Playing for God

Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry

Annie Blazer
Copyright Date: 2015
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Playing for God
    Book Description:

    When sports ministry first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, its founders imagined male celebrity athletes as powerful salespeople who could deliver a message of Christian strength: "If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades, and cigarettes, surely they can endorse the Lord, too," reasoned Fellowship of Christian Athletes founder Don McClanen. But combining evangelicalism and sport did much more than serve as an advertisement for religion: it gave athletes the opportunity to think about the embodied experiences of sport as a way to experience intimate connection with the divine. As sports ministry developed, it focused on individual religious experiences and downplayed celebrity sales power, opening the door for female Christian athletes to join and eventually dominate sports ministry. Today, women are the majority of participants in sports ministry in the United States.

    InPlaying for God, Annie Blazer offers an exploration of the history and religious lives of Christian athletes, showing that evangelical engagement with popular culture can carry unintended consequences. When sport became an avenue for embodied worship, it forced a reckoning with evangelical teachings about the body. Female Christian athletes increasingly turned to their own bodies to understand their religious identity, and in so doing, came to question evangelical mainstays on gender and sexuality. What was once a male-dominated masculinist project of sports engagement became a female-dominated movement that challenged evangelical ideas on femininity, marriage hierarchy, and the sinfulness of homosexuality. Though evangelicalism has not changed sporting culture, for those involved in sports ministry, sport has changed evangelicalism.

    eISBN: 978-1-4798-3882-0
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Practicing Faith: Sports Ministry and Evangelicalism in America
    (pp. 1-24)

    “God turned my life upside down this semester. I moved out West with my fiancé for a job, and now I don’t have that job or the fiancé anymore and I’m back here in North Carolina. I had been trying to do it all alone, and eventually God was like, ‘No. You don’t get to do this anymore,’ and he took it all away from me.” Taylor, a former Athletes in Action (AIA) staff member and University of North Carolina gymnastics alum, was speaking to a group of about thirty Christian college athletes at the weekly AIA sports ministry meeting...

    • 1 Making the Save: Conversion and Witnessing
      (pp. 27-53)

      “You are afraid. You are afraid of what God can do with your life,” Andrew scolded me, clearly frustrated. We had been sitting and talking over an open Bible for nearly two hours. It was my second day of fieldwork at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer camp for high school athletes in Forest Grove, Oregon. Andrew was the weighttraining coach and worked with each of the athletic groups on weight lifting and conditioning skills. That morning, I had joined the track team for his training session, and he included exercises meant to be specifically helpful for me. Andrew was...

    • 2 Transcendent Intimacy: The Embodied Pleasures of Sport
      (pp. 54-77)

      In the 1980s, FCA’s member publicationSharing the Victoryran the “Sports Conscience Series,” a group of articles “designed to encourage readers to grapple with some of the thornier issues in athletics.” In these twenty articles spanning two years, sports ministers addressed difficult topics like “How to Treat a Superstar” and “When Your Heroes Become Zeroes.” Overall, these articles reflected an ongoing concern in sports ministry that emphasizing winning was problematic. The authors warned time and again against getting caught up in sports mania. They cautioned that believing that winning matters above all else or treating sports celebrities as if...

    • 3 Spiritual Warfare and Christlikeness: Narratives of Bodies and Battlefields
      (pp. 78-100)

      “Beat me! Beat me!” Becky shouted as she sprinted alongside a camper finishing an endurance challenge at an all-camp competition. It was the fourth day of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer camp, and all the small groups, called “huddles,” were competing against each other in a series of games and races. These contests were primarily fun, lighthearted games like wrestling in sumo suits or wheelbarrow races. This general atmosphere made Becky’s shouted demand stand out, and I jerked my head away from my conversation to watch Becky and the camper sprint past.

      The endurance challenge was the final event...

    • 4 Wearing Our Shorts a Little Longer: Testing the Boundaries of Evangelical Femininity
      (pp. 103-128)

      “I mean, I’m six foot two. I’m tall and strong. I’m the loudest, meanest player on the field. And that’s just not allowed for women in the church. It’s just not allowed,” Nora, a player on the Charlotte Lady Eagles, told me. “It’s not that anyone tells you explicitly how you’re supposed to be. But there’s a lot of covert messages—this is what a woman looks like, this is what her goals are. That’s just not what I am. And I have that fight in my mind every day when I’m walking into a church or into campus ministry.”...

    • 5 Challenging the Call: Sexual Desire and Sexual Deviance
      (pp. 129-156)

      “I want to go back to church, but can’t find the guts to go. I know Jesus loves me. It’s all the other assholes I’m worried about,” Amy wrote in her blog three years after leaving the Charlotte Lady Eagles. When I knew her in the summer of 2008, Amy was married with a two-year-old daughter. When we reconnected in 2011, she was an out lesbian with a live-in female partner helping her raise her little girl. Amy and I had corresponded off and on after I spent a summer season with the Lady Eagles. Soon after the season ended,...

    • 6 Faith Off the Field: Negotiating Gender at Home
      (pp. 157-182)

      Athletes in Action gathered for its weekly meeting on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the spring of 2007. The evening’s speaker was on the coaching staff for the year’s winning Super Bowl team. He addressed the group of about forty male and female college athletes, “The most important choice you make, other than knowing Christ, is marriage. Find a godly spouse.” This perception of marriage as the second most important relationship in Christian life is common among evangelicals. Many evangelicals see a spouse as God’s provision for personal happiness and for deepening faith...

    • Conclusion: A Tale of Unintended Consequences
      (pp. 183-194)

      Athletes know their bodies. One cannot become an elite athlete without subjecting one’s body to arduous training, refining it to be efficient, powerful, and quick. It is because athletes demonstrate this mastery that they are admired and elevated in American culture. When sports ministry first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, evangelicals sought to capitalize on Americans’ admiration of elite athletes, showcasing Christian athletes as examples of the benefits of Christian life. This book has investigated the unintended consequences of that project.

      Christian athletes confronted a number of challenges as they tried to combine evangelicalism and sport—how to witness,...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 195-222)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 223-232)
    (pp. 233-233)