Prayers, Football, and Missions: Lessons from Tebowmania

Article ID: JAF5352 | By: La Shawn Barber

Tebowmania

This article first appeared in Christian Research Journal, volume 35, number 02 (2012). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


Reams had been written about Tim Tebow even before the twenty-four-year-old quarterback led the Denver Broncos to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. The media hype surrounding the high-profile professing Christian has been dubbed “Tebowmania.”

Tebow isn’t the only Christian in the NFL, and he isn’t the only one who’s ever prayed on the field or gestured toward the heavens after a good play. Plenty of professional athletes publicly thank their Lord and Savior. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Troy Polamalu sometimes makes the Orthodox sign of the cross before plays, and Roman Catholic players make their sign. Athletes kneel in prayer before, during, and after games or when a player on the field gets hurt.

But something about Tebow’s public praying and gesturing sparked widespread press coverage. It’s likely a combination of his dramatic late-game wins and his fresh, youthful, clean-cut, middle American earnestness.

Timothy Richard Tebow, the youngest of five homeshooled children, was born in 1987 in the Philippines, where his family did missionary work. While pregnant with him, his mother contracted a bacterial infection. The medication caused placental disruption, and doctors thought the baby might be stillborn. They recommended she have an abortion, and she refused, putting her trust in the Lord.

Tebow said his mother’s pregnancy was difficult, with “a great deal of pain and bleeding.”1 The whole family prayed for the unborn Timothy—which means “to honor God”—by name. He was born alive. The attending physician called him a miracle baby. Only a small part of the placenta was attached, but it was enough to keep the baby alive.

Before the former University of Florida Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback was drafted, Focus on the Family, a conservative political advocacy group, created two commercials featuring Tebow and his mother to air during the 2010 Super Bowl. The words pro-life or abortion weren’t mentioned in these commercials, but they were deemed “controversial” nonetheless.

Tebow generated press, and that’s as good as gold for publishers. In May 2011, HarperCollins published his memoir, Through My Eyes, after his rookie season. The book debuted at no. 6 on the New York Times bestseller list.

As Denver’s backup quarterback, Tebow saw only limited action. That was about to change. On October 9, 2011, the Broncos were losing to the San Diego Chargers. At that point, the team’s record was 1-3, and starting quarterback Kyle Orton had turned the ball over nine times on the season.2 Coach John Fox made the fateful decision to replace him with Tebow after halftime. The Broncos lost to the Chargers, dropping to 1–4, but starting Tebow had sparked the offense and the fans. Later that week, Coach Fox announced Tebow would start.

By December 11, the Broncos had won seven out of eight games with Tebow as starting quarterback. Some criticized his style of play, but most marveled at his late game/overtime wins. The fans were fired up, and the media were in a frenzy. Fans from his days as quarterback at Florida weren’t surprised by the team’s winning record.  Broncos fans who’d called for him to start earlier were vindicated, and new fans riding the bandwagon got to watch David slay Goliath.

On March 21, 2012, after the Broncos signed free agent Peyton Manning, Tebow was traded to the New York Jets.

Besides the mainstream media, Tebow has generated much discussion among Christians. The following are three lessons Christians can learn from Tebowmania:

“TEBOWING” BEFORE THE LORD

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess. 5:16–18 ESV)

As Tebowmania swept the news cycle, so did “Tebowing,” the quarterback’s on-field prayer pose—dropping to one knee and resting a hand on his forehead in prayer. The term is credited to Broncos fan Jared Kleinstein. After watching the Broncos defeat the Miami Dolphins in an against-the-odds victory in October 2011, Kleinstein and his friends mimicked Tebow’s prayer pose, took a picture, dubbed it Tebowing, and created the site tebowing.com.


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Soon people began posting pictures of themselves, children, and friends striking the pose. Even elected officials joined the mania. Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl “tebowed” as part of a bet with Denver’s mayor after the Broncos beat the Steelers in the playoffs. Some people bowed in tribute to the quarterback, while others did it to mock and ridicule him. Even NBC’s Saturday Night Live made fun of him.

Tebow’s public praying raises a point of discussion: Does public praying before millions of viewers violate Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:5–7 (NKJV)?

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. 

Was Christ condemning public prayer in general or hypocritical public prayer? There are at least two ways to consider this passage. One of the common themes in the Gospel of Matthew is the conflict between Christ and the Pharisees. He called the scribes and the Pharisees hypocrites, people who publicly admonish a thing while doing the thing. A hypocrite also is a pretender, a person who wears a mask that conceals the real person. If we take the position that Christ taught that all public prayer is hypocritical, then we should pray in private with no audience.

