A Review of
Playing for the City: The Power of Sports for Christian Community Development
Jeff Biddle Jr., James Jessup, Chris Lahr, Jeff Thompson
Reviewed by Adam Metz
A few years ago, as I was conducting research for my book on youth sports, Elite?, I uncovered what I believed to be a largely neglected area in the ever-expanding volumes on Christianity and sports. I was certain there were ministries throughout the country that went beyond sports programming and using sports platforms as pulpits (which seemed to be the focus of most of these books) to a more wholistic understanding of community development through sports. While I was able to find a passing reference here and a notable exception there, I had difficulty finding any in-depth analysis of Christians utilizing sports as part of a broader philosophy. The new book Playing for the City is an important contribution in helping fill this void as it speaks directly to, as the subtitle describes: “The Power of Sports for Christian Community Development.”
The four authors: Biddle, Jessup, Lahr, and Thompson, are all sports practitioners who fall firmly within the legacy of the Civil Rights icon and Christian activist John Perkins. Playing for the City articulates an approach to sports as it relates to the broader goals of Christian Community Development (CCD) – Perkins’s brainchild. The underlying presupposition is stated succinctly in the introduction: “When approached in the right way, sports have the potential to be the lifeblood of community transformation” (9). Offering a subtle critique of the way sports have often been treated by Christians, the authors probe more deeply into the complicated potential by realizing “it takes a deliberate, community-based strategy, where people across the boundaries of age, economics, and ethnicity work together in a way that is empowering and enriching for everyone involved” (11).
The book is organized according to John Perkins’s philosophy of CCD: relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution. Playing for the City provides a healthy melding of philosophical principles and actual, real-life praxis. Thus, a chief principle for CCD is to be immersed in the location: “It is never our job to ‘bring God’ to a community. It is our job to find out where and how He is working, join in the work, and let Him draw us together into a common purpose” (23). Each of the authors have immersed themselves in the neighborhoods where they serve youth sports communities. Chris Lahr, who worked with a sports ministry in Philadelphia writes, “The first step in relocation is simply ‘being’” (27). While this principle may seem obvious, it is often neglected by well-meaning Christian who choose instead a paratrooper mentality of bringing Jesus to those in need.
Growing out of the necessity of proximity – of actually being a part of the community– is listening and allowing the ministry to grow out of that community’s expressed needs and desires. Too often well-intended Christians assume they already know what a community needs before listening attentively to representative voices. Sports programs are no different than other social considerations for communities – listening is essential. “A core task of community development is working together to build a thriving culture, where neighbors cooperate to create a community where everyone can both contribute and receive, and where the divisions that characterize human life are superseded by the interdependence for which God designed us”(49). This principle is often considered in addressing other social challenges by Christian ministries, but those interested in sports have often neglected seeing the nuances that exist in sports culture.
Against the backdrop of the recent publicity professional sports leagues and high-profile athletes in the United States have received regarding Black Lives Matter and highly publicized racial tensions, seeing the role sports can play in reconciliation in general, and racial reconciliation in particular, has never been more timely. The authors reframe the focus of evangelism that often dominates Christians’ attention in sports ministries, to the broader goal of “building shalom within a community” (52). People like Jackie Robinson, Muhamad Ali, and Jessie Owens have become national icons for using their platform in sports to advance the cause for racial reconciliation and have shown how powerful sports can be in overcoming established, systemic barriers. One of the real strengths of Playing for the City is that the authors probe more deeply into the complexities of systemic injustices and the effect they have on communities. They acknowledge the opportunities that sports provide while not ignoring the challenges that must be overcome.
For many readers, Playing for the City proposes a serious paradigm shift for Christians in their understanding of church and its role in engaging social issues. This especially comes to the surface in the chapter on the church. In proposing, “We spend more time being the church, being God’s gathered people, in real life, than trying to talk our youth into conforming to us in our church settings” (75), some Christians may see a new understanding of what “church” looks like. The authors embody the “sent-ness” of the Great Commission that is often lacking in local church settings. “Being” the church on the football field or basketball court might take some creative imagination for more traditional church members.
However, at the heart of Playing for the City is a proposal for what church can look like when it is released into the community, addresses the needs of its citizens, develops localized leaders with a passion for their neighbors, and a provides a wholistic understanding of improving communities. Essential to this vision, then, is the need to develop leaders and trust the Holy Spirit. As the authors conclude: “The church needs to take note of Jesus’ approach and embrace these leaders where they are, empower them as leaders, and model the way of Jesus for them as they move forward” (142). Once local leaders are invested in, trusted, and empowered, the corresponding action becomes advocating alongside them.
For all the shortcomings and excesses of sports, they remain full of unlimited potential to unleash on communities and their young people. The church needs more resources like Playing for the City to deepen our understanding of how sports can build communities, and to expand our imagination about what is possible when we approach ministry through sports with a broader (and more complete) perspective. I think any Christian with a passion for how sports relate to their faith will be blessed by reading Playing for the City. Also, Christians who have written off sports as contrary to the faith or an obstacle to be overcome, would do well to see the great potential sports can have for building communities and fulfilling the ministry of the church.