points.
  10. Add analogies, stories, illustrations to explain important or complex principles.
  11. Memorize, practice, edit. Repeat.
  12. Preach, get feedback, critique.

Leaving Home for College: Part Two (for students)

You’ve just graduated from High School. You’ve probably attended college orientation, or will very soon. You’re now counting the days, maybe hours, until you move in and start your college career. I know you’re getting advice from every conceivable person, so here’s how to survive the next few weeks until move-in day.

  • Cut your parents some slack. Your parents are acting strange, looking at your old baby pictures, watching videos of when you were a child, and generally over-reacting to almost everything.  They are an emotional wreck, for some good reasons and maybe not so good reasons. They’ll chill out eventually. Probably. Hopefully.
  • Manage information overload. You’re going to get an awful lot of information over the next few weeks, including advice from mentors, important dates from your college, stuff you need to remember. Get a notebook. Write it all down. Keep in all in one place.
  • Get organized. Make a list of things you need, decide what you have, what you can borrow, and what you need to buy. Keep “to do” lists and check things off. Life is about to get stressful, and organization will minimize the chaos.
  • Talk to your parents about boundaries. I know they’re getting on your nerves, but you need to set some boundaries with them about how often they’re going to call, text, contact you on social media, visit, etc. Get on the same page with them. Be firm, but respectful, about your expectations.
  • Be smart with money. You need to understand the financial big-picture, where the money is coming from to pay for college, and how much you have to spend on necessities and luxuries. Your parents will expect you to be financially responsible, and you want to be, so get the knowledge you need to make that happen.
  • Take the time to say goodbye. Maybe you’re sentimental and maybe not, but either way, your life is about to change permanently. Whether or not this makes you sad to think about, say goodbye to life as you know it. Tell your teachers you appreciate them. Write a thank-you note to your youth minister. Say thanks to those friends who’ve been by your side through thick and thin. And avoid the temptation to spend all your time with friends. Express appreciation to your family members, who more than anyone, need some closure.

Leaving Home for College: Part One (for parents)

This is the time of year that students and parents attend college orientation, an exciting time for students but a tearful time for many parents. As a campus minister, I’ve spent over 15 years helping with college orientations and I have occasionally thought that parents were a bit melodramatic about saying goodbye. All that changed last year when my first offspring left for college himself.  I found the experience gut-wrenching, not because I was worried about him or his future, and certainly not because I wanted him to stay home. I just felt the grief associated with the end of that stage of our relationship.  So based on my experiences, here are a few things I’ve learned about saying goodbye.

For parents:

  • Let go. I know this is such a blinding flash of the obvious that nobody will say it, and that’s why I need to say it.
  • Don’t hover. Agree to mutually acceptable levels of contact by phone, text, social media, visits, etc.
  • Be patient. Your student is probably not as ready as he/she thinks. He/she will make some surprisingly silly mistakes.
  • Be realistic. Your student is probably more ready than you think. He/she will make some surprisingly good decisions.
  • Embrace this stage. An adult-to-adult relationship with your son or daughter is a deeply satisfying and rewarding thing.