If we take the position that Christ was contrasting insincere prayer with sincere prayer, then Tebow’s sincerity is at issue. Hypocrites, like the Pharisees, pretended to be pious and made a show of prayer to impress. Only God knows if Tebow’s public kneeling prayers are sincere. He seems to pray to honor God and to thank Him for the opportunity to play a sport he loves.

In his memoir, Tebow admits to praying for victory in college. The game was on the line, and in tense moments, he prayed for a win. “I’m not sure God is into who wins or loses—He probably is more concerned with what you do in the process and what you will do with either result, to glorify Him and change the world by hopefully impacting one life.”3 Tebow adds that his parents taught him to pray about whatever was on his heart, even if it seemed trivial at the time. Are such prayers “un-Christian” or unbiblical?

GOD DOES CARE ABOUT FOOTBALL GAMES

“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28 NKJV)

One frequent objection from Christians and unbelievers is that God doesn’t care about something as insignificant as a football game. Former NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton wrote, “As a player…I never understood why God would care who won a game between my team and another. It seemed like there were many far more important things going on in the world. There were religious guys on both teams. If God gets credit for the win, does he also take blame for defeat?”4

It’s understandable that unbelievers would ask the question. With all the suffering and poverty in the world, why would God care about a football game? But Christians know our omnipresent and omniscient Creator has ordained everything and knows the end from the beginning. He knows the number of hairs on our heads. He knows our innermost thoughts. He knows our cares and our worries. He uses many things to His glory, including the murder of a child as well as a miraculous rescue of a child. God uses temptation and sin to His glory, and He uses victory and defeat to His glory. In this sense, God does care about football games, but not in the sense that He’s a Broncos or a Panthers fan.

He can and does use even the outcome of football games for His purposes. If God encourages us to do everything to His glory, doesn’t it include athletic performance, teamwork, and good sportsmanship?

“At the end of the day, everything is God’s plan and he cares about what we do,” Tebow said in an interview with Christianity Today.5 “He cares about our hearts, how we play the game, and how we treat people. He’s definitely involved with how we handle sports and not just the outcome of it. I’m proud when athletes mention God in any way. When they have an opportunity to mention God, I applaud them for doing it and having the courage to do so.”

Our relationship with Jesus Christ is personal. There are teachings that apply to Christians in general, but Christ is personally interested in me, you, and Tim Tebow. Praying in the Spirit honors God, even silent prayers about a football game before millions of people.

THE MISSION FIELD

“Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.’” (Matt. 9:37–38 NKJV)

When Christ told His followers to go and make disciples of all nations, He wasn’t limiting this Great Commission to foreign countries and remote locations. We can and should evangelize right where we are, whether it’s in a small neighborhood or on a blog with an audience of a few hundred or, like Tim Tebow’s mission field, on an international stage. And evangelizing isn’t limited to a gospel presentation. We also bear witnesses to God’s grace and mercy in how we live.

Christians don’t need to be celebrities to be effective witnesses, but God chooses to raise up some to celebrity status for His purposes. Every time we share our testimony, every time we declare the word of God, we honor Him and do our part for the Great Commission. And God said that His Word will not return to Him void, but it will accomplish what He intends.

“Tebowmania” was mostly an American media-generated phenomenon, with plenty of fans and nonfans, Christians and unbelievers, to keep the story going. Love it or hate it, Tebowmania had people talking about the faith. The media quoted Scripture, Christians disagreed about Tebow’s public bowing, and others said he should tone it down.

Tebow is more than what he does on the gridiron. Off the field, he heads the Tim Tebow Foundation and continues his parents’ mission work in the Philippines. His parents took to heart Christ’s concerns for widows and orphans, and they started an orphanage in the Philippines, which is still in operation. The foundation and the nonprofit CURE International are building a children’s hospital in the Philippines. Tebow appears in advertisements for Jockey International, and the profits go through the foundation to benefit under privileged children and orphans. He continues to speak publicly and visits hospitals and prisons. Over a weekend in early March, Tebow spoke to more than 20,000 people during four worship services at Canyon Ridge Christian Church in Las Vegas.

While Tebow might seem naively earnest at times, he’s a pleasant contrast to the way high-profile types usually behave. But he is only one man, a sinner saved by grace who might one day succumb to scandal, or he might continue living out his faith in a way that honors God. Either way, God can use any circumstance to His glory, even scandal, even defeat.

