I love football. I love the pageantry and the rivalries. I love the battle in the trenches and the suspense of a scoring drive in the final two-minutes of a game. It’s glorious.
But there’s a different kind of glory that can find its way into the athletic arena—the glory of discipleship. Pastor Josh Cooley writes, “Because of its nature, sports can open doors for discipleship that might not have existed otherwise. As an athlete, you likely spend significant time with others at practice, in the locker room, traveling to games, and at dining tables. Sports helps create relationships, common interests, and shared goals” (77). In his new devotional, The Biggest Win: Pro Football Players Tackle Faith (New Growth Press, 2018), Cooley explores particular ways that spiritual growth and athletics can intersect. In particular, he Cooley unpacks the intersection of faith and football.
And who does Cooley choose as his test case for sports discipleship? It’s the believers who played together as part of the 2018 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles!
The Core Elements of Discipleship
The leaders who run the website, Discipleship.org, have identified essential discipleship components. While I don’t think Cooley intended to include each of them, I found each one clearly present in his devotional. Here’s five components of discipleship that the believers on the Eagles have embodied:that stood out to me as I read.
Jesus. Sports is a glory machine, but we all have a tendency to grab that glory for ourselves instead of humbly reflecting it back to the Savior and finding our identity in him. In chapter two, Cooley tells how Eagles safety and special teams ace Chris Maragos has learned humility through the mundane rhythms of family life. In chapter 3, he writes about how Nick Foles learned to root his identity in Christ when he experienced failure. This is ultimately what discipleship is about. Jesus is the original disciple-maker and centerpiece of our discipleship. The goal of our growth is to know, treasure, and humbly promote him.
Intentionality. Growing as a Christian disciple, just like growing as an athlete, requires intentional training. During the 2017 NFL season, discipleship for the Eagles believers involved a Monday night couples Bible study, a Thursday night players Bible study, Saturday night chapel services, and Sunday morning worship gatherings (before afternoon games). Planning and maintaining consistency with this regular discipleship plan required effort—even at times from a player who wasn’t active with the team. Cooley describes how one player ran logistics for an away game chapel even after a season ending injury: “Chris Maragos’ torn posterior cruciate ligament two months earlier might have ended his season, but it didn’t sideline his passion for ministering to his Christian brothers” (68).
Relationships. Discipleship happens best within the context of genuine life-on-life connections grounded in Christ-like love. We’re all tempted toward isolation. Carson Wentz calls it “island syndrome,” but growth in Christ is fueled by laying down our pride and being mutually accountable. Cooley writes, ““Discipleship doesn’t happen magically… It involves listening to others and having a humble, non-judgmental attitude. It involves prayerful encouragement when another believer is struggling with sin, doubt, or fear. It requires honesty and openness about your own shortcomings. True accountability involves God-honoring transparency, as you strive toward a common goal” (77).
The Bible. The Word of God is the manual for making disciples. And chapter 7 directly addresses the right handling of God’s word. In this chapter Cooley identified a key Scripture—Philippians 4:13—that is often mishandled by athletes and he took time to help readers understand it contextually. The chapter helps young athletes to be discerning about the ways Bible passages are normally talked about in an athletic culture. And it teaches simple principles for understanding Bible passages in their original context.
Journey. For every disciple, there’s a traceable, but sometimes disjointed, growth story from the new birth to spiritual maturity. The Holy Spirit leads us on this formative journey. Each of the believing players on the Eagles has been on this kind of discipleship journey. But, for Trey Burton, it’s been quite a ride: “Burton has gone from single-parent childhood, to high school star, to breaking hallowed college records, to frustrated player on the verge of quitting, to unexpected twenty-one-year-old father, to undrafted free agent, to Super Bowl champion” (105). Throughout this journey, Burton has rested on the unchanging promises of God’s character. And this faith has grown him into a man who multiplies his impact by fighting sex trafficking through the International Justice Mission (IJM). What a journey!
I love these examples of notable sports figures modeling the key components of discipleship. Discipleship doesn’t require sports, but sports can be an incredible avenue within which a believer can train in the core elements of discipleship. Cooley writes, “Sports can’t save anyone; only Jesus can. But sports can help create opportunities and open doors that were once closed” (128).
If you’re working with a group of young athletes in a local church, or with Athletes in Action or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, this book is a great introduction to the basics of Christian growth. Every chapter includes pointed applications and discussion questions to use if you’re reading with a group. I highly recommend it!