When American evangelicals sought to use the tools of sport for religious outreach in the mid-twentieth century, they began to wonder if the essential features of sport—competition and hierarchy—conflicted with their approach to salvation. For most evangelical Christians, salvation is an option for every human and each person must make an individual decision to accept or reject the salvific power of Jesus Christ. This is a worldview that relies heavily on separating believers from non-believers, but, importantly, the means of distinction is individual choice. There is not a competitive aspect to this framework; salvation is theoretically available for all. This article traces sports ministry’s struggle over time to unite the competitive world of sport with their vision of salvation. By illuminating different approaches to the ethical challenge of uniting evangelicalism and sport, we can see that sports ministry is a field of complexity that invites believers to grapple with intense theological dilemmas without offering easy solutions. I argue that the struggle to reconcile sport and evangelical theology can be meaningful religious work. I will show that the kinds of suffering that athletic competition entails can align with the evangelical theodicy that God uses suffering to communicate with humans. It may be this feature of sport, the opportunity to experience meaningful suffering, that continues to motivate evangelicals to attempt to unite their religion with sport.
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