The man at the center of Tebowmania is a living witness to the power of Christ. Each of us is a living witness, and we have the same power through Christ to impact  our families, friends (and enemies), neighbors, and coworkers. We can be sure of this: Tebowmania will fade, and the gospel will endure.

La Shawn Barber is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Christianity Today, WORLDmag.com, Washington Examiner, and other publications. Visit her blog at http://lashawnbarber.com.


NOTES

  1. Tim Tebow and Nathan Whitaker, Through My Eyes (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 4.
  2. “Tim Tebow to Start for the Broncos,” The Associated Press, October 12, 2011, available at http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/7087660/tim-tebow-replaces-kyle-orton-denver-broncos-startingquarterback-john-fox-says.
  3. Tebow and Whitaker, 116.
  4. Fran Tarkenton, “Does God Care Who Wins Football Games?” Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2012, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204124204577154601852713394.html.
  5. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Q & A: Tim Tebow on Faith, Fame, and Football,” Christianity Today, June 10, 2011, available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/juneweb-only/qatimtebow.html.

Sidebar
LINSANITY CHRISTIANITY
by La Shawn Barber

One man is a quarterback in the NFL, and the other is a point guard in the NBA. Both are young, hardworking, and popular athletes who publicly claim Jesus Christ as their Savior.

On the heels of “Tebowmania” comes “Linsanity,” a reference to the fan excitement and media hype surrounding Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks. Like Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos, the twenty-three-year-old Lin is a Christian thrust into the media spotlight. Lin went undrafted in 2010 after graduating from Harvard. He played for the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets before the Knicks claimed him off waivers last December. The Knicks had considered releasing Lin. In a desperate attempt to change the team’s fortunes, head coach Mike D’Antoni pulled him off the bench in a game between the Knicks and New Jersey Nets on February 4. He scored twenty-five points, grabbed five rebounds, contributed seven assists, and led the Knicks to a 99-92 win over the Nets.

The former benchwarmer became a starter, and the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak. Fans had a new reason to cheer. A week after starting, Lin’s number 17 jersey became the league’s bestseller. Time chose him for the cover of the February 27, 2012, issue of its Asia edition after just five games as starter. Sources report that Lin made the NBA itself more popular.

More recently the Knicks fell into a six-game losing streak that led coach D’Antoni to resign on March 14, but Lin continued to play well until he was sidelined by knee surgery, leading his team in assists and boasting the team’s highest PER (“player efficiency rating”).

We know that his faith plays a role in his popularity, but so does his race. The majority of players in the NBA are black, and along comes a tall Asian-American who can shoot and jump. He’s not the first, but he’s arguably the most celebrated.

Raised in the United States by Christian parents from Taiwan, Lin is focused on what matters the most. “There is so much temptation to hold on to my career even more now. To try to micromanage and dictate every little aspect. But that’s not how I want to do things anymore. I’m thinking about how can I trust God more. How can I surrender more? How can I bring him more glory?”1

Tebow and Lin have made the inevitable connection. Adrian Tam, Lin’s chaplain while he attended Harvard, said Tebow and Lin are becoming friends.2 Tebow called Lin a “great role model.” Although only a year older, Tebow has much more experience in the media glare. They can and should support and counsel one another as they struggle with what it means to be a Christian in the spotlight as others watch, waiting for them to fall.

Both men are fortunate in many ways. Paid well to do what they love, they’ve gained the admiration (and the prayers) of many. They serve as examples of how faithful men in the spotlight should conduct themselves.

There was a time in America when Christians could be open about their faith without controversy. These days, a professional athlete expressing his faith is cause for discussion and “debate” on whether he should keep it private. Why should Tebow and Lin keep their faith covered or toned down?

As God works His salvation plan, He uses our witness as one means of carrying it out. In building the kingdom, He raises up some to influence millions and others to influence far fewer. What we can do for “public Christians” like Tebow and Lin is to pray for them as they deal with temptation in all its forms. Faith, more so than dramatic wins and unexpected performances, is really at the heart of Tebowmania and Linsanity, and faith is what will carry both men through. —La Shawn Barber


NOTES

  1. Marcus Thompson II, “Jeremy Lin Says Faith in God Triggered ‘Linsanity,’” San Jose Mercury News, February 13, 2012, available at http://www.mercurynews.com/jeremy-lin/ci_19954877.
  2. Kristen Mascia, “Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin Connect over Faith,” People, February 23, 2012, available at http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20572929,00.